Richard Ritchie was an aide to Enoch Powell, and was his former archivist.
Lent is the time for repentance. It is incumbent on all of us who have participated in the EU debates over the years, especially those of us who were around in the 1970s, to confess to some sins and omissions now that Article 50 has been tabled. Here are ten of our major sins, committed on both sides.
1. Those who campaigned to remain in the ‘Common Market’ in the 1970s said it would be easy to leave if membership turned out to be a mistake and we changed our minds. Those of us who opposed entry said, on the contrary, it would be impossible. Both were wrong, and neither of us really believed what we were saying. It was always possible to leave, but it was never going to be easy.
2. After the 1975 referendum, few on the losing side conceded that the question was settled. On the contrary, we said that membership of the EU was dependent upon the continuing assent of Parliament. We cannot complain, therefore, if Remainers now wish to re-open the question themselves. Whether it would be wise to do so is, of course, a totally different matter. But Remainers are entitled to demand that the question “again be put”.
3. For this reason, it carries no conviction for Remainers to state that they have accepted the decision. They haven’t – although only Lord Heseltine and a few others have the courage to admit it. Equally, it is futile for Brexiteers to argue that the decision is irrevocable. It isn’t.
4. It is true that those who voted for Brexit last year did so for many different reasons, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But so did those who voted to remain, especially those for whom the practical dangers of leaving were paramount. There was a mixture of motives on both sides. So we should all admit that referendums are imperfect, and in future these matters should be decided at a general election in the normal way.
5. Although most arguments at present revolve around trade and regulation, let us admit on both sides that the referendum was never primarily an economic question. Politics, and conflicting views of the nation state, were the drivers on both sides – and both sides were prepared to pay an economic price for their political objectives.
6. Neither side identified a large ‘exit’ bill as a major issue in the referendum campaign. Surely, it was very much in the interests of Remainers to point this out, especially as they objected – in many ways reasonably – to the extravagant promises by Brexiteers of higher government expenditure should Brexit win? One must conclude that the leaders of both sides were negligent in not defining this as an issue.
7. The Prime Minister and her ministers argue that they wish to see a thriving and strong European Union after our departure. Remainers argue that they wish the Government success in their Brexit negotiations. Both sides are disingenuous. Those who voted for Brexit would love to see their arguments vindicated by the collapse of the Euro and by other EU countries following the British example. Those opposed to Brexit hope their fears and predictions will be vindicated. Both sides believe they are, and want to be proved, right.
8. For Brexiteers, one of the great economic attractions of Brexit is that we shall be free to levy fewer and lower taxes, and impose less regulation, than had we remained in the EU. Once again, the merits of the argument are irrelevant at this stage. But it is silly for Tories to deny that this is a political objective. Some would say it is essential if we are to thrive after Brexit.
9. EU leaders say they are sad and depressed that we are leaving. But nothing in their behaviour backs this up. They could have offered Cameron a better deal. They could, after the referendum, have offered to re-open negotiations, especially on the issue of immigration with a view to encouraging the UK to postpone tabling Article 50. Instead, they adopted a hostile stance, and threatened revenge. Tony Blair and others now argue that the EU could be persuaded to offer new concessions if only we were prepared to re-visit the decision. There is no sign of that, and they should admit it.
10. Both sides have consciously taken risks, and it will take a long time for history to judge who was right. Those who argued for Brexit can’t be sure that it doesn’t carry a significant economic cost, however much we hope for global free trade. Equally, if the vote had gone the other way, Remainers can’t be sure this wouldn’t have been interpreted by the EU as a green light towards political union and full integration. There are dangers and pitfalls in both remaining and leaving. Let us all have the humility to admit that we might be wrong, and let us grant that we all have the best interests of our country at heart.