Looking at the full story of Brexit, in the longer sweep of modern history, there are two really important achievements which made it possible. And, perhaps unusually, they operated in tension with one another.
The first is the simple fact of the survival of the Eurosceptic or anti-EU movement at all. The fact that the movement which lost the 1975 referendum so heavily, which was rebuffed so resoundingly in the 1983 election, and which stood every chance of dwindling away to nothing actually kept going for all those years is itself quite remarkable.
For a long time, there were more bleak years than warm days. The mid-1980s saw the Eurosceptic left in full retreat, both inside and outside the Labour Party, while Margaret Thatcher, the dominant force on the right, pushed on with the ambition of cementing market principles at a European level.
In 1988, Jacques Delors pulled off the feat of flipping the trade union movement from a Eurosceptic to a pro-integration position, essentially by holding out the prospect that a federal EU could entrench left-wing policies just as easily as it could embed the competitive ideas which Thatcher advocated. Here was a way to bypass the difficulty Labour faced in actually winning elections.
The rise of Blairism brought with it EU-enthusiasm as an article of faith for anyone who considered themselves ambitious and modern in a Labour Party which was extremely keen to reject the errors – and defeats – of the past.
Things weren’t much better on the Conservative side. Through the disastrous Major years, the institutions of the Conservative Party in particular developed an ingrained dislike of Eurosceptics – “the bastards” had caused endless trouble over Maastricht, supposedly accompanied by “the flapping of white coats” – and there was a concerted effort to follow Labour in equating opposition to the EU with division and unpopularity.
David Cameron uttered his complaint about Tories “banging on about Europe” in 2006, in his first conference speech as leader, but he was expressing a frustration picked up in the 1990s. On both sides of politics, the anti-EU position was associated with defeat and navel-gazing; the prevailing cultures and dominant institutions in both main parties actively worked to prevent people who espoused that view from getting elected.
These were the background conditions that produced the extraordinary situation that Philip Davies recounted yesterday: in 2005, he found himself elected to a Parliament in which there were no MPs publicly saying the UK should leave the EU.
The wilderness years
How did the idea itself live on through those hostile conditions? A core of activists, donors and politicians kept it alive, on life support, perhaps, but alive nonetheless, through dogged persistence. Some of the organisations founded before the UK’s entry to the Common Market fought on after the 1975 referendum – the Campaign for an Independent Britain (CIB), the Anti Common Market League, Labour Euro-Safeguards – despite a dwindling hearing in Westminster.
They held speaker meetings, and ran newsletters, and wrote to the papers, sold merchandise and organised raffles to keep themselves going and keep their cause alive. While the flare-ups of new-found Euroscepticism in countries like Denmark and France tended to be young, and media-friendly, the UK’s longer history of opposition inevitably made for a more aged movement, a scourge which affects organisations as much as individuals.
Their persistence required a sense of humour as well as determination. I remember visiting a branch of one such organisation as a guest speaker some time at the tail end of Tony Blair’s premiership, to find that the meeting would be recorded – not as a podcast, as it might be now, or for YouTube, but on a gigantic two-reel tape recorder which looked older than me. I was warned in advance that a chap in the front row would signal if the tape needed switching, at which point they would greatly appreciate it if I could pause mid-speech to wait for them to change the reels. They sold copies of the audio tapes to members, to support their next leaflet drop. (I could fill a column with similar anecdotes; for now I simply refer readers to the words “Godfrey Bloom stamped on my face”.)
Being anti-EU wasn’t cool, or something anyone did to get ahead in their career. It was easy for shiny Blairites, and equally polished Cameroons, to mock the Eurosceptics and take their unfashionability as confirmation that they were wrong.
Easy, but mistaken; because they had another powerful asset to sustain them in addition to a stubborn refusal to give up. The EU kept proving its critics right, and rallying people to the Eurosceptic cause. The sacrifice of democratic control involved in the Maastricht Treaty alarmed many people; the obvious risks of a Single Currency reached millions more; the insistence that referendums be repeated if they didn’t go the ‘right’ way began to rankle, and the lesson became obvious over time that this was a ratchet, operating inexorably in only one direction.
That process kept the original activists motivated, provided a growing source of new recruits, and also drove the creation of new organisations. Outfits sprang up like the Bruges Group, an expression of Thatcherite disenchantment with the European project; the Referendum Party, Jimmy Goldsmith’s timely effort to save the pound; and the UK Independence Party, originally the Anti-Federalist League. The emergence of new political parties was a symptom of the hostile environment facing Eurosceptics in Labour and the Conservatives.
For those inside the main parties, it seemed to be a confirmation that this was now a fringe interest. But the fact that these new competitors were capable of winning election-changing numbers of votes should have inspired at least a little reflection. The Referendum Party was sufficient threat in 1997 that it secured referendum pledges from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, while UKIP won its first MEP seats in 1999. They had an audience.
If the first achievement which served as a pre-condition for Brexit was the survival of the Eurosceptic idea through the long wilderness years, then the second achievement was just as hard-won: the development and implementation of a route back from that wilderness to the mainstream and then on to victory at the ballot box.
Survival was itself a victory, but by the turn of the millennium it was reasonable to wonder which victories anti-EU campaigners had actually won. The threat of the Euro had been forestalled, but beyond that the previous 25 years had largely been a story of rearguard actions and defeat. In every strand of Euroscepticism, some people began to grow impatient, and wonder if it was possible to grow beyond the accustomed tactics and functions which had sustained their campaign so far.
Nigel Farage was one symptom of that impatience; UKIP’s rising star experimented, essentially in public, with new ways to communicate his message and to campaign. Dominic Cummings, too, was studying and trying out new approaches, first as campaign director of Business for Sterling, intended to be the No campaign in a possible referendum on the Euro, and then in the North East Regional Assembly referendum. Similarly, the centre right’s new media outlets in the age of the blogosphere – sites like ConservativeHome, Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale’s Diary – also came with a more Eurosceptic tone than the more establishment voices they were disrupting.
The disruption applied to the existing culture of Euroscepticism, too. The experiments of Farage, Cummings and others were starting to show potential, but they produced some challenging conclusions about what was necessary in order to win.
Within UKIP, a debate raged about how far to professionalise; while they cultivated an image of happy-go-lucky relaxation about gaffes, Farage also developed a steely (and sometimes brittle) intolerance of people he saw as playing at politics to the expense of the end goal. When he finally felt free to speak his mind without restraint, he famously described UKIP’s NEC as “total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksack”, and carefully designed the Brexit Party not to feature any such encumbrances on his decision-making.
More broadly, the question was what was the best strategy and message to advance the anti-EU position?
The tight-knit subculture which had developed in the wilderness years had its own language and hobby horses. The problem was, they were of limited appeal beyond those who already agreed.
I remember sitting in on focus groups run by James Frayne, over a decade ago, in which he asked potential swing voters to discuss and define the word ‘sovereignty’. They all agreed they liked sovereignty, and wanted to defend it. They also, almost universally, defined it as referring to the Royal family and the existence of the monarchy.
That was the Eurosceptic challenge in microcosm. Sovereignty is at the heart of the anti-EU case, but the jargon, the terms guaranteed to fire up the base, were of no use – or, worse, were actively damaging – among those voters whose support would be needed if they were ever to win. Combine that with the inherently negative position of a movement formed in opposition to a project, and there was a clear need for a new message: a positive pitch, in terms that people understood and found convincing.
As Philip Davies kindly mentioned, that was the thinking which underpinned the Better Off Out campaign which he and I helped to co-found in 2006. Others, like Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, came to the same conclusion, as had Cummings and Matthew Elliott.
It wasn’t universally popular on their own side; they were asking people to give up the things they found fun to do, or which they’d always done, or which got them the easiest round of applause from the existing audience, and instead to challenge themselves to do what might actually work to win over the electorate. For some that was a perceived insult to their experience – something Vote Leave ran up against with some Conservative MPs in the referendum campaign. For others it was a weak compromise – the critique deployed by Leave.EU against people they felt were insufficiently robust. And most difficult of all, it was simply a change from what Eurosceptics had grown used to doing.
And yet, to their lasting credit, when the referendum came enough of them weighed up the opportunity to finally win, and bit the bullet. When it was presented to them, they recognised the effectiveness of the ultimate and decisive answer to that need for a positive, clear and convincing message which communicated the Eurosceptic case to the required mass audience: “Take back control”. So they did.