It’s about democracy stupid. No, more like a terrible mistake

As the polls lengthen in favour of  Brexit, Vote Leave’s morale is on the up. The Brexit phenomenon is not reactionary, a delayed  reaction to the loss of Empire or narrow English nationalism but it marks a revival of British self confidence. This I rate as a discovery to be taken with a pinch of salt. But so says Steve Hilton the one-off, wonderfully paradoxical  engaging Tory radical who as Cameron’s guru used to pad about Downing St in tee shirt, jeans and bare feet proclaiming the cause of individual freedom and undying opposition to bureaucratic rule. Being Steve when he arrived in No 10 he caused consternation by heading off to Brussels to find out how the EU actually worked…

It turned out that every few days, a pile of paperwork about a foot high was circulated in Whitehall. The paperwork gave the go-ahead for Government action and was supposedly based on written approval from the relevant ministers. But here’s the catch: ministers were given two days to respond to any proposal. If no response came, then this was taken as a ‘yes’.

It turned out that some 30 per cent of government action was relevant to what we were supposed to be doing. The rest — you’ve guessed it — was generated from within the civil service machine, the majority coming from the EU.

And my view, based on a pragmatic, non-ideological assessment of how the EU operates, is that as long as we are members, our country cannot be ‘run’. Membership of the EU makes Britain literally un-governable, in the sense that no administration elected by the people can govern the country.

But Hilton spent his short time in No 10 making exactly the same complaint about the home grown system of  government  run by the civil service.

In a long read in the Guardian Matt d’Ancona although a Remain supporter sympathetically traces the history of  Brexit.

How does an idea banished to the tundra of irrelevance make its way back to the mainstream? First, a moment of recognition – and ignition – is required. Someone must dare to make the initial leap, to retrieve the frozen thesis from its glacial prison.

In the case of Brexit, it was Norman Lamont, the former chancellor of the exchequer, who dragged the idea back from the snowy wastes…

Much of its energy was generated by Blair’s conspicuous refusal to consult the electorate on the ratification of EU agreements…

Experience of the European parliament and commission gradually convinced (Theresa) Villiers that the EU’s institutions and culture were beyond repair. “Whatever the question, whatever the problem, whatever the crisis, the answer was more Europe, more EU, more political integration,” she recalled. “For decades we’ve had people in the Foreign Office saying Europe is coming our way, we’ve changed its direction, we’ve got opt-outs. And it just became abundantly clear to me that we were never going to win that argument in Europe.”

When he became Tory leader in December 2005, David Cameron perceived the issue as entirely managerial…

The strategy was both ambitious and perilous. First, there would be a referendum lock on significant transfers of sovereignty to Brussels in the future – an objective achieved in the European Union Act 2011. Second, there would be an audit of the balance of power between Britain and the EU. Third, on the basis of that audit, the prime minister would renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership. And, fourth, there would be an in-out referendum on the deal he had struck in Brussels.

Immense thought and energy were expended upon this plan, which was announced in its entirety in January 2013 at Bloomberg’s London HQ. As the leave cause has improved its position in the polls, I have been struck by the number of people who now claim – or let it be known that they claim – that they tried to talk the prime minister out of embarking upon this rocky and potentially self-destructive path.

As so often, George Osborne was the person in the room who articulated the truth, palatable or not. “The referendum genie is out of the bottle,”

The  history partly explains the trend, which d‘Ancona deplores:

The least edifying feature of it all is the spectacle of intellectually brilliant politicians pretending that profoundly complex policy problems are, in fact, easily solved. Vote for Brexit, heat the stove to No 10, add political will in quantity – et voilà! All your immigration problems fixed.

We are 10 days away from making a terrible mistake for deplorably stupid reasons

If you’re looking for idealism for the European project you have to go back almost 20 years to the late Hugo Young’s classic “This Blessed Plot”  where he describes how a form of British patriotism took a wrong turning. His analysis of 1999 is powerfully prophetic.

To modify the nation state throughout Europe is an extraordinary ambition, full of risks and difficulties. Yet if I am ever tempted to despair of it, I need only remind myself of the alternative world summoned up by those, most ferociously in Britain, who devote passion to dismantling it.

They have had a long time to describe this non-European Britain, and the picture, where it is clear, is not persuasive. I conclude that it is not meant to be. Portillo wrote not long ago that even to ask the question was “extraordinary”. All the future has to satisfy, in the minds of many Eurosceptics, is the need not to be “European”. As long as it meets that test, the details hardly matter.

So the anti-Europe cave is claustrophobic. It is also being refilled (for we have been here before) with futile arrogance, making it obligatory not merely to criticise Brussels but abominate the Germans, laugh about the French, find nothing good to say about another European country, lest this betray our beleaguered sense of Britishness..

At the heart of this is an impenetrable contradiction in the anti-Europe British mind. It cannot decide between terror and disdain. Britain is apparently so great, as well as so different, a place that she can afford to do without her continental hinterland. But she is so puny, so endangered, so destined to lose every argument with the continentals, that she must fear for her identity if and when she makes the final commitment to belong among them. Studying the movements of sceptic thought, I see in their inability to provide a clear answer on this fundamental point a mirror of the vacillations, pro- and anti-Europe, that mark the personal histories of so many of the characters in the story. Either way, the conclusion points in the anti-Europe direction.

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London