MY alma mater, Spalding Grammar, swiped its stirring school song from Harrow. It begins:
‘Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play . . .’
I was prompted to recall these lines by a personal coincidence. We stand today in the lingering twilight of UK membership of the EU, awaiting either white or black smoke as Brexit negotiations conclude. Today also happens to be 25 years to the day since my first foray on to the front lines of Westminster, turning up with a youthful spring in my step, attired in the de rigueur pinstripe suit and sporting an avant garde proto-Corbynite beard.
The chance symmetry that bookends my own Brexit campaigning is rather neat: Mayan calendar-makers could not have aligned it better. But regardless, an awareness of time itself prompts a contrast and a retrospective.
Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party in the 1990s was an insurgency, in political terms almost literally so. I arrived on the Parliamentary estate to work for one of a team of eight rebels, Sir Richard Body, who had resigned the whip over policy.
The issues that Eurosceptics wanted to raise were anathema, if not heresy, to the party hierarchy of the day. The problems of the EU could not be fixed, indeed were locked in by the very fact of membership, and the direction of travel was merely exacerbating the crisis. But like a volcano’s deep chamber, the problem was building slowly so you had to look for it to observe it and be alarmed. As with any decent disaster movie, the seismologist got ridiculed.
In EU affairs it is always more convenient for people in power to be short-termist, for problem issues to be papered over and passed on to someone else. This shallow stratagem would be particularly embraced by Tony Blair, supposedly fixing ECHR issues by simply hiding the loss of sovereignty behind the Human Rights Act. But the Conservative Party for many years was hardly better. Nowhere was this more painfully evident than over fisheries. Conservative Central Office ‘Lines to Take’ in 1996-7 were particularly embarrassing in their dishonesty. It has taken years of pushing from brave but often junior front benchers to scrub the stain out.
Flagging the flaws, the policy contradictions, and the loss of democratic accountability marked you out as a troublemaker, not a team player. Doing the right thing came at a price, as many impressive but openly-Eurosceptic (and blackballed) candidates could tell you.
UKIP grew because each of the main parties in their own ways expected supporters to back them in spite of themselves. For a number of years, corporately and institutionally, the Conservative Party really did not deserve its members – too often ignored, sidelined or indeed derided. But in the post-Thatcher era it turned out to be precisely these ‘turnip taliban’ who (both from within and by leaving to campaign outside) saved the party from itself, and with it the country.
Their independence of spirit is what made conferences engagingly edgy. The pulse of the party grassroots pounded at fringes, pumping adrenaline into the body politic. Ordinary association members served, if not as a corrective to bad policy, at least a conscience and an interrogative. Locally, they provided the indispensable endorsement to an MP prepared to ask the awkward questions. In leadership contests, their fleeting veto repeatedly crippled the cause of European integration.
Looking back 25 years on, the threats that EU membership and its ever-closer union bring have become much clearer, crystallising with every passing treaty and with every referendum rejection bludgeoned into a Yes result. The parliamentary party has responded to that, but only thanks to its grassroots, and because local associations did keep finding and selecting and supporting genuine Eurosceptic candidates – and not just those ideological daytrippers who pretended to be for selection.
Whatever comes out of the negotiations, whatever potential flaws may turn up in the small print, Euroscepticism has won. Politics being proprietary, I doubt due credit will go to the many unsung heroes where it is truly deserved. But ministers who are now able to sketch the architecture of post-Brexit Britain are able to do so only because of their backbench and grassroots colleagues, upon whose shoulders they stand today. Their determination, selflessness and bravery continues to set the bar as we wrestle with the pseudo-liberal fads of our times.