Peter Oborne is an often emotional and brutally frank political journalist, an instinctive but very independent minded conservative. For the website Open Democracy he has penned a model recantation from his support for Brexit.
It’s nearly three years since I, along with 17. 4 million other Britons, voted for Brexit. Today I have to admit that the Brexit project has gone sour. Brexit has paralysed the system. It has turned Britain into a laughing stock. And it is certain to make us poorer and to lead to lower incomes and lost jobs. We Brexiteers would be wise to acknowledge all this. It’s past time we did. We need to acknowledge, too, that that we will never be forgiven if and when Brexit goes wrong. Future generations will look back at what we did and damn us.
So I argue, as a Brexiteer, that we need to take a long deep breath. We need to swallow our pride, and think again. Maybe it means rethinking the Brexit decision altogether.
Certainly it means a delay when we can think about it all in a period of calm. Europe is offering us this opportunity. President Tusk is ready to offer a year’s extension. I say: grab it with both hands…..
There’s zero chance of that amidst the pandemonium and hysteria at Westminster just now. MPs are at the end of their tether. The cabinet is harrowed and exhausted. I admire the prime minister, think she’s a hero, and have been one of her strong supporters.
But she’s in the last weeks of her premiership.
As the end has come closer she’s turned into a shapeshifter, like the android assassin in the final stages of the second ‘Terminator’ film, moving desperately from one Brexit model to another.
She’s shown immense fortitude and determination which has won her the respect and admiration of decent people.
But there comes a moment in life when determination alone turns to madness. When the wisest and best move is to give up and think again…
I’ve heard the argument that people want to get it over with and ‘just leave’. That’s reckless, stupid and could inflict incalculable damage. Matters can get an awful lot worse – more unstable and angrier and far more economically damaging – after we leave the EU. And I write this as someone who voted for Brexit…
If we are honest, we Brexiteers have to admit that the economic arguments for Brexit have been destroyed by a series of shattering blows.
The leading Brexiteers argued during the 2016 campaign that the British economy had been held back by membership of the EU and would survive and flourish on its own. That argument is now unsustainable.
Investment-led growth has collapsed, and we need to stare that undeniable fact squarely in the face. Just look at the events of the early months of this year. They fill me – as they should fill every lover of this country – with anxiety and despair.
I should explain at this point why I voted for Britain to come out of the European Union. Like millions of others I voted for what I thought were honourable principled reasons.
It’s an exaggeration to say the European Union is anti-democratic, but it is not democratic. This leads to a problem. The politicians operating at a national level are accountable for decisions made in Brussels or Berlin for which they have no responsibility. We have seen a great deal of this over the last ten years. In Italy, Greece and other countries politicians have been obliged to enforce brutal programmes of economic austerity whether they like it or not…
It was never as bad as this in Britain, but some of the same contradictions applied. Politicians and ministers were unable to respond to popular concerns about immigration because membership of the European Union meant they were unable to back words with action. When she was home secretary, Theresa May kept promising to combat the relatively high levels of immigration. The reality was she was powerless to do anything about it.
This has had a noxious effect on our politics in a number of ways. Sometimes politicians make promises that they know they are powerless to deliver. At other times they use Brussels as a whipping-boy for unpopular decisions they would have made in any case. This has created a real problem for democracy across Europe. Not just in Britain.
It has also fanned a resentful belief that decisions are actually made by remote and unaccountable elites. This brings politics itself into disrepute and helps explain the rise of anti-establishment, racist and even neo-fascist political parties right across the European Union.
European leaders have not faced up to the tension between a dogmatic political centre, and unruly and indignant dissent from the periphery. They must. The invisible ropes that bind nations to those who rule them have grown ever more taut. Our politicians should wake up and accept they are in danger of snapping.
Part of me, therefore, still feels proud of Brexit. Well done Britain for challenging remote oligarchs based in Brussels.
For me, however, and I am sure for many people, the last 30 months of very bitter and angry debate has cut me in two. I have come to see that this is not just a simple problem of whether or not we are patriots.
Both Remainers and Brexiteers love Britain with equal strength and sincerity. Remainers are not citizens of nowhere, as the Brexiteer insult goes. Nor are Brexiteers ignorant, closet racists, as, disgracefully, some Remainers like to sneer.
Many who voted Leave have a deep – perhaps the deepest – understanding of the communities where they live; and in some of these, everyday life has been spoiled for many by policies imposed on them by a pro-European Westminster elite: policies they never voted for.
I respect those who say yes, all this is worth it to pursue a dream of independence. It is a noble dream. I share it. It is founded on Britain’s historic role as a proud nation that has repeatedly fought for freedom and liberty. I, too, am conscious of our magnificent history. In the 18th century we stood against the Bourbon dream of European hegemony. We liberated Europe from the Napoleonic domination of continental Europe at the start of the 19th century. And faced up to Nazi Germany in 1940.
But this is not 1939 or the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. History gets made and remade all the time. The European Union is not a dictatorship, as contemptuous of national identity as Napoleonic France. Nor can it be compared to Nazi Germany – a foolish analogy which has become an ugly cliché and displays an unforgivable failure to understand the true horror of recent European history. Nor is it any longer a socialist project as envisaged by Jacques Delors, let alone an evil empire, as some have as some have characterised it…
I readily accept that the European Union is a dysfunctional body beset by all manner of problems. But the lesson of the last two years is that we are much better off working inside the EU (where we are greatly respected; it was British civil servants, remember, who wrote the rules of the single market) for reform and not as a hostile neighbour…
In this new and dangerous environment, it is folly to rely on the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet the WTO is fundamental to the Brexiteer economic model. Under attack from Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China it is losing the ability to ensure a free market of goods and services. In the Trump and Xi world, relying on the WTO to ensure free trade is like relying on the United Nations to protect human rights: all they can offer are well-meaning but impotent resolutions. When Xi met EU leaders on his visit to Europe last week, I suddenly felt alarmed that Britain wasn’t there.
A disunited kingdom
Moreover, there is a second reason for why I have changed my mind. The threat to the United Kingdom. This hits me like a massive punch in the stomach. When I cast my vote in 2016 I believed that the European Union was, if anything, a threat to our own union. Beneath the federal objectives of Brussels bureaucrats lay a routinely denied hostility to individual nation states (though the nation states, including Britain but not only Britain, have always fought back).
But I did not foresee that Brexit would threaten the continued existence of our kingdom as a union. I reckoned without the separatists within our nation who would push us apart, and seize on Brexit (as the Scottish nationalists are doing) as a reason to break up.
I did not foresee how the popularity of our union in Northern Ireland might weaken, if ease of interchange with the Republic were threatened. Like almost everybody else I underestimated the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. And we’ve all misunderstood the Irish question, even though it has loomed so large in our history for the last 500 years.
I did not foresee how one of the biggest arguments against Scottish independence – that Europe would not encourage the break-up of its member states by accepting an independent Scotland as a new member – would be lost after Brexit. I failed to understand how the EU is part of the glue which now holds us together in the United Kingdom….
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