We opened the year by asking in our first ToryDiary of 2019: will this be the year in which the British people come to heel?
The phrase was John Kerr’s. He is a former Ambassador to the EU; the author by his own account of Article 50 and (inevitably) a member of the House of Lords. He liked the phrase so much that he used it in debates in the chamber twice. Here is it is in its full unvarnished glory. “We will huff and puff but, in the end, we will basically come to heel,” he said.
It is worth reflecting as the year closes as in what respects he was right and in what wrong.
Lord Kerr said that there would be no No Deal Brexit; that there would be agreement on money and on EU citizens as confirmed in Theresa May’s deal; and that there would be a transition phrase. On all this he was correct.
He did not anticipate that the Commons would throw out the deal three times. Nor that the UK would have the freedom, when a revised agreement came, to conduct its own trade deals. “Mr Fox will say that he wants to be free to undercut the common commercial policy—but the other side will say that we cannot cherry pick,” he told the Lords.
This turned out to be mistaken. The United Kingdom is leaving the Customs Union. Northern Ireland and Great Britain alike will no longer be bound by the Common Commercial Policy, and thus able to benefit alike from trade deals with non-EU countries. (The matter of trade barriers between the two parts of the United Kingdom is separate-but-related.)
It was in this context that Lord Kerr used the term “come to heel”. He went on to say that the transition period, and any future trade deal, would not be as good as EU membership. In our view this confused trading arrangements with political ones, but there you go. He has his take and we have ours.
Where Lord Kerr was undoubtedly wide of the mark was to suggest that, confronted by the prospect of Brexit, the Government might decide that the game wasn’t worth the candle. “Maybe we will stop and think whether it all makes sense,” he said. [Our italics.] “At at least we can remember that an Article 50 notification can always be withdrawn.”
The we here was plainly not the British people. How could it be when Theresa May was Prime Minister, when Lord Kerr anticipated that her deal would prevail (plus Customs Union membership, in effect), and that no general election would (therefore) follow? No, by we Lord Kerr plainly meant Ministers, MPs, peers, civil servants: the formal and informal apparatus of the state.
This site apologises for banging on – as we Eurosceptics tend to do – about a single peer. But we believe that, on this last day of 2019, the question we asked about his words is worth revisiting. Lord Kerr had forgotten all about the British people. Or, if he had remembered them, he gave no sign of it.
For in the end, it wasn’t Ministers who decided to Get Brexit Done. Boris Johnson couldn’t, because Parliament wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t MPs, because they wouldn’t back his deal in sufficient number or force. In which they had the support of a big slice of the civil service, diplomats, BBC editors, the Financial Times, the SNP, Channel 4, much of the judiciary, the pