England’s Rose: Brexit’s strongest asset?

Stuart Rose, campaign chairman for Britain Stronger in Europe.

I attended a Brexit debate in London last week, at the kind invitation of a friend. I won’t claim that I went with an entirely open mind, but I was certainly prepared to listen attentively to the arguments from both sides.

The comprehensively outvoted Labour leadership hopeful Liz Kendall, the supporting act for Remain, made a forceful case for being economically risk averse. While it might not matter to the bankers of Kensington, in their multi-million-pound houses, if certain items cost 10p more after Brexit on their next trip to Whole Foods or Waitrose, it certainly mattered to her constituents in the East Midlands.

Liz Kendall
Liz Kendall

I was swayed by her evident sincerity until, in her final summing up, she gave her answer to the Leave side’s powerfully expressed concerns about an EU superstate: don’t worry, it’s not going to happen. Which is as breathtaking as sharing a room with a hungry tiger and contending, despite the evidence of all your senses, that it’s actually a cuddly little pussy cat.

Or, for that matter, unpacking an Airfix kit from a box labelled RMS Titanic, spreading all the parts and instructions out on the table before you, and believing that you are somehow going to end up with a lovely model of a jumbo jet.

How much clearer could they make it? It’s not the Common Market (also known as the European Economic Community) we are arguing about, it’s the European Union. It’s a political project, not an economic one, and becoming a superstate is its entire raison d’être.

If it were about making people richer and happier it wouldn’t be devastating the economies of Greece and Spain in pursuit of the goal of “ever closer union” driven by the euro.

Then there was Ms Kendall’s leader on the Remain side, sometime Marks & Spencer boss Stuart, now Lord, Rose. Not entirely in command of all his facts, His Lordship kept reminding his audience that he was not a politician, but a businessman, “and what I can tell you as a businessman is this …”

No one was so rude as to question how much of a success he had actually been as a businessman. Though the continuing travails of M&S, widely reported on the business pages last week, might reasonably lead you to wonder.

Again, it was all about the economics, uncertainty and risk. Those economists and world leaders arguing against Brexit couldn’t all be wrong, could they?

Well, they could, as they were about our membership of the ERM and the euro.

He trotted out the tired old argument about how, if you want to be a member of a club, you have to put up with the fact that there may be some members and rules you don’t like. Which is true.

Only the EU isn’t a club, or an alliance. It’s a union, as the name suggests. A marriage, if you will. And most of us give a good deal more thought into entering a marriage than we do to joining the waiting list for our local tennis club.

Even if it were a club, why would you put yourself through the misery of enduring the unappealing rules of a golf club if you’d actually rather be playing cricket? I think I speak for the majority of the British people when I say that what we wanted when we joined the Common Market in 1973 was free trade, not to become a province of a new European empire.

Most depressing of all was the persistent negativity about Britain’s prospects if we foolishly decided to go it alone. The world’s fifth largest economy and fourth military power? The reality, according to Lord Rose, is that we have a navy of three ships, 24 fighter aircraft, and would struggle to put half a division on the ground.

Which may contain an element of truth. But why as a Tory peer is he not lobbying his Government to do something about it, rather than throwing in the towel and claiming we cannot stand up on our own?

I have little to say about Peter Lilley and Michael Dobbs, speaking for the Leave side, other than that they were eloquent and positive. Most of the arguments they deployed have been rehearsed in my previous contributions here, and I see no need to cover the ground again.

Peter Lilley
Peter Lilley
Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs

After all I keep hearing that the vast majority of the British public are simply bored rigid by the whole debate and just want it to go away. Fair enough: it’s only the most important decision they will have to make in their lifetime about what sort of country they want their children and grandchildren to grow up in.

The outcome of last week’s debate was that a small majority for Remain at its start had become a small majority for Leave by its end. This probably had as much to do with the arrogance and negativity of Lord Rose as with the clarity and passion of his Leave opponents.

My most important conclusion was that Britain Stronger in Europe should definitely give us much airtime as possible to their leader Lord Rose in order to make the case for their side.

Finally, one person asked me in response to my column of last week why I was so insistent that we needed to leave the European Union when I am convinced that it is going to collapse anyway?

Because, my friend, as I set out in a previous contribution, you may be very sure that the nightmare flight is going to end in a horrible crash. But it would still be foolish, if the opportunity presented itself, not to make a smart exit by parachute.


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