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Why there’s cause for quiet optimism from pro-Europeans

A Brexit-inspired mural by artist Banksy in Dover, Kent - Credit: PA

This country will continue to suffer from Brexit but we should not despair, says DOMINIC GRIEVE. Geographical and economic realities will make greater co-operation with Europe inevitable.

This week the United Kingdom embarks on a new chapter in its relations with its neighbours in the EU. Just as the statue of Janus looks two ways and epitomises the New Year I find myself drawn into reflecting on what has been and what might be to come.

The last four and a half years since the EU referendum have certainly been tumultuous domestically. Despite the stated aims of most Leavers, including the prime minister, that Brexit would be an easy adjustment and one that might scarcely be noticed but for its advantages, its revolutionary nature has had its own remorseless and unpleasant dynamic.

As its outcome has come to be seen as increasingly binary it has introduced a whole new level of political division to our country, While this may quieten with time, there is no present sign of its doing so.

The unity of the United Kingdom itself may be in jeopardy, with the growth of the drive for Scottish independence that has surged on the back of it. The future of Northern Ireland within the UK also looks uncertain.

More generally it has thrown together individuals and groups who previously supported different political parties and torn apart some of the ties of shared outlook on economic and social matters that previously characterised the supporters of the two main political parties. This comes with some unpredictable consequences as to how this will play out in future – a temporary phenomenon or a permanent shift.

All has been part of a longer term trend, characterised by David Goodhart as the creation of the two opposed camps of the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres” – those comfortable with or frightened of the consequences of globalisation.

In the lexicon of some Leave supporters “Anywheres” has been further changed into the “Nowheres”, denounced by Theresa May as she sought to placate Conservative supporters of hard Brexit by identifying this new enemy of “British values” post referendum. It did not however save her. But it certainly fuelled the tone of the debate and shaped the perceived divide.

My own experience convinces me however that this characterisation is in relation to Brexit far too simplistic. Some supporters of Brexit were undoubtedly motivated by a form of populist nationalism that identified the EU as a supra national enemy intent on the destruction of our identity and sovereignty.

Some politicians have undoubtedly fed on this. But plenty, indeed the majority of my past constituents who voted Leave in 2016, cannot be described as being little Englanders rooted in some narrow visioned nationalism.

I may have disagreed with their analysis of our national interest, but they genuinely believed that the rules under which the EU operates were bad for our economic and political wellbeing and wanted something different. Their desire for a return of “sovereignty” owed as much or more to a feeling of irritation at not being able to get a response to this through the ballot box as to rather abstract issues such as the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

They were persuaded by the idea that leaving the EU would come at relatively little cost and saw it as perfectly compatible with being part of Europe without being in the EU. The problems Brexit has unleashed have troubled them. They will have been relieved by the achievement of a trade deal and will be hoping that it delivers a return to economic and political stability.

Conversely, most Remainers are not just “Anywheres” let alone “Nowheres”. As my own political journey has brought me into contact with thousands of them who campaigned for a second referendum, I have been struck by how rooted most are in the communities from which they come and in that deep and gently understated patriotism that has often been seen as peculiarly British.

Dislike of Union Flag-waving in the cause of Brexit is a dislike of its undercurrent of aggression and not of the flag itself. Indeed I am struck by the way that the strength of views expressed on both sides of the Brexit debate are a reflection of a shared vision of a certain national exceptionalism.

It is just that its expression and promotion is seen in different ways – one by withdrawal from a partnership that is said to undermine our sovereign freedom of action and hold us back economically and the other by maintaining involvement because it maximises economic opportunity and benign influence and so enhances sovereignty and an identity in which one can take pride.

Nor is any of this new. As I started my political involvement by working for the Keep Britain in Europe campaign in 1975, I can remember the issues being expressed on both sides in similar terms.

My father, as an ardent believer in our joining the then EEC, did not do so because of some lack of appreciation of, or enthusiasm for, the unique benefits of Britishness. Born in 1915, the posthumous child of a father killed at Ypres four weeks before his birth, he embodied a romantic belief in the exceptional nature of British history and the uniqueness of our institutions.

Constitutional monarchy, parliament, freedom under law and our legal system were all for him things to be treasured – sometimes to the point of seeing them a little too much through rose tinted spectacles. But none of this dented his conviction that our destiny lay in building a future with our European neighbours as empire ended.

The experience of serving in the Second World War had left him in no doubt about the practical limits of British power and the risks of just being a junior partner of the USA. The Commonwealth was not and could not provide this partnership as distance and diverging interests were obvious.

There were thousands like him and they both shaped the policy of the then Conservative Party to seek membership of the EEC and were instrumental in securing the outcome to the 1975 referendum. It also brought them together with those from other political traditions who shared this outlook, a spin-off from which our domestic politics benefited.

The negotiation of the trade deal by Boris Johnson’s government seems to me to entirely confirm their judgement and to demonstrate that the geopolitical realities remain today largely the same.

That Brexit takes us from full participation in a political and economic joint venture that has done us immense good and little harm, into a second rate relationship with our European neighbours and partners in which in many areas we will be rule takers is regrettable. But short of the second referendum for which some of us argued, that outcome was inevitable.

But for all the posturing by the PM about the potential viability of WTO terms and his willingness to leave on them, the truth of our deep interconnection with our European near abroad is amply demonstrated by the terms of the agreement and the government’s decision to go with them.

From the need to maintain the freest trade possible to being an adjunct to their systems of security co-operation which we helped create, the message is clear that we can’t in practise do without them. It also looks as if, apart from a small group of sovereignty obsessives, most Leavers will accept the new framework. For those who consider that the last four years to have been pretty disastrous for our country it looks like a small step in the right direction.

For all the talk about Brexit being “at an end” it is hard to see that this is in fact the case. I doubt very much that in the coming years any trading arrangements whatsoever will be created with third countries elsewhere to rival the importance of the trading and associated relationship that we have had and will continue to have with the EU.

That suggests that over time many aspects of the new treaty structure will have to be revisited and probably added to. How that can be done without also accepting that a deepening relationship must carry with it a greater acceptance of common rules on both sides will be an interesting challenge. It may indeed generate some further discussion about what constitutes the reality of the power of sovereign action rather than its theory.

I could not hazard a guess as to how this will all play out, but the evidence is there that younger generations have a far more pragmatic understanding of this than those whose votes have brought us to where we are.

So for those of us who look at the unfolding of Brexit with regret and would have wished otherwise, I see good grounds not to despair. That our country has been damaged and will continue to suffer damage I have little doubt. But quiet optimism that geographical and economic realities cannot be ignored provides the first building blocks for renewed effort.

This is not about rejoining the EU, but about recognising that in a difficult and dangerous world working for the common good with those closest to us and who share our values is indispensable.

Where we then end up, time and our national interest will determine.

Dominic Grieve QC was a Conservative MP from 1997 to 2019, and former attorney general. A prominent Remain supporter, he campaigned for a second referendum and was expelled from the parliamentary party by Boris Johnson in September 2019

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