The other day a woman pitched up in my surgery in a state of indignation. The ostensible cause was broadband trouble but it was soon clear – as so often in a constituency surgery – that the real problem was something else.
No one was trying to understand her feelings about Brexit. No one was trying to bring her along. She felt so downcast, she said, that she was thinking of leaving the country – to Canada. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be in the EU; she just didn’t want to be in a Britain that was not in the EU.
And I recognised that feeling of grief, and alienation, because in the last 18 months I have heard the same sentiments so often – from friends, from family, from people hailing me abusively in the street – as is their right.
In many cases I believe the feelings are abating with time, as some of the fears about the Brexit vote do not materialise. In some cases, alas, I detect a hardening of the mood, a deepening of the anger. I fear that some people are becoming ever more determined to stop Brexit, to reverse the referendum vote of June 23 2016, and to frustrate the will of the people. I believe that would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal. We cannot and will not let it happen.
But if we are to carry this project through to national success – as we must – then we must also reach out to those who still have anxieties. I want to try today to anatomise at least some of those fears and to show to the best of my ability that these fears can be allayed, and that the very opposite is usually true: that Brexit can be grounds for much more hope than fear.
There are essentially three types of concern about the momentous choice the nation has made.
The first is that this is simply a strategic or geo-strategic mistake. On this view Britain is an offshore island comprising fewer than one per cent of humanity, and we need to be bound up in the European Union for protection – partly for our protection, and partly so that Britain can fulfil its historic role of providing protection for the other countries of the European continent. I come across quite a few people who think that Brexit has cast us adrift – made our geostrategic position somehow more vulnerable, while weakening the security of the whole of Europe.
The second anxiety is essentially spiritual and aesthetic – that by voting to leave the EU we have sundered ourselves from the glories of European civilisation. People believe that we have thrown up a figurative drawbridge, made it less easy to live, study, work abroad; and decided to sacrifice the Europeanness in our identities. They fear that the Brexit vote was a vote for nationalism and small-mindedness and xenophobia. They think it was illiberal, reactionary and the British have somehow shown the worst of their character to the world; indeed that it was in some sense actually unBritish.
And the third objection is the one that occupies most of the debate – the economic fear that we have voted to make ourselves less prosperous; that membership of the EU is vital for UK business and investment, and that the panoply of EU legislation has helped to make life easier for companies and for citizens. People fear the disruption they associate with change, and that our friends and partners in the EU may make life difficult for us. Sometimes these economic anxieties are intensified by the other fears – about identity or security – so that hitherto recondite concepts like the single market or the customs union acquire unexpected emotive power.
Well I believe that whatever the superficial attractions of these points, they can be turned on their head. I want to show you today that Brexit need not be nationalist but can be internationalist; not an economic threat but a considerable opportunity; not unBritish but a manifestation of this country’s historic national genius. And I can see that in making this case now I run the risk of simply causing further irritation. But I must take that risk because it is this government’s duty to advocate and explain the mission on which we are now engaged; and it has become absolutely clear to me that we cannot take the argument for granted. We cannot expect the case to make itself. That was the mistake of the pro-EU elite when they won the last referendum in 1975. As the Guardian journalist the late Hugo Young points out in his book, This Blessed Plot:
“The most corrupted trait I kept encountering was the sense – so prevalent among the Euro-elite, that having won the decision they had won the argument. Many exhibited the unmistakable opinion not only that the battle was over but that the other side, however loud it shouted, had simply lost and should now shut up.”
And he went on to say:
“The noisier the contest became during the early 1990s, the heavier the silent gloating that accompanied it, from the class that knew it commanded every operational forum from the ante-chambers of Whitehall to the boardrooms of big business, from Brussels committee rooms where a thousand lobbyists thronged, to the outposts of the Commission.”
Well the boot is now on the other foot, at least in theory. For all their power and influence – every major political party, the CBI, Barack Obama and so on – those voices did not prevail. But is this the time for the referendum winners to gloat? Should we sit in silent self-satisfaction? Of course not.
It is not good enough to say to remainers – you lost, get over it; because we must accept that the vast majority are actuated by entirely noble sentiments, a real sense of solidarity with our European neighbours and a desire for the UK to succeed. All I am saying is that by going for Brexit we can gratify those sentiments – and more. So let us take the three anxieties in turn.
1. SECURITY: A STRONG BRITAIN AND A STRONG EU
To all who worry about our strategic position and the supposed loss of Britain to European security I can offer this same vital reassurance that the PM has made so many times and that I believe is welcomed by our partners. Our commitment to the defence of Europe is unconditional and immoveable. It is made real by the 800 British troops from 5th Battalion The Rifles I saw recently at Tapa in Estonia, who have since been relieved by 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh.
Already this country is the single biggest spender in the EU both on aid and defence. Although we represent only 13 per cent of the EU’s population, we contribute 20 per cent of defence spending – and the RAF’s giant C17 transport aircraft represent 100 per cent of the heavy lift capacity of the whole of Europe – as well as 25 per cent of the overseas aid budget.
It makes sense for us to continue to be intimately involved in European foreign and security policy. It would be illogical not to discuss such matters as sanctions together, bearing in mind that UK expertise provides more than half of all EU sanctions listings.
We will continue to be Europeans both practically and psychologically, because our status as one of the great contributors to European culture and civilisation – and our status as one of the great guarantors of the security of Europe – is simply not dependent on the Treaty of Rome as amended at Maastricht or Amsterdam or Lisbon.
2. SPIRITUALLY BRITISH, EUROPEAN AND GLOBAL
So let us next tackle the suggestion that we are somehow going to become more insular. It flies in the face of the evidence. It was my Labour predecessor Ernie Bevin who said, “my foreign policy is to go down to Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please.”
That is pretty much what the British people already do. We have a bigger diaspora than any other rich nation – 6m points of light scattered across an intermittently darkening globe. There are more British people living in Australia than in the whole of the EU, and more in the US and Canada. As I have just discovered we have more than a million who go to Thailand every year, where according to our superb consular services they get up to the most eye-popping things.
The statistical trajectory suggests that this wanderlust is most unlikely to abate. In 2016 the British people paid 71m visits to other countries – and that is a 70 per cent increase since the mid-1990s, and now more than one foreign trip per person per year.
If we get the right deal on aviation and on visa-free travel – both of which are in our mutual interest – this expansion of UK tourism will continue, not just beyond the EU, but within the EU itself; and we will continue ever more intensively to go on cheapo flights to stag parties in ancient cities, meet interesting people, fall in love, struggle amiably to learn the European languages whose decline has been a paradoxical feature of EU membership.
There is no sensible reason why we should not be able to retire to Spain (as indeed we did long before Spain joined the EU), or anywhere else. We can continue the whirl of academic exchanges that have been a feature of European cultural life since the middle ages, and whose speed of cross-pollination has been accelerated by the web as well as by schemes like Horizon or Erasmus – all of which we can continue to support, and whose participating scholars are certainly not confined to the EU.
For those who really want to make Britain less insular, the answer is not to submit forever to the EU legal order, but to think about how we can undo the physical separation that took place at the end of the Ice Age.
Fly over the Channel at Dover and you see how narrow it is, the ferries plying back and forth like buses in Oxford street, and as you measure the blue straits with your fingers you can see that this moat is really an overgrown prehistoric river that once flowed down from Norway and was fed by its tributaries, the Thames and the Seine and the Rhine.
In 1986 Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand had the vision to heal the rupture with a first dry crossing; and it is notable that Eurotunnel is now calling for both sides of the Channel to prepare for a second fixed link. It does indeed seem incredible that the fifth and sixth most powerful economies in the world, separated by barely 21 miles of water, should be connected by only one railway line.
I accept that the solution is still a few years off – though the need will be upon us fast – but I say this to signal something about the attitudes that should inform Brexit. It’s not about shutting ourselves off; it’s about going global.
It’s not about returning to some autarkic 1950s menu of spam and cabbage and liver. It’s about continuing the astonishing revolution in tastes and styles – in the arts, music, restaurants, sports – that has taken place in this country not so much because of our EU membership (that is to commit the fallacy known in the FCO as post hoc ergo propter hoc) but as a result of our history and global links, our openness to people and ideas that has brought 300 languages on to the streets of London, probably the most diverse capital on earth.
In that sense Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity, and all the energy that can flow from that. And I absolutely refuse to accept the suggestion that it is some unBritish spasm of bad manners. It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover.
It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people. And that is surely not some reactionary Faragiste concept.
It is to fulfil the liberal idealism of John Stuart Mill himself, who recognised that it is only the nation – as he put it, “united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between themselves and others” that could legitimate the state.
It was only if people had this common sympathy that they would consent to be governed as a unit, because this feeling of national solidarity would “make them cooperate more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively.”
And there is good reason for insisting on this national solidarity, or common sympathy, because government involves tremendous impositions, by which we collectively agree to taxation that pre-empts half our income, and obedience to laws not all of which we think are necessarily sensible.
If we are going to accept laws, then we need to know who is making them, and with what motives, and we need to be able to interrogate them in our own language, and we must know how they came to be in authority over us and how we can remove them.
And the trouble with the EU is that for all its idealism, and for all the good intentions of those who run the EU institutions, there is no demos – or at least we have never felt part of such a demos – however others in the EU may feel.
The British people have plenty of common sympathies with the people of France, but it is hard to deny that they also share common sympathies with plenty of non-EU people – the Americans, the Swiss, the Canadians, the Pakistanis; and that is one of the reasons why we in the UK have had such difficulty in adapting to the whole concept of EU integration.
To understand why EU regulation is not always suited to the economic needs of the UK, it is vital to understand that EU law is a special type of law, unlike anything else on earth.
It is not just about business convenience. It is expressly teleological. It is there to achieve a political goal.
The aim is therefore to create an overarching European state as the basis for a new sense of European political identity.
British politicians, Labour and Tory, have always found that ambition very difficult. It is hard to make it cohere with our particular traditions of independent parliamentary and legal systems that go back centuries.
And in spite of sheeplike coughs of protest from the UK, the process of integration deepened, and the corpus of EU law grew ever vaster and more intricate, and ever more powers and competences were handed to EU institutions, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon.
We now have arrangements of such complexity and obscurity that I ask even my most diehard of remainer friends if they can explain their Spitzenkandidaten process – which has genuinely delighted the MEPs as much as it has mystified the UK; or the exact relationship between the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, justiciable in Luxembourg, and the European Convention on Human Rights whose court sits in Strasbourg.
If we wanted to find the person responsible for drafting the next phase of EU integration – in which Tony Blair would presumably like us to take part – we wouldn’t know where to find them, let alone how to remove them from office. That is why people voted Leave – not because they were hostile to European culture and civilisation, but because they wanted to take back control. That is why it is so vital not to treat Brexit as a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle, but as an opportunity, and above all as an economic opportunity.
3. THE BREXIT ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
Which brings me to the last crucial reassurances that my side of the argument must give. We would be mad to go through this process of extrication from the EU, and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring. We will stop paying huge sums to the EU every year and as the PM has said, this will leave us with more to spend on our domestic priorities, including the NHS.
We will be able to take back control of our borders – not because I am hostile to immigrants or immigration. Far from it. We need talented people to come and make their lives in this country – doctors, scientists, the coders and programmers who are so crucial to Britain’s booming tech economy.
It was my proudest boast as Mayor of London that we had 400,000 French men and women in the British capital – high-earning and high-spending types – while only about 20,000 UK nationals were living in Paris. We must remain a magnet for ambition and drive.
But we also need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the impact of 20 years of uncontrolled immigration by low-skilled, low-wage workers – and what many see as the consequent suppression of wages and failure to invest properly in the skills of indigenous young people.
We do not want to haul up the drawbridge; and we certainly don’t want to deter the international students who make such a huge contribution to our HE economy, with 155,000 Chinese students alone.
But we want to exercise control; and if we are going to move from a low-wage, low-productivity economy to a high-wage, high productivity economy – as we must – then Brexit gives us back at least one of the levers we need.
It is very striking that since the Brexit vote the fortunes of UKIP – the one stridently anti-immigration party in this country – have gone into a long deserved eclipse; and that is because people feel they are being heard in their desire at least for control. And the contrast is very striking with some Schengen countries, where no such control is possible, and where the far right is on the rise.
And as the PM has said repeatedly, we must take back control of our laws. It would obviously be absurd, as Theresa May said in her Lancaster House and Florence speeches – which now have the lapidary status of the codes of Hammurabi or Moses – if we were obliged to obey laws over which we have no say and no vote.
As the PM said at Lancaster House remaining within the single market “would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.”
The British people should not have new laws affecting their everyday lives imposed from abroad, when they have no power to elect or remove those who make those laws. And there is no need for us to find ourselves in any such position.
To those who worry about coming out of the customs union or the single market – please bear in mind that the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed.
In the last few years there have been plenty of non-EU countries who have seen far more rapid growth in their exports to the EU than we have – even though we pay a handsome membership fee.
In spite of being outside the stockade, the US has been able to increase its exports twice as fast.
And for those of us within the stockade, the cost of EU regulation was estimated at 4 per cent of GDP by Peter Mandelson and 7 per cent by Gordon Brown.
It is only by taking back control of our laws that UK firms and entrepreneurs will have the freedom to innovate, without the risk of having to comply with some directive devised by Brussels, at the urgings of some lobby group, with the aim of holding back a UK competitor. That would be intolerable, undemocratic, and would make it all but impossible for us to do serious free trade deals.
It is only by taking back control of our regulatory framework and our tariff schedules that we can do these deals, and exploit the changes in the world economy. It is a striking fact that our exports to the EU have grown by only 10 per cent since 2010, while our sales to the US are up 41 per cent, to China 60 per cent, to Saudi Arabia 41, New Zealand 40, Japan 60, South Korea 100 per cent.
