The British public was not happy with the status quo – simply abolishing MEPs was not the transformation ‘Leave’ voters were looking for, writes Tom Harris
When a nation is divided over as significant a constitutional change as Brexit, the call is for compromise. That was what happened in Scotland: the ‘Yes’ campaign was defeated, but out of respect for the 45 per cent who wanted independence, the Scottish parliament was given substantial new powers, making it the most powerful devolved legislature in the democratic world.
The problem with binary referendum questions is that shades of grey are often difficult to find when the choice is between black and white. At one end of the spectrum we have the demand for a so-called hard Brexit, involving Britain leaving not only the European Union itself but also the single market and the customs union. At the other, we have the defeated ‘Remainers’ who, in an effort to appear gracious in defeat, have accepted that we must leave the EU itself while insisting that we should remain in both the single market and the customs union.
This looks like – and is certainly intended to be seen – as a magnanimous gesture. Those good old Remainers, eh? You have got to hand it to them, they were beaten but they are not trying to stop us leaving the EU. That is really admirable, that is …
Except that remaining in the single market and customs union, as those who support such an outcome know only too well, would amount to the equivalent of not leaving the EU at all, or leaving in name only.
We can all accept that in June 2016, a lot of people – more than 17 million of them – voted for something to change. We can argue about what that change should be, but we surely cannot avoid the fact that 52 per cent of the population, in the largest democratic exercise in our history, voted for change of some sort. Disagree or not with the government, they are certainly embarking on a path that will deliver real change in our relationship not only with the EU27 but with the rest of the world too.
What change do the continuity Remain campaign seek? By staying in the single market, we would continue to pay levels of contributions to the EU coffers that would hardly be different from those we currently pay. That ‘free access’ to the single market is pretty expensive, you know. We would remain under the watchful eye of the European court of justice to make sure we were complying with EU regulations – regulations that would continue to apply to every business and not just those which export to the EU.
And, of course, freedom of movement would continue. So no change there.
What do the public have to do to get politicians to listen to their (mostly reasonable) concerns on immigration? Will progressives only wake up to this when Jacob Rees-Mogg is in Downing Street?
The impact of remaining in the customs union would be more of the same policy we have endured for 40 years: Britain would continue to be legally prevented from forging its own free trade deals with non-EU countries.
So, no change there either.
To be fair, there would be one change under this scenario: on the second Thursday of June every five years, we would no longer be required to trudge to our local polling places to cast a vote for members of the European parliament to represent us in Brussels and Strasbourg. So there is that, I suppose.
Is that it? Is that the fundamental change needed to satisfy the grievances and complaints of the 17 million? To continue to live by EU law but to ensure that we have no say in how those laws are drafted? To continue to experience freedom of movement and to pay what we pay now to Brussels? To voluntarily surrender our right to negotiate new trade deals with the wider world?
I came relatively late to the EU campaign, having sat on the fence for a few months and decided to vote ‘Leave’ only when I listened to David Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons, in February 2016, about what he had achieved during his negotiations with the EU. At first I was confused that he was claiming credit for things that had been achieved by his predecessors years before, specifically our exclusion from the Schengen area and the Eurozone. And then I realised what had happened. Having achieved nothing remotely substantial, he was being forced to rely on the status quo and to claim credit for it.
But surely the EU would not have turned a deaf ear to the concerns of the leader of one of its most important member states, not to mention its second biggest financial contributor? With the certainty of a referendum in the near future, with the very real prospect of Britons voting to Leave, surely such minds at the commission and the parliament would be concentrated, that a degree of continental flexibility was in order?
No. Or non, or nein.
In refusing to bend, the EU chose instead to break. It rejected change, forcing the UK to make change unilaterally. It proved itself, at the very start of the referendum campaign, utterly unwilling and unable to reform, to be flexible.
And now, some in the Remain camp want to honour that same tradition in the final Brexit deal. We will give you a degree of nominal change – we will not officially be part of the EU any longer – but actual, real, substantive change would be too difficult for you to handle, so like a parent whose child asks to watch an 18-certificate movie, we are going to say no.
I get it, I really do. Change is hard. It is scary. The conservative way is the safest route: we know the road, we have trod it many times. And look – shiny new blue passports! That is more than enough change for anyone in one lifetime, is it not?
There is another article to be written, one about how the future belongs to the political party that can most convincingly map out an optimistic, brave future for the United Kingdom outside the EU. That is not a picture that can be painted by those who support continued membership of the two institutions most central to the EU project.
Tom Harris is a former member of parliament and was director of Vote Leave in Scotland
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