John Longworth was Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce until he broke ranks over his organisation’s line on Brexit, becoming first the chairman of the Vote Leave Business Council, and then of Leave Means Leave. He is now standing as an MEP candidate for the Brexit Party. In conversation with me yesterday he discussed the establishment’s continued attempt to repress Brexit. We began by discussing the reaction to the ‘milkshake attack’ on Nigel Farage.
Kathy Gyngell: Evan Davis minimised the attack by describing it as being in the country’s tradition of non-violent protest, satire and mockery. How would you digest that?
John Longworth: I was on 5 Live this morning, the BBC, with eight other representatives of parties and not one of them actually said that this was acceptable. There is a general view across the political spectrum that this sort of thing is the thin end of the wedge, it’s an assault. And we don’t know where it’s going to lead to. And in a democratic society we can’t have people assaulting politicians simply because they don’t agree with their views, it’s outrageous. I did point out, mind you, that I’m dairy intolerant, so if it were me they’d have to do a soy milkshake.
KG: So people are now saying that’s gone too far, that’s not acceptable. But on the other hand, across the mainstream media there’s an expression of a sort of venom – the metropolitan elite, both politicians and commentators, smearing Nigel Farage and Brexit. Suzanne Moore said, for example, ‘The leader of the Brexit party doesn’t want Brexit. He just wants the outrage and discontent he thrives on to continue.’
JL: I think all that’s outrageous, frankly. It’s tiresome in a way, because I’ve been campaigning for more than three years now, continuously, since I resigned from the British Chambers of Commerce, for Brexit. And in all the time that I’ve been doing it, I haven’t come across any of our supporters who’ve been anything other than polite and civil. But I’ve come across a lot of Remainers who are obnoxious. I mean, really nasty.
When I was involved in the March to Leave, you know, whenever we came across Remainers, they were of a very nasty disposition, foul-mouthed and really aggressive. But as I said, although all the people on Radio 5 Live this morning all agreed that it was wrong, the moment I actually started setting out why I thought people [the Brexit public] were angry, they all waded in immediately and interrupted me. I had to point out to them that my mother used to tell me that it was rude to interrupt, and hadn’t their mothers said the same?
Remainers are intolerant of others’ views; they constantly say that the Brexit argument is fact-free. I completely deny that, because I’ve done nothing but argue on the facts, the economic and business arguments, because that’s my background. We had a discussion on climate change this morning as well, you know, where the facts don’t always stack up in favour of the European Union by any stretch of the imagination. And I pointed that out in some detail.
KG: What do you think the impact has been of this intolerance and demonisation of the so-called Right?
JL: We’ve got vast swathes of people in the UK who are Brexiteers, but won’t say so. And the reason they won’t say so is that their careers are at risk, or they’re at risk of being social outcasts. Why is it that the majority of people in the country dare not speak their views and yet the Remainers feel quite secure? Well, the reason is very simply this: by definition, the Remainers are the establishment, they’re the ones who make the decisions about other people. You have a situation where people like Professor Tombs at Cambridge, who’s able to say, because he’s in the ‘emeritus’ stage of his career, that there are at least 50 other academics in Cambridge University who completely agree with Brexit, who write anonymously, who dare not speak its name, because they fear for their careers. I know quite a lot of people in the Arts who likewise fear for their careers. Do you not think it’s outrageous that we have a situation in politics in the UK, that people are in fear of their careers because they hold a political view? What would . . . what would it be like if somebody who had voted Labour or Conservative or Lib Dem couldn’t progress in their career simply because they voted in a particular way?
KG: And what responsibility does the Conservative Party have for letting such a state of affairs come about? For example, Philip Hammond seems to be very ready to denounce populism. What did he say? ‘The populist Right,’ he calls it. Is it responsible for one of our most senior politicians to be in effect smearing or casting a huge aspersion on the intention and motives of a large body of the population?
JL: Well, it’s even more bizarre than that, actually, that Philip Hammond’s doing this, because what he’s doing is labelling the people in his own party who upheld the Conservative manifesto commitments. He’s labelling those people as ‘populist Right’. And yet it was the Conservative Party manifesto that said we were going to leave the customs union, single market and the European Court of Justice jurisdiction. So what exactly is his point?
KG: Well, presumably he doesn’t want to honour his own manifesto.
JL: Of course not, because what you’ve got is Remainers who are using these things as weapons, they’re weaponising, labelling people. It’s just like when the extreme Remainers, people like Chuka Umunna, the moment anybody comes up with an argument for leaving the European Union, they’re labelled as racist bigots.
KG: So how is this to be countered? And why should people have to say, ‘No, I’m not a racist, no, I’m not an extremist’?
JL: Exactly. Why do the Remainers not have to justify their view, that they want to stay in a protectionist customs union, which is actually for the few and not the many? It’s completely the inverse of what the Labour Party is saying that they stand for.
KG: Will this issue of the attack on on free thought become a major issue for a post-EU Elections Brexit Party?
JL: I think it’s going to be an issue for democracy in the UK in general. It’s a very, very serious attack on democracy, that people are being labelled as beyond the pale simply because they hold a view that they believe in the country they live in and believe we’ll be better off out [of the EU]. It’s ridiculous really. We have to have a rational debate; one of the ways to counter it is just to continue to be rational, about what the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the EU are. And I’m quite confident, if that debate were heard, it would be clear that it was actually to our advantage to leave.
