John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of the European Parliament who stood in 2010 as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
If this piece is accepted for publication, it will probably be my last article for ConservativeHome. As someone who has long advocated a plebiscite on our membership of the European Union, I accept the verdict of the 23rd of June, in the sense that the victorious “Leave” side has clearly won the right to demonstrate the superiority of their vision for the future of the United Kingdom outside the EU. That right cannot now be challenged before the next General Election, by which time it seems certain we will have left. By then – though I am confident, of course, of the future of this site – the meaning of “Conservative”, and even perhaps the meaning of “Home” may well have changed, subtly or even substantially, for very many of our fellow citizens.
This could be because by leaving the EU, British Conservatism seems to me to have simultaneously cast aside a shield, and drawn a sword. Even those whose support for Brexit was predicated primarily by constitutional concerns of sovereignty and democracy recognise that what really lay behind the referendum result were much broader issues of inequality across the nation, between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural, cosmopolitan and national, north and south, Scotland and England, and England and London, which are the legacy of long-standing failures and distortions of domestic policy, and which the European issue had come to symbolise, and thus disguise. By dispensing with this disguise, our politics, but particularly Conservatism, must now confront the deep discontent engendered by these divisions directly: a potentially revolutionary situation.
To her credit, the new Prime Minister, by dramatically departing from her predecessor’s commitment to mainstream liberal economic doctrines, plainly fully appreciates the scale of the challenge that she faces. Whether such a radical re-thinking of Conservatism can rise to the occasion, given the present economic restraints upon her government, restraints that can only be rendered tighter by the uncertainty which will inevitably result from the process of our departure from the EU, must, however, be in some doubt. Much should depend upon her ability to secure a rapid and reasonable deal with our European ex-partners. And certainly, of the candidates for the leadership, she is far and away the best-equipped, intellectually and morally, to conduct these most difficult negotiations.
But there is a fundamental problem which she must face: the perception both here and on the Continent that by undertaking Brexit, Britain, or rather England, under Conservative and Conservative-minded leadership, has drawn the sword against the EU in general and the Eurozone in particular. Followers of this site will be fully familiar with the notion that the true and historic case for “Leave” was that it would precipitate the collapse of either or both: Frexit, Nexit, the Italian banking crisis, Greece (again) or whatever. The spirit of Pitt the Younger: of Britain, having liberated herself by her efforts, liberating Europe by her example. Or, in a less happy parallel from the past, the spirit of the Southern Confederacy.
I can put it no more strongly than this: if Brexit is defined as the destruction of European unity, it will fail.