Those figures reflect the broader story that the lion’s share of the growth is taking place outside the EU, and especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
In a world that demands flexibility and agility, we should be thinking not of EU standards but of global standards, and a regulatory framework to suit the particular needs of the UK, a country that already exports a higher share of its GDP outside the EU than any other EU country.
We already boast an amazing economy, very diverse and different from rest of EU.
We are the nation that has moved the furthest up the value chain of the 21st century economy.
We are a nation of inventors, designers, scientists, architects, lawyers, insurers, water slide testers, toblerone cabinet makers. There are some sectors, such as AI or robotics, or bulk data, or bioscience where we excel and where we may want to do things differently.
Of course we will need to comply with EU regulation in so far as we are exporting to the EU. (though we should realise that the single market is not quite the Eden of uniformity that it is cracked up to be: you try becoming a ski instructor in France; and I discovered the other day that we have totally different standards for flame retardant sofas, to say nothing of plugs)
But in a global marketplace, where we are trading in products that hadn’t been conceived even five years ago, serving markets that were poverty stricken only 20 years ago, it seems extraordinary that the UK should remain lashed to the minute prescriptions of a regional trade bloc comprising only 6 per cent of humanity – and when it is not possible for us or any EU nation to change those rules on our own.
In so far as we turn increasingly to the rest of the world – as we are – then we will be able to do our own thing.
We will be able, if we so choose, to fish our own fish, to ban the traffic in live animals, end payments to some of the richest landowners in Britain while supporting the rural economy; and we will be able to cut VAT on domestic fuel and other products.
We can simplify planning, and speed up public procurement, and perhaps we would then be faster in building the homes young people need; and we might decide that it was indeed absolutely necessary for every environmental impact assessment to monitor two life cycles of the snail and build special swimming pools for newts – not all of which they use – but it would at least be our decision.
Freed from EU regimes, we will not only be able to spend some of our Brexit bonus on the NHS; but as we develop new stem cell technology – in which this country has long been in the lead – it may be that we will need a regulatory framework, scrupulous and moral, but not afraid of the new. The same point can be made of innovative financial services instruments, where the FCA already leads the way.
We will decide on laws not according to whether they help to build a united states of Europe but because we want to create the best platform for the economy to grow and help people to live their lives. And when we are running ourselves – when all these freedoms open before us – we will no longer be able to blame Brussels for our woes, because our problems will be our responsibility and no-one else’s.
And indeed no one should think that Brexit is some economic panacea, any more than it is right to treat it as an economic pandemic.
On the contrary, the success of Brexit will depend on what we make of it. And a success is what we will make of it – together. And that very success will be the best thing for the whole of continental Europe – a powerful adjacent economy buying more Italian cars and German wine than ever before.
And so I say to my remaining remainer friends – actually quite numerous – more people voted Brexit than have ever voted for anything in the history of this country.
And I say in all candour that if there were to be a second vote I believe that we would simply have another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose.
So let’s not go there.
So let’s instead unite about what we all believe in – an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom.
So much of this is about confidence and national self-belief.
We love to run ourselves down – in fact we are Olympic gold medal winners in the sport of national self-deprecation
And in the current bout of Brexchosis we are missing the truth: that it is our collective national job now to ensure that when the history books come to be written Brexit will be seen as just the latest way in which the British bucked the trend, and took the initiative – and did something that responds to the real needs and opportunities that we face in world today
and had the courage to break free from an idea – however noble its origins – that had become outdated, at least for us.
Konrad Adenauer said that every nation had its genius, and that the genius of the British people was for democratic politics. He was right, but he didn’t go far enough.
Yes, it was the British people who saw that it was not good enough for Kings and princes to have absolute power and who began the tradition of parliamentary democracy in a model that is followed on every continent.
It was also Britain that led the industrial revolution and destroyed slavery and the British people who had the wit to see through the bogus attractions of protectionism and who campaigned for free trade that has been the single biggest engine of prosperity and progress.
And to my constituent I say – don’t go to Canada, or anywhere else, lovely though Canada is.
This is the country that is once again taking the lead in the shaping of the modern world and it is our stubborn attachment to running ourselves that will end up making our society fairer and more prosperous.
In its insistence upon democracy, its openness, its belief in the rights of the individual, in its protection of our legal system its scepticism about excessive regulation its potential for devolving power downwards and in its fundamental refusal to discriminate between all the other peoples of the earth and in its central distinction between the EU institutions and our eternal love for European culture, values, civilisation
Brexit is not just the great liberal project of the age, but a project that over time can unite this country. So let’s do it with confidence.