Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.
During the twelve days of Christmas, people like to play games in order to pass the time. One such game this year, for those of a political inclination, might be to guess how the original Brexiteers of the 1970s – especially John Biffen, Richard Body, Ronald Bell, Neil Martin, Enoch Powell and Derek Walker-Smith – would have reacted to Boris Johnson’s deal, were they alive today.
Would they have supported it, or preferred to leave without one? Since Powell’s writings and speeches on the subject are more extensive than the others, perhaps he is best placed to speak for them all. But he has no claim to originality or primacy.
Powell was later to the party than some of those listed above, and for a specific economic reason. As he readily conceded: “I had entered Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet only six months before the veto fell; but I am prepared to confess that in those days I used to argue the case, and answer objections, on purely commercial grounds.”
Indeed, he admitted in 1965 that he was worried by the thought of Britain being “excluded” from “her fastest growing market”. This was not a fear shared by, for example, Walker-Smith, who identified the political implications of membership far sooner than Powell. But then, as now, exclusion from the European market was one of the greatest anxieties of those who felt that Britain’s economic future would be bleak outside. As Alec Douglas-Home put it in 1967: “where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”
While Powell was always a fervent free trader (although less so as he grew older and more immersed in Ulster politics) he was slower than the earliest Brexiteers to acknowledge the distinction between a customs union – a Zollverein – and a Free Trade area. As his understanding of this discrepancy grew, so did his support for entry diminish.
Broadly, his free trading instincts were impeccable, albeit defined in their purest form which seem somewhat remote from the provisions of even the freest trade deal today. He never seemed especially exercised over so-called non-tariff barriers, which are now cited as one of the biggest potential weaknesses of the new arrangements.
Ironically, it is today’s criticisms of the deal which make it more probable that Powell would have welcomed it. Europe’s move towards a Single Market and the reforms of 1992 ended for Powell any pretence that free trade in his understanding of the term had any similarity with the Customs Union enshrined by the European Community.
As he eventually recognised, “The Community is not about free trade; the Community is about perfect internal competition – which is something essentially different. It is also about common restriction of external trade. There is no such thing as perfect internal competition and common external trade regulation between free nations.”
For this reason, he would have rejected as false the premise that leaving the Single Market is equivalent to reducing the scope of free trade. He didn’t think we had it anyway, although how he would have answered specific objections over additional administrative expenses and red-tape provoked by new non-tariff restrictions is unclear from his speeches.
Of one thing, however, we can be confident. He would not have called for a ‘tit-for-tat’ response against the EU’s invisible barriers to trade. He distinguished between revenue and protective duties, having no objection to the former but rejecting the need for the latter – because he believed that “one of the beauties of free trade is that it is a ‘a-political’: you do not have to browbeat or overrule anybody else in order to enjoy its blessings for yourself. It is a game at which, like Patience, one can play”.
He would have argued that EU barriers against UK businesses would in the end hurt them more than us, provided we didn’t reciprocate. In the end, what some perceive as the greatest dangers of the new arrangements are what would have made them acceptable to Powell and most of his fellow Brexiteers of the past.
But of course, for Powell, these points would have been peripheral to what really matters, encapsulated in his assertion that “a political nation which cannot tax itself or make its own laws is a contradiction in terms.” What would have made this Agreement acceptable to him is that it has succeeded, for the first time, in recovering powers which some thought had been lost permanently.
That does not mean that Great Britain is free from all international constraints. There was an occasion in 1966 when Powell severely criticised the Labour Government for imposing “illegal” import surcharges “which damaged our EFTA partners and severely shook confidence in Britain’s word and in the seriousness of her desire to enter into closer ties with Europe.” He did not regard international trade agreements as inconsistent with sovereignty, provided Parliament had the right to scrutinise and reject them – but not to unilaterally renege from them, once signed and ratified. That was another reason why Powell was so opposed Britain’s entry into the European Union – the longer that one was in and ‘absorbed’, the harder and more impractical it became to consider withdrawal.
But it has happened. Something which the original Brexiteers warned was virtually impossible before entry, but which they demanded once EU membership was a fait accompli, has been achieved. We have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – a massive recovery of sovereignty. We are free of the risks of further political integration in the EU which were ever present so long as we remained a member.
While we may still be affected by the Euro’s vulnerability, we are at least spared the legal obligation to recuse it or those it damages. We have recovered the right to negotiate our own international trade deals. We may not have yet fully recovered our ability to deregulate and compete fiscally with Europe, but the fact that financial services fall outside the deal may make it possible for the UK to do just that in what is the most important section of our economy.
Talk of ‘free ports’ and the like suggest an economic direction entirely in accordance with free market principles – but which could equally be reversed should the British people choose a government with different priorities and beliefs. This safeguard was, too, a fundamental belief in the recovery of sovereignty.
If Powell and his fellow Brexiteers were around now, perhaps they would have preferred leaving without a deal – especially if David Cameron had permitted Whitehall to prepare for Brexit in advance of the referendum, thus avoiding the consequent delay and enabling a new relationship to be formed before a pandemic struck.
But the fact is that Powell once accepted the case for entry on the grounds that exclusion from the European customs union was a danger. He supported EFTA and other such trade agreements, even though they carried obligations and restraints upon domestic policy. Given what this deal’ has recovered politically, it is doubtful whether he would have allowed its weaknesses to dissuade him from believing that, finally, the ratchet has been turned back, and Britain is once again a sovereign nation. He would have supported the deal with a clear conscience.