Leavers often wonder whether a Remain win would have aroused anything like the rancour and resistance we are experiencing today. So here’s another scenario, as a thought experiment. After a 52-48 verdict to stay in the EU, Cameron’s government is riven with internal conflict. A snap election is called, UKIP gets enough votes to hand dozens of seats to Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn is installed as Prime Minister. He decides to invoke Article 50, whipping his fawning but Europhile MPs into line. After all, the referendum was merely advisory . . .
A pressing worry for Leavers is a Brexit in name only, with a transitional deal likely to entangle us in the EU’s tentacles for years to come, ultimately risking reversal of our historic plebiscite. But reassurance was given at an event last week at University College London, involving the new academic group Briefings for Brexit. ‘The Intellectual Case for Brexit’ featured Robert Tombs, professor of French history at Cambridge, and Sir Richard Aikens, former Court of Appeal judge and president of Lawyers for Britain.
The question for Remainers now, as eloquently explained by Tombs, is not whether we should stay in the EU, but whether we should rejoin. If we went back, we’d lose all the opt-outs and be forced to accept the euro currency, but more significantly, we would need to understand what the EU is becoming. President Macron asserted that the EU will either fumble and fracture, or it will make the necessary advance towards a fully-fledged federal power. At least he was being honest, unlike most other politicians (including the Remain establishment here), who have continually glossed over the relinquishing of sovereignty to Brussels.
In the authoritative words of Sir Richard, Article 50 cannot be revoked before our due departure in March 2019. A deal may be thrashed out to the liking of the EU negotiators, but however much Theresa May compromises, all that work will come to nothing if just one of the member states’ parliaments rejects it. And then there would be no time to revise the terms. Article 50, Aikens explained, was devised as a contingency for a recalcitrant state; voluntary departure wasn’t expected. The process is being made deliberately awkward pour encourager les autres. This is typical of how the EU works, Aikens stated. It has a severe democratic deficit, with elected MEPs unable to propose legislation, which instead is presented by an unelected commission.
If Britain chose to return, despite all the obvious losses to nationhood and democracy, it would need to apply under Article 49. There is no guarantee of the other 27 member states welcoming us with our behaviour record. Countries may be stuck in candidate status for many years (Turkey since the 1980s). We are damned by the EU whatever we do. Just as our quest for a bespoke deal is likely to be futile (as Kathy Gyngell argued this week), the diluted Brexit now being pushed by Labour is no more than a political stunt.
Questions were taken from the audience. Michael Lightfoot and Jan Bowman from the Artists for Brexit group urged an optimistic message, displaying the creativity and independent minds of the Leave side. A friend of mine spoke of Leavers expressing the true spirit of the European Enlightenment, while Remainers are waging an elitist cultural war against the ordinary people. Aptly, he was followed by an upper-middle-class young man at the back of the theatre, who called down on the speakers’ errors, condescendingly reminding us that the EU gives us everything we need, keeping us safe and preventing war. His utterances were treated respectfully by the speakers, unlike some in the audience.
Tombs explained that the EU is not globalist at all; it is a protectionist bloc that serves German and French industry. Indeed, it is becoming less open and behaving more like an exclusive club. As for peace, the EU has provoked conflict in Ukraine, failed to stop the killing in Yugoslavia, imposed a financial straitjacket on the Greeks, and promoted regional structures and identity to subvert national sovereignty (as in the Spanish-Catalan tension).
Another member of the audience associated Brexit with the election of Donald Trump. Tombs, however, regards these two results as fundamentally different. While both were influenced by commoners feeling disparaged and left behind by social change, the Trump vote was a destructive force against the whole political establishment. Brexit, by contrast, was a constructive demand for sovereignty, returning powers to our democratic system, in the belief that decisions about Britain should be made here in Britain. However, Tombs warned that if Brexit is sabotaged by political shenanigans and Sir Humphrey, there will be serious repercussions, with a sense of betrayal potentially triggering a Trump-like backlash.
Briefings for Brexit is a necessary and belated response to the one-sided view from the ivory towers. As a lecturer, I’m not short of personal experience of anti-Brexit bias. But regardless of the group’s wide-ranging intellectual talents, they will be criticised. In response to the launch, a letter in the Sunday Times from 1,400 scholars simply stated: ‘There are very many more of the opposite view’. That was it – no argument, and no acknowledgement of the damage to the atmosphere of liberal education caused by Remainers’ intolerance for those who express that ‘opposite view’. Not that we haven’t heard enough of their pessimistic analyses. As economist Paul Krugman remarked, these propagandists of doom are guilty of ‘intellectual slumming’. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a blunter term for those who claim higher knowledge than us lesser mortals: ‘intellectual yet idiot’.
Roll on 29th March 2019. Then let the Remainers make their case for joining a cumbersome and increasingly fracturing pursuit of a superstate. The euro, the EU army, common taxation, more and more laws, substantially higher annual payments to Brussels: try selling that on the high streets of Wigan, Swansea, Peterhead or Antrim.