‘I voted Leave in 1975 and, having since then read or seen nothing to bring about a change of mind, did so again 2016’
VOTES in general elections and referenda can change history – making nations and perhaps breaking empires. They are not, though, sufficiently powerful to change the convictions of those on the losing side, and neither should they be. None of those who I know voted Remain in Britain’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership have changed their minds; some of them have been out on marches, rallies and street stalls to support those in parliament who at the outset declared their respect for the plebiscite result and went on to spend three years attempting shamelessly to have it binned. Similarly, the result of the UK’s first referendum – the one back in 1975 – on its unenthusiastic involvement in the European project didn’t change my judgement, which was that joining the European Economic Community (EEC) was an error, and that the referendum result confirming that membership was likewise mistaken, as was our then prime minister Harold Wilson when, in welcoming the Remain vote, he declared: “It means that 14 years of national argument are over.”
During those 14 years I read up on the history of the European movement from its origins in 1918, when the founder of the Fiat motor company wrote a book – European Federation or League of Nations – which argued the case for the former. He was followed in 1922 by the son of an Austrian diplomat who wrote Pan Europa, in which Count Richard Coudenhove Kalergi proposed a merger of the German coal and French steel industries that would be the basis of a federal “United States of Europe”. I had taken the trouble to read the Treaty of Rome. I studied the arguments against membership set out by the Left and the Right, and thought carefully about those put up by the Sensible Centre, most of which – then as now – seemed to be about the frictionless sale and distribution of cars, kettles and cattle. I looked back at the contribution made by General de Gaulle who, as France’s president, not once but twice – in 1963 and 1967 – rejected British applications to join, citing “a number of aspects of Britain’s currency, economy, from working practices to agriculture” that made “Britain incompatible with Europe”, adding that the UK harboured a “deep-seated hostility” to the pan-European project. “England,” he summarised, momentarily overlooking the fraying union known as the United Kingdom, “is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions. In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.” He knew it wouldn’t work.
That swung it for me. I voted Leave in 1975 and, having since then read or seen nothing to bring about a change of mind, did so again 2016. From Rome to Lisbon, via Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice, each EU treaty has been a building block in the construction of a fantasy country called Europe, a dystopia that will sooner or later implode beneath the weight of its own insoluble economic, political, social and cultural contradictions. Which is why at 11pm tomorrow (Friday) I shall with many thousands of others be in Parliament Square, Westminster, to cheer and applaud if not the definitive termination of the UK’s European Union membership, then at least the decisive and irreversible half-way stage to that end.
Going into Europe was not seen by most of the English – as the general might have said – as anything remotely resembling an historic change. It was just about shifting those cars and kettles and for some, perhaps, the promise of better nosh here and a modest villa in Provence or Tuscany. For the political class and Her Majesty’s Commentariat, the EEC offered a world stage and a gravy train to replace those provided previously by the empire.
The Foreign Office’s deeper thinkers might have had a more strategic bent, as Sir Humphrey explained in Yes, Minister (1980):
Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see … We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing.
Minister: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: Really, minister!
Well, that hasn’t worked, as evidenced by the 52,741 laws* – directives and regulations –that since 1990 have been generated by EU legislation and imported without hindrance into Britain’s statute book. The point is not that all of these laws might be rubbish; some might be judged beneficial, others damaging in one way or another. The point is that they have been laws not made by governments that can be turfed out by electors. They have been laws not made here … or in Athens, Berlin, Rome, Vienna and the rest. Leaving the EU, then, will be historic in a sense that slithering half-heartedly into the EEC on January 1, 1973 wasn’t. That’s why I’ll be in Parliament Square at 11pm tomorrow, to send up three cheers – at long last – for home rule, and for a precious European ideal that pre-dates the EU by some centuries: democracy.