The Brexiteers should have been allowed to negotiate the deal with Brussels and implement their incredible claims.
What started out as an internecine war within the Conservative Party has engulfed the whole of the UK and become a farce, with politicians billed as fantasists or dreamers, and some who are delusional thinking that they are realists.
It was a Conservative leader, Ted Heath, who in 1973 took the United Kingdom into Europe, much against the wishes of some in his party. In 1975 this decision was confirmed by a referendum. It has taken only 40 years for this decision to be reversed by the people of England and Wales, but along the way, various Conservative leaders have adopted tactics to keep their party united and inside the European Union.
Margaret Thatcher’s way was to keep Conservative Eurosceptics happy by constantly railing against the bureaucrats in Europe who wanted closer union. With the support of her Eurosceptic Bruges Group, she fought for and brought back to Britain a fudged Maastricht Treaty, which entitled Britain to financial opt-outs that kept the Eurosceptics satisfied.
It was left to Thatcher’s successor, poor John Major, to negotiate the treaty’s numerous opt-out clauses, even as the Eurosceptics “bastards” bayed continuously for improved results. Buttressed by the Europhile Liberal Democrats, David Cameron had an easier time during his first term in office (2001-05) and the coalition government, but then, from 2005, with an increased Conservative majority in Parliament and full power for the Tories, the destabilisation started again, this time supported outside Parliament by the UK Independence Party, the Referendum Party having died slowly during the long years of Labour government.
Prime Minister Cameron tried to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU could not achieve an acceptable result from other member countries, so he had to cave in to demands by his party. With that, his best-laid plans of handing over the keys to 10 Downing Street to his chief strategist, George Osborne, after the victory they both anticipated in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the next general election went up in smoke.
A people’s vote
The Brexiteers should have been allowed to negotiate and implement their fantastic claims: more money for a National Health Service that they wanted privatised anyway; measures to keep out immigrants, who while contributing to the economy were billed as benefit cheats; exclusive freedom for Britain to make its own laws, free from the constraints of EU legislation; keeping measurements for weights of fruit and servings of beer under the imperial system; keeping bananas whatever shape Brits wanted them; and the freedom to sign trade agreements with whomever the UK wanted, though a sizeable proportion of its trade was with Europe.
Why Theresa May, an avowed realist, stepped in to manage the course of the transition to Brexit cannot be explained. Did she just want to show she was Prime Minister, or did she believe that getting out of Europe would that easy to negotiate? Now that we are nearly 95 per cent closer to getting a deal, she might just realise that, like Margaret Thatcher brought back a Maastricht agreement that had to be renegotiated several times, any Brexit deal may be an unworkable illusion. She may also finally be coming to the realisation that leaving Europe was a fantasy for a tiny section of the Conservative Party.
Instead of leaving well alone and exploiting the divisions among the Conservatives, the dreamers within the opposition Labour Party then sought a chicken coup – to force their leader out because he had not campaigned for a Remain vote. I have tried to think through the logic of their actions but still cannot understand it. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, calls a referendum for a vote to remain in Europe and the leader of the opposition is at fault if the vote could not be won? And still the dreamers persist: they now want a second vote, ironically called a “people’s vote”. Why? Because, just as they thought that they should have won the first vote on membership of the EU and claim that the margin of defeat was narrow, they now think that something must have happened to change the minds of those in the Leave camp? Somehow, I do not think so.
Trying to work out who is against Europe is complex, which is why the Remainers were shocked by the results. They felt that their arguments were more logical and that British voters should have seen through the fantasy of the Brexiteers.
I have found many Leavers in deprived areas of the UK – in Wales and the north of England. I have also found some immigrants who do not want us to be in Europe because they think that Europeans are taking away their jobs, and that the closer ties Britain will be forced to forge with the Commonwealth will be of benefit to the Commonwealth countries.
There are some young people who do not see the advantages of being in Europe at all. They worry more about poverty, debt and the lack of affordable housing, and are looking forward to a better life what with the return to the British Exchequer of all the money the UK is supposed to be spending in Europe. They anticipate many improvements in their day-to-day lives from the greater public spending.
The divisions about Europe and the dislike of mainland Europe among many British people will never go away. The nostalgia about a great Britannia, a small island that ruled the waves, that created an empire on which the sun never sets, is engraved on the hearts of the majority and ingrained in their minds. For the patriots and Brexiteers, Britain is much better off as an isolated island than as the second or third power in Europe.
Many of us could not have foreseen that the original debate during the referendum ‒ framed around immigration and free movement of people, sovereignty and Britain’s laws, economic determination and trade ‒ could have turned into something that threatens to break up the United Kingdom of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Scotland wants to move closer to Europe; the irony is that it is the very people who want to remain in the Union in Northern Ireland who are now sustaining the present Conservative government.
Ultimately, the Brexiteers will not have their way, because they are not in power in their own party, the dreamers will not have their way because Brexit will happen, and the realists will perhaps be proved delusional because the agreement they bring back from Brussels will not hold water. And the European Question will continue to be a source of destabilisation in the Conservative Party.
Transit to where?
The only vote we should be asking for now is a general election. The Conservatives have proved that they cannot competently manage the Brexit negotiations, an indication that they will not be able to manage the transition, particularly given the unfinished nature of the initial agreement Theresa May has reached with the leadership of the EU.
Labour might just unite and manage a more realistic transition and make Brexit work. And in time, the country might decide that with the pace and consequences of globalisation, the British economy might just be safer and more successful inside the European Union.
If voting is that important in changing the British way of life, all British voters must respect the vote to leave Europe. Perhaps it provides another opportunity for Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, or whatever is left of it, to start reflecting again on how it can once more dominate the world.
*Ade Sawyerr works at Equinox Consulting (www.equinoxconsulting.net), a London-based management consultancy which addresses social and economic issues affecting disadvantaged communities in the UK. He is a former chairman of the Convention People’s Party UK. @adesawyerr or https://adesawyerr.wordpress.com