Readers may have wondered about my long silence in this forum, given that I am known to hold strong views on the issue that has dominated the news for what has already come to seem like a lifetime: Brexit.
The fact is that I have sheathed my pen partly because I have been busy on other fronts but mainly because, to quote the words of our Glorious Leader, “nothing has changed”.
Although I long argued here and in a succession of columns for The Journal that Britain should be allowed a referendum on EU membership and that we should vote to Leave, I also consistently expressed disbelief that it would ever be allowed to happen.
As I wrote here in July, “our leaders are shamelessly pursuing a course that can only lead to either:
- more or less total capitulation to the EU and continued membership in all but name – which they will then be able to argue is actually worse than our previous position as we will be subject to all the rules without having any say in their formulation; or
- a total breakdown of negotiations which will create the spectre of an imminent ‘no deal Brexit’ with all the catastrophic consequences previously outlined, leading to civil unrest, the collapse of the Government, and overwhelming pressure for a second referendum to reverse the unutterable folly of the first one.”
The only significant development since then is that we now know for sure that the Government is indeed intent on the first solution; and, if and when it fails to get that through Parliament, we will swiftly move on to the second scenario, albeit with the ‘no deal’ option conveniently fenced off. Leading us inexorably down the EU’s always preferred route of making its subjects vote again until they deliver the ‘right’ answer.
There are only two possible verdicts on Theresa May. Either she is by a country mile the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime – incompetent, mendacious and utterly unpersuasive – or she is a tactical genius who has engineered this monumental failure of statecraft precisely so that she can advise the British public that leaving the EU is simply too hard and we will be far better off if 52% of us change our minds and decide that we are, after all, content to Remain.
Certainly she has never seemed capable of understanding why anyone would ever have voted to Leave unless they were bestially stupid, or a racist, or both. Hence her consistent emphasis on curbing immigration as the Government’s top negotiating priority.
But here’s the thing. Neither I nor most of the other Leave voters I know much care about that. We care about freedom and democracy – the right to choose our own rulers and to make our own laws.
It’s all very well for Remainers to bang on about ‘the lie written on the side of the bus’ but what about the lies consistently told about the EU?
Ted Heath’s claim that by joining the Common Market ‘there is no question of Britain losing essential sovereignty’.
The pretence that the EU is all about peace and prosperity when in fact it is a project to construct an undemocratic superstate capable of challenging the likes of the US, China and Russia – as has been made clear in recent pronouncements about the urgent need for an EU army.
Something which, we were assured by Sir Nick Clegg and others during the 2016 referendum campaign, was a flight of fancy that would never actually happen.
We have also been consistently assured that any suggestion that the great bulk of our laws were being generated by Brussels was paranoid nonsense. But guess what? It turns out that we have become so closely enmeshed in the EU over the last 40 years that we can never actually leave it.
This should be no surprise. It’s precisely what the ratchet of ‘ever-closer union’ was designed to achieve, and clearly it has worked. And if the UK, as the leading military and diplomatic power in the EU as well as one of its largest economies, can never leave, we can be pretty sure that no one else can either.
So by far the biggest lie of the 2016 campaign was not “an extra £350m a week for the NHS”, but: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
It should have added “but only if you follow our advice and vote Remain, because the alternative is undeliverable.”
Remainers should not rejoice about any of this. Far from building enduring peace and friendship, I am convinced that denying ancient nations the right to decide their own destinies will lead to further increases in populism of both the extreme left and right, and perhaps ultimately to violent insurrection.
We are not as prone to that sort of thing as the French, of course, and I certainly have no plans to riot myself, but I do not think that anyone should complacently assume that the response to a second referendum will be meek acceptance either of the strong advice to vote Remain, or of the result.
We may well live to look back fondly on the time when the most extreme voices in mainstream British politics were those of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn.
But what now, when the Government fails and possibly falls next week?
I am in the unusual position of dividing my time between two Parliamentary constituencies, in Northumberland and Cheshire. Both are represented by Conservative MPs, yet their views on the great issue of the day could not be further apart.
In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s robust Euroscepticism is well known here, and her negative opinion of Mrs May’s deal is undoubtedly representative of the great majority of Conservative activists.
In Eddisbury, I am represented by one Antoinette Sandbach who, despite standing on the self-same 2017 General Election manifesto that pledged to honour the referendum result, now strongly supports a deal which, on any rational analysis, does no such thing.
I find it very hard to imagine how these two ladies can remain within the same political party for ever, or indeed for too much longer.
When we look back at the nineteenth century, Parliament spent much time discussing things that now seem massively unimportant, whether that be the disestablishment of the Church in Wales or the right of a man to marry to his deceased wife’s sister.
But there is, perhaps, a relevant parallel in what Gladstone called “that cloud in the west, that coming storm” – Ireland. Irish Home Rule was the dominant issue in British politics for more than three decades. It split the Liberal Party and created levels of Parliamentary rancour perhaps not seen again until the present.
It also ultimately divided Ireland in a way that has become, ironically, the most difficult issue to resolve in our recent negotiations with the rest of the EU.
It is entirely possible that the current issue of British Home Rule will split not just the Conservative Party but also Labour, where a lifelong opponent of the EU leads a party that leans heavily towards Remain.
We need not necessarily fear such a realignment: no political party has the right to last forever. But it will certainly make for ‘interesting times’.
Carving the Irish Free State out of its 120 year political union with Great Britain was surely an even greater political and economic challenge than parting Britain from the EU, but ultimately the will of the people prevailed, as it did in some 60 other former colonies and protectorates that have liberated themselves from British rule in the last century – not always to the benefit of either their economies or good governance.
How hugely ironic it would be if only Britain itself were not allowed that fundamental right to declare itself independent and became, as Mrs May’s deal proposes, an effective colony of the European Union.
Perhaps history will forgive her, if it is written by the victors. But I and approximately 17.4 million of her fellow citizens surely never will.