KG: Where is the debate going to be heard? Because we know it’s not going to be heard on the BBC, because the BBC, for example, even on climate change, have banned people that they believe are climate change deniers. So they’ve already closed ranks on that. They have, we know from all the News-watch monitoring over 20 years, marginalised Nigel Farage from the start of his political career. How is the the dominance of the BBC, their monopoly, to be challenged?
JL: And all the institutions. This is the establishment that we’re up against. Ofcom ruled on the BBC that, of course, the BBC had no case to answer on balance in relation to Brexit. The argument they used in Ofcom was that there are so many different views on Brexit, there was no requirement for the BBC to have balance. Where can you go from that? The Electoral Commission, of course, has decided, unprecedentedly, to go into the Brexit Party offices today, two days before an election, never done before, to have a look at the way the Brexit Party is collecting money. They’re collecting money, by the way, in the same way that every other party is collecting money. And they’re not . . . nobody is actually required to sort out any mis-contributions or report to the Brexit Party . . . not report, from the Brexit Party to the Electoral Commission any specifically large contributions until 30 days afterwards. That’s how all the parties are required, so why are they targeting the Brexit Party?
KG: Do you regard this as an abuse of power?
JL: Of course it is. The whole establishment system is designed to crush what they consider to be a dangerous shift towards populism which for me is democracy, and being popular is what democracy is all about, isn’t it?
KG: Has this happened particularly in the three years since the referendum vote, and is it based in fear?
JL: It actually started with Cameron declaring the referendum. Don’t forget, one of the reasons I resigned from the British Chambers of Commerce to fight the campaign was that I was so appalled and sickened by the ridiculous Project Fear that was being run by the government, because I knew a lot of what they were saying was complete tosh.
KG: Is there any historical precedent of this type of creeping abuse of power?
JL: Yeah, there’s been creeping abuse of power throughout history. In actual fact, at various stages. The UK population has had to fight for its freedoms throughout history. And there’ve been rare occasions where there’ve been major shifts in the political landscape. So the 1830s and 1840s, you know, we’re here at the Reform Club, two thirds of these members are Remainers. Cobden and Bright, whose portraits are on the wall, who were free traders, would be turning in their graves if they thought people here were Remainers, because they were free traders, globalists, and patriots for that matter. But they had to fight, and there was a major shift in the political landscape beginning in the 1900s. There is a major shift when the Labour Party emerged. But it took them 30 years to actually exercise that process. In the age of the internet and social media, things speed up. I wouldn’t be so sure if I were the establishment in the UK that they can sit pretty for quite a long while yet and not worry and it’ll all go away, because it may not.
KG: But we’re not a Gilets Jaunes society?
JL: We’re not a Gilets Jaunes society, thankfully. But the UK’s had its moments, we had an English Civil War, which was one of the bloodiest things that ever happened on English soil. Two English civil wars, actually, because the War of the Roses was the first English civil war, of course, but fought for different reasons. We had the establishment, by the skin of their teeth, headed off revolution in the 1830s and 40s by extending the suffrage. And by repealing the Corn Laws, which were a producer-led customs union.
KG: The whole Brexit debate has been very much cast in terms of trade across Europe. Isn’t it also a response to . . . isn’t the Brexit Party itself a response to the desire to reclaim national identity that an imperialist EU has ridden roughshod over? How do you balance up, in terms of what the Brexit Party stands for, or its popularity, what’s driven it – is it the freedom to trade, or is it the desire to be British, to know what it is to be British and have a British identity that’s not ridden over by Europe?
JL: I think there’s a whole package of reasons why people think it’s a good idea, but I haven’t come across any Leaver in the last three years who hasn’t put at the top of the list ‘sovereignty’ – and they know perfectly well what they mean by sovereignty, they mean being able to make our own decisions about our own laws, having our own courts, have jurisdiction over the application of those laws and being able to control our own borders and our own money.
KG: Do you think it means one thing more, something the only person to have articulated it at all, [Roger Scruton] but, of course, in an academic sense, is a need to know who we are, who we belong to, even more fundamental than having control of our borders back, it’s the basic sense of British identity that people, in the face of huge and fast change, feel has been stolen from them?
JL: Well, there may be that, you know, I’m not going to articulate that as the principal reason, because I have no evidence to say that’s the reason. I have evidence from people’s comments to say what I said before. But there is that fundamental thing about democracy. In the words of Tony Benn, if you cannot decide who governs you, and you cannot throw them out if you don’t like what they’re doing, then we haven’t got democracy. And the European Union is designed as a technocratic state, and it’s heading in the direction of being like China, where you have an assembly which is an echo chamber, but the actual decisions are made by appointed bureaucrats. And the bureaucrats are working in the interests of an elite establishment; and in the interests, in this case, of certain countries within the European Union.
KG: So you look forward to the Brexit Party throwing out this establishment, to stop that happening?
JL: Well, the thing is, our own establishment has colluded with the EU. Our own establishment has colluded with the European establishment to prevent the change that’s necessary to regain our democracy. And, as Nigel Farage has said, if you won’t make that change, then we’ll have to remove you.