It took me quarter of a century but this year, at long last, I managed to extract Britain from the EU. Hallelujah!
I am guilty of gross exaggeration of course, but as a friend put it: ‘No Alan Sked no Ukip; no Ukip no referendum; no referendum no Brexit’. By deciding on my own in 1991 that the only way to persuade the Tories to take us out of the EU was to found a new political party expressly dedicated to that end — and by spending the next six years creating that party and giving it a national grassroots base — I laid down the general parameters of the Brexit revolution. Two key events then helped to bring the party to real national attention: the decision by the EU in 1999 to alter the electoral system for the European Parliament, allowing UKIP to enter it and become the default protest party in European elections — thanks Brussels!; and the decision by Nick Clegg to enter a coalition government with David Cameron in 2010 and allow Ukip to take over from the Lib Dems the role of default protest party in UK general elections — thanks Nick! David Cameron of course played his part by calling the referendum while Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, Gisela Stuart, Angela Leadsom, Daniel Hannan, John Mills and others led a superb campaign which secured us victory.
Ukip was instrumental in securing the referendum but Farage himself, who had controlled the party for almost twenty years, had never managed to get elected as a Ukip MP or get anyone else elected as a Ukip MP save for a couple of creepy Tory defectors. His own lack of intellectual credibility and political respectability, his refusal to allow the party to professionalise itself with regard to policy-formulation, candidate selection and internal democracy, his far-right rhetoric and party manifestos which even he himself described as ‘sheer drivel’, all meant that the party was deliberately side-lined during the Brexit campaign. Farage was a divisive figure. He played his part in the history of Brexit but it may be that in the end he alienated more voters than he attracted and that the referendum was won despite him. Ukip, it is true, won 3.9 million votes in 2015, yet Brexit won with 17.4 million votes. Eurosceptics inside the Tory party – Bill Cash deserves particular mention — plus all sorts of others – yes, including Farage’s Ukip – deserve the credit. What should Ukip do now? My advice would be to dissolve. It lacks the professionalism and leadership to continue as a political party; most of its MEPs, candidates and ‘leaders’ are clearly nonentities. The country does not need them.
What is the historical significance of Brexit? How will it affect the UK and the EU?
I suspect that the UK will be little affected. The effect on the EU, on the other hand, could be devastating. After 1945 Britain got rid of an empire which had been built up over two centuries. Most British citizens took little notice. The true effects were felt in the former colonies that gained independence. Profound changes took place there, not in the UK. With Brexit it will be much the same. Britain will resume her traditional role as a self-governing, constitutional monarchy. Her economy, freed from EU regulations, external tariffs and contributions, will boom. Free trade deals with large parts of the world, including, I hope the EU, if it survives, will help. Scotland, as all recent polls indicate, will remain inside the Union while the main pro-EU parties – Lib Dems and Labour – will decline and disappear.
The next general election will endorse a Brexit settlement with the EU negotiated by Theresa May’s Conservatives. Brexiteers are much less likely to die out than the parties supporting Remain. Some pro-Remain commentators, it is true, have likened Brexit to Suez and Cameron to Eden and speak of a historical disaster. Yet Eden was succeeded by Macmillan, another Tory, as prime minister and by 1958 both the UK and the USA were again taking military action in the Middle East (Lebanon and Jordan). By 1962 the Americans were selling us Polaris. Suez, I am afraid, had no long-term ill effects on Britain — and neither will Brexit.
It must be remembered that until less than a decade ago, the EU did not impinge on the lives of ordinary Brits who were little interested in a body that had nothing to do with schools, surgeries, hospitals, care homes and infrastructure. Yet the economic devastation of southern and other parts of Europe caused by the euro, and the subsequent massive emigration by EU citizens from there to a far more prosperous UK, changed all that. A new perception of EU membership arose in the UK and as long as Brits continue to have this perception, Brexit will never be reversed. In any case, the situation inside the EU will now deteriorate rather than improve.
According to one eminent US academic, ‘the construction of Europe as ‘an ever-closer union’ is often told as a fairy tale, including a happy ending’. He no longer believes in the fairy tale, even if readers of this newspaper do. In the words of Professor Jan Zielonka of Oxford University: ‘The EU no longer generates security but instead instils insecurity. It is no longer associated with prosperity but with recession and social hardship. It is no longer a symbol of cooperation and solidarity but of conflict and sanctions. Indeed, one wonders whether the EU today is an engine of integration or disintegration.’
The economic crisis of the Eurozone continues. Growth is very sluggish; unemployment very high; the Greek crisis has not been solved; the banks of Italy and Germany are shaky; Portugal may need another bailout; the ECB has almost run out of ammunition to ‘do whatever it takes’; Germany will not agree to a banking union, Eurobonds, debt mutualisation, automatic transfers between states, fiscal union or any other means of paying the debts of its European partners.
There is also a political crisis. The Commission, France, Germany, Italy and Spain want ‘more Europe’—including an embryonic European army which would undercut NATO. Visegrad states want ‘less Europe’ and more powers for national parliaments. Ever-closer union will be hard to achieve.
Then there is the question of migration. Assimilating the 1.3 million immigrants who reached Germany last year and the 300,000 who have arrived this year has proved impossible.
Sweden and other countries have found the same. East European countries are refusing to take their share and everywhere the politics of Willkommenspolitik is creating political crisis with the rise of new populist parties.
The EU has no solution to offer. Moreover, given Angela Merkel’s now very fragile deal with Turkey, the floodgates could open again at any time putting even more strain on Greece, while Italy wilts under the strain from Libya.
If 80 million Turks have to be granted visa-free access to the Schengen Zone to keep Turkey happy, then the whole system will probably implode in any case. Finally, since the EU represents pacifism, not peace, it lacks the military resources to face up to its aggressive Eastern neighbour, Russia. Altogether, therefore, the outlook for the EU is bleak. Will it survive? Who knows?
How fortunate for Britain, on the other hand, that it chose to jump from this sinking ship.
Alan Sked is the founder of Ukip and Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.