YESTERDAY I was lucky enough to be invited by the Policy Exchange to hear Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister of Australia, give a Brexit pep talk and some straightforward election advice to Boris Johnson: Tell the people you are on their side – with them, against Parliament.
His humdinger of a speech made me wonder, once again, what on earth inspired the Australian Liberals to oust this strong and straight-talking politician. Politically correct he is not, though engaging, entertaining, intelligent and articulate he certainly is. His speech didn’t disappoint. The key excerpts are set out below.
It started with a declaration that he wants what’s best for Britain because it is in the best interests of the wider world that Britain be strong; that Britain can’t be its full strength without also being free; ‘free to set its own course and to chart its own future’.
He followed it with a hypothetical comparison to highlight how bizarre our membership of the EU is, and the EU as a political structure is:
‘Would anyone imagine, even in a wild fantasy, a South East Asian Parliament with a supranational government based, say, in Singapore, attempting to make rules for countries as diverse as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, merely because we share a neighbourhood and the imagined alternative is war between us?
‘Now, given Europe’s bloodstained history, it is easy to see the necessity of a close alliance between one-time foes, so that the generals of each country see each other as brothers in arms rather than as military rivals. And given the glories of Christendom, it’s easy to grasp nostalgia for a Europe with a common faith and a common culture, where the ruling elites feel as at home with each other as once did a series of interrelated royal families.
‘But this idea of 28 quasi-independent countries, large and small, relatively rich and relatively poor, all with different languages, different histories, different ancient attachments and different ancient antagonisms, all needing to act in unison, all heeding the same faceless Brussels bureaucrats and worshipping at the altar of climate change and uncontrolled borders – well, if this nostrum were put forward in an Australian pub the response would be, “Tell them they’re dreaming”. And that would be the polite version. Because this is not a formula for leadership but for paralysis.’
A free trade zone to promote mutual prosperity between relatively well-off neighbours, the European Economic Community as it then was, yes, maybe, he went on. But not the evolution by stealth of this free trade zone into Fortress Europe, without its inhabitants ever really being asked, ‘being ignored and bypassed if they ever had the temerity to say “Stop”.’ Yes, he understood the conservative instinct not to change without good reason, but stated that when change must happen because the people want it, it must be heeded. Of course throughout Europe they have not. Its people’s rejection of ever closer union has been systematically ignored, with the ‘high priests of Europe’ forever finding ‘ways to subvert every outbreak of independence or of national feeling through legal back channels or through bullying the local establishment into second votes until the poor old benighted majority of voters could be brought to see just how misguided they’d been’.
Which, he asserted, is exactly what’s happening in Britain right now: ‘The people voted to leave, but the establishment wants to stay. It’s a revolt of the minority against the majority, of the elites against the voters, of the parliament against the people, of those who think Big Brother knows best against those who think that Jack really is as good as his master . . . some voters count more than others and that you just can’t trust ordinary people to know what’s in their own best interests, especially when their view doesn’t coincide with mine.’
Would the British people, he asked, have voted to stay in the EU had they known how Brussels officialdom would work against them? Hardly. They were not deterred by Project Fear’s predictions the first time round, voting to leave despite the forecasts.
No, ‘the second-vote movement is not a fight for democracy, it’s just a hypocritical bid to overturn the first vote by the losers who didn’t like its result . . . What’s happening now is a determined campaign to stop Brexit happening at all, or to ensure that it’s a Brexit that doesn’t change anything under the May deal because for years to come, possibly for ever, Britain is locked into the single European market but with no capacity to change the rules and no capacity to do any trade deals for itself.’
He then moved on to the Remainer psyche – their insistence that Britain must stay in the customs union reflects, he argues, a deep-down fear that Britain can’t cope on its own. It clearly exasperates him:
‘This is the home of the Mother of Parliaments, of the Industrial Revolution and of the world’s common language. That’s right. The modern world has been made in English. So no country on earth should be more capable than Britain of standing on its own two feet. And that, surely, is what’s crying out now for remembrance, amidst all the declinism and defeatism, because if Brexit fails, Britain fails . . . It would be defeat on an epic scale, hardly matched since the Norman invasion, a national humiliation to echo down the ages, shattering to all who have ever looked to this country for inspiration.
‘Not for nothing is it the British flag that’s again seen on the streets of Hong Kong, 22 years after its people last truly knew freedom under the law. If they thought that Britain would be lost in Europe, as they fear being lost in China, they’d hardly be carrying your flag. For them, it’s a symbol of freedom. And for you, surely, a source of pride in all you have done and all you yet can do.
‘So let me assure anyone in Britain anxious about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit that Australia does $100billion worth of trade with the EU every single year on the basis of no deal . . . Come to think of it, Britain – yes, Britain – already does 55 per cent of its trade with countries outside the EU on the basis of no deal. Indeed it’s not Britain’s trade with the EU that’s growing, but the trade it does with the rest of the world on a no-deal basis. Trade with people who want to buy British goods and British services because they’re worth buying, not because they’re in a political union.’
But you have to know what you want: ‘You have to be in charge of your own country and your negotiating partners have to know – and this is the exact phrase: that no deal is better than a bad deal.’
A full economic partnership between Britain and Australia, restoring the almost completely unrestricted commerce enjoyed for 150 years, and allowing Britons and Australians once again properly to experience each other’s wonderful countries and lives, he said ‘would be about the best 2019 Christmas present our two countries could have’.
Indeed, he asserted, had the negotiators not been so timidly respectful of the EU’s rules, ‘it could have been ready to sign and commence from October 31, so that Britain would not be going into the world alone’.
None of this is all that complicated and it needn’t even be all that hard but for officialdom’s reluctance:
‘You’ve been so preoccupied with what Europe might expect that you’ve neglected to plan for what you must do. For almost 50 years, goods have been freely traded between Britain and the countries of the EU without tariff or quota or hold-ups at the border. Offer to keep that. For almost 50 years, something that could be sold in France, say, could be sold in Britain and more or less, someone who was qualified to work in France could work in Britain and vice versa. There’s been full mutual recognition of standards and credentials. Offer to keep that. Millions of people have come here from the continent to live and work. They’re good people. Let them stay as long as they like and become citizens if they wish. And ask the same for Britons in Europe. And as for the future, if people from Europe or elsewhere can come here to contribute for work not welfare, and maybe their bosses can pay a foreign workers tax too, in order to ensure that no one’s wages are being undercut, within numerical limits, those people should have the same big-hearted welcome to Britain as they’ve long had. And Britain should seek the same for its citizens in Europe. Now with goodwill on Europe’s part, this could be agreed on the spot, because it’s essentially maintaining what’s always been for the past 50 years.
‘It would be what’s best for Europe and what’s best for Britain, indeed better for them than for you, because Britain is a better market for Europe than the other way round and Britain is a better economic opportunity for Europeans than the other way round. And if the Europeans, to punish Britain, want to cut off their nose to spite their face, Britain could do it anyway, unilaterally. And that way, if there was a hard border anywhere, including in Ireland, it wouldn’t be Britain’s doing. It would be Europe’s. It wouldn’t be Britain that was shutting out Europe, but Europe that would be shutting out Britain. And in the long run, Europe has more to lose.
‘The Europeans know that. That’s why they’re so assiduously trying to exploit the fear of “no deal” to bluff Britain into becoming an economic colony, stuck in the Customs Union but with no say whatsoever over making the rules. And that’s why Britain has to be ready to walk away with no deal, to have any hope of getting a good one. As far as Britain is concerned, Brexit need change nothing unless Britain decides it should. Post-Brexit, all existing EU rules would apply in Britain until Britain decides otherwise. But no future EU rules would apply in Britain unless Britain decided they should. No future EU tribunal decisions would apply in Britain. And no further payments would be made by Britain to the EU, not £39billion, not even £9billion, other than for specific common projects that Britain chooses to participate in.
‘Like parties to a bad marriage, Britain and the EU should make a clean break and once done with it will probably surprise themselves at how much better they can get on. Still, the next few weeks will be full of political fury as Remainers plot to sabotage Brexit, or to turn it into a self-vindicating disaster. They will fail, though, because in the end there won’t be enough of them to usurp a democratic vote to sacrifice their country for short-term political gain and to put Europe before Britain. As the scripture says, “He who puts his hand to the plough and then turns back is not worthy of the kingdom”.
‘Finally, let me offer this reassurance: if there is one thing that writing a fine book on Churchill would have done for Britain’s new Prime Minister, it is readying him for this challenge and to call it for Britain. This is his moment of destiny, as much as this country’s, and I am sure that he feels that his whole life has been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
‘And I know that with 27 EU countries now lined up against you, some because they don’t want to lose a friend at court, others because they fear being upstaged by a Britain where people can so much more easily get things done, you must often feel alone and full of doubt. How could you not? But know this: there are some 160 other countries out there, too polite to take sides right now, but ready to welcome you back. Back into a wider world, back into a bigger family. Nearly all of them willing you to succeed and just wanting you to get this done. Get this done. That’s what Britain must do now.’
Let’s hope Mr Johnson and his master strategist Dominic Cummings read and digest.