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.
It’s the tetchiness that’s so odd: the frenzied language, the talk of “catastrophe” and “betrayal”, the blackguarding of opponents. Twenty-six months after the referendum, why is everyone still so bloody angry?
I get why Remainers were initially cross. The result must have come as a shock and, in its aftermath, there was too little effort to reach out to what was, after all, nearly half the electorate. But I’d never have predicted that, more than two years on, people would be actively hoping for bad economic news, egging on Brussels to toughen its position, gleefully predicting an embargo – including the denial of flight landing slots – beyond anything the EU would impose against Russia or Iran.
Even harder to explain is the grumpiness of many of my fellow Leavers. We won, for Heaven’s sake. Whatever happens next, EU laws will no longer have precedence over our own. We shall again get to decide our agriculture, fisheries, immigration, taxation, regional policy and the rest. Yet people continue to rage about treachery and defeat and national humiliation as though nothing had changed. For decades, we Eurosceptics, in Galadriel’s haunting phrase, “fought the long defeat”; it has apparently made some of us unable to accept victory.
Let me make an observation that, were it not for the current fevered mood, might seem obvious. Every potential outcome has some drawbacks. Chequers has drawbacks, the EEA has drawbacks, leaving with no deal has drawbacks – just as staying in the EU would have drawbacks. I believe that the first three options are all better than the fourth, but none of them is perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist in politics.
It is right to discuss which option would bring the greatest benefits and the fewest disadvantages. But the really benign change has already happened. The European Communities Act has been repealed. The next general election will be the first since June 1970 that returns a wholly sovereign Parliament.
Next to that epochal victory, everything else is detail. I don’t say that everything else is unimportant. The degree to which we align our specifications with our trading partners’, the terms on which EU nationals can take up jobs here, the European programmes we continue to support, the extent to which UK and EU regulators recognise each other’s standards – all these things matter. But they are primarily questions of procedure rather than principle. The decision of principle was made when we voted to recover our independence.
So why are people seizing on rules of origin and customs mechanisms as life-and-death battles? Why do MPs who, two years ago, couldn’t have told you what Euratom did, or how equivalence in financial regulation differed from passporting, now regard these things as tests of their patriotism? Why is every clod of mud contested like some piece of No-Man’s-Land in 1916?
“Morality binds and blinds”, the brilliant psychologist Jonathan Haidt teaches us – it binds us to “our” team, and blinds us both to our side’s faults and the other’s virtues. In the aftermath of the 2016 poll, ideas that would otherwise have been wholly uncontroversial were automatically rejected because they emanated from the other side. Tribalism replaced empiricism. Instead of assessing new proposals on their merits, people on both sides began to virtue-signal to their own teams by taking up harder and harder positions.
Plainly, the Chequers proposal has flaws, as even its lonely supporters admit. Their argument is not that it is a perfect arrangement, simply that it’s the best way to square the referendum result with the numbers in Parliament while getting a decent deal for Britain. But, in the current absolutist mood, no one wants to listen to a “faute de mieux” argument.
Precisely the same is true of the EEA proposal eloquently put forward on this page by George Trefgarne on Tuesday. George is emphatically not claiming that the EEA is perfect. All he is arguing is that, given the other options, it is the best way to ease our transition to a better long-term future.
Now it’s legitimate to argue that, on balance, leaving with no deal is better than either of these options. As I have written on this site, the costs of a complete rupture have been absurdly exaggerated. But, whatever view you take, the question is fairly technical. Does regulatory autonomy in physical goods outweigh preferential exports to the EU? That should be an issue that is primarily of interest to trade specialists, not one to be fought over as if the soul of Britain were at stake.
For the avoidance of doubt, I want there to be a deal. I argued before, during and after the campaign for a Swiss-style arrangement (to the evident confusion of many Remainers, who keep quoting my articles and interviews as evidence that I have either lied or changed my view). Again, people might prefer a different option. Fine. They might argue that the moment has passed for a Swiss deal. Fine. But to dismiss EFTA as “not really leaving” is preposterous. EFTA – whether in its Swiss or Norwegian variations – would represent a return to the status quo ante. It was the outcome favoured by Hugh Gaitskell, Enoch Powell, Peter Shore, Teddy Taylor and the other Eurosceptic Long Marchers. It was supported for years by UKIP. The only occasion during the campaign when I shared a platform with Nigel Farage, he went further than I have ever done in singing the praises of the EEA (“Wouldn’t it be awful to be like Norway? Wouldn’t it be awful to be rich?” Etc etc.)
What has changed? A Tory MP friend, a Remainer, offers me a grim explanation. “In every revolution, the original leaders are trampled over by the hardliners who came late to the party. Read Hillary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. It’s all in there.”
Mantel’s book is a lengthy, semi-fictionalised account of the French Revolution, told through the lives of Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre – three revolutionaries who end up being guillotined. My MP friend undeniably has a point about the authors of revolutions. Michael Collins ended up with a bullet in his head in County Cork. Alexander Kerensky had to flee Petrograd in a Renault borrowed from the American embassy.
But is Brexit truly a revolution? Is that honestly the best way to describe a return to the system that prevailed, certainly before 1973, and arguably up to the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993? Objectively, Brexit should simply mean a gradual reorientation of our trade back to its natural global patterns; a stepping aside while our neighbours deepen their political integration. But there is no denying it: the present heated rhetoric makes it seem much more like a revolution than a restoration.
So let me, once again, make a few statements that might, in calmer times, seem obvious. First, it is better to have friendly relations with our neighbours than not to. Second, a 52-48 vote is a mandate for an orderly and phased recovery of powers, not for a total rupture. Third, accepting some common standards for reasons of economy of scale, especially when those standards are largely set at global level, is not a betrayal of anything. Fourth, EFTA countries are not in the EU. Fifth, ending the direct effect of EU law in this country will set Britain on a different trajectory: that is the big win, almost regardless of what else happens. The only way to reverse it would be to reverse Brexit altogether – a danger that has to be acknowledged.
It may be, of course, that the EU won’t accept any proposal for an amicable withdrawal. There are plainly some officials in Brussels (though fewer in the 27 capitals) who would rather see all sides suffer than watch a post-EU Britain succeed. If the EU insists on offering Carthaginian terms, we shall have no option but to leave without a deal; that possibility shouldn’t scare us.
But the idea that we should want a deep friendship with our closest neighbours ought to be utterly uncontroversial. How sad that that needs saying. Come: a little more British phlegm from all sides, please.