Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
“What do you read, My Lord?”
“Words, words, words”.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about words. Words can inspire or quell. Words can convince people to desist from one course of action and begin a different one. Words can lift a nation’s temper. When people tell me, “You politicians are all talk”, I respond that there is no dishonour in talking: talk is what elevates and ennobles our species.
Much of the criticism of Boris Johnson’s uplifting speech, proposing a liberal and internationalist Brexit, has taken a huffy form. It’s just words, say his detractors. He can talk all he wants about global engagement and compromise and meeting the concerns of Remainers. But if we’re leaving the single market and the customs union, what are his words worth?
Well, words set the mood. The most irreconcilable opponents of Brexit tend to be those who see it as a Kulturkampf, a clash of values. The people whose chief worries were about short-term dislocation (a not unreasonable concern) have, by and large, accepted the outcome, not least because the economic contraction that the Treasury said would happen immediately after we voted Leave failed to materialise.
There are other Remainers, though, generally younger and more engaged if less numerous, for whom the referendum was primarily about identity. They believe that the Leave vote has made Britain insular, nostalgic, chauvinist. It’s not exactly that they see EU membership as a talisman against xenophobia: they don’t, by and large, argue that Norway or New Zealand are intolerant by virtue of being independent states. It’s something more inchoate than that – a sense that Brexit is, as our wordsmith Foreign Secretary puts it, “a giant V-sign from the cliffs of Dover”.
It is Johnson’s duty to soothe these concerns. He was the public face of Vote Leave and, in that curiously snobbish form that British politics sometimes takes, has become a particular hate-figure for those Remainers who see him as a class traitor. It’s easier, for at least some Europhiles, to overlook the concerns of UKIPers, whom they dismiss as dupes led astray by demagogues. But Johnson, they feel, should have been one of them. Clever, multi-lingual and partly educated in Brussels, he has throughout his career defended the principle of controlled immigration. He agonised, publicly and privately, about which way to go, finally deciding only when the utter poverty of the renegotiation made clear that the EU was not prepared to reform. His Euroscepticism, precisely because it is open and internationalist, affronts those who want to explain away the vote as being all about immigration.
Johnson cannot, in conscience, leave the field. He made the case for a liberal Brexit during the campaign, and he is right to repeat it now. Not just because the 48 per cent ought to be listened to, but also because the constant portrayal of Brexit as inward-looking and bigoted is in danger of catching on internationally. European newspapers habitually pick up and exaggerate stories about rising intolerance in Britain – stories which usually turn out to be nonsense. More than one of my MEP colleagues, for example, blamed the tragic death of Arek Jozwik in Harlow after the vote on Brexit. When it eventually emerged that there was no Brexit connection, and that the only xenophobic element in the case had been the other way around – racist comments coming from Jozwik and his companion – no-one noticed.
Several overseas media, taking their cue from the FT, have got it into their heads that the only reason anyone voted Leave was immigration, and that the Leave campaign was somehow run by Nigel Farage. The New York Times has become demented on the subject, running almost weekly columns about the meaner, narrower nation we have supposedly become.
Johnson is our Foreign Secretary. It is his job to correct these misapprehensions. The truth is that, on almost every metric, Britain is among the most tolerant countries in Europe. Far from ushering in “Nigel Farage’s Britain”, as David Cameron predicted during the campaign, Brexit prompted the collapse of UKIP. There is now no significant populist anti-immigration party in the UK – something that cannot be said of most EU states.
I have argued since the day of the referendum – literally – for moderation and compromise. The two sides are not nearly as far apart as is often suggested, even on the subject of immigration. As Sunder Katwala of British Future has shown, most Leavers and most Remainers are in favour of skilled workers and students coming to the UK, and most Leavers and most Remainers want controls over unskilled immigration. It shouldn’t be beyond us to construct a policy that accommodates the concerns of both sides.
It’s fair to say that this hasn’t always happened. In the days following the vote, we saw some unfortunate over-compensation by ministers who had voted Remain, including a wince-making proposal to make companies list their foreign workers. Even now, there is a strange reluctance to remove students from the immigration figures. Johnson is right to remind us that legal immigration makes Britain richer.
Compromise means finding a solution that everyone can live with, which is not always the same thing as finding a middle way. As Lord Hill, our former Commissioner, put it, the reason he voted Remain was because he didn’t want Britain to follow rules it had had no say in setting, and, now that we were leaving, that logic applied even more strongly. Allowing the EU to dictate our trading relationships while having no say over those relationships would not be a compromise; it would be an absurdity. A good test of whether someone wants a moderate Brexit or whether they just want to lash out is whether they accept that logic.
Johnson has a vast personality and a fine way with words. A Tigger among Eeyores, he approaches Brexit in a spirit of boldness rather than of clingy timidity. There are opportunities to be grasped, but only once we stop trying to salvage every bit of the existing deal.
You know what really is introverted and backward-looking? The dreich prospect of yet another referendum campaign. Let’s raise our eyes. There’s a whole world out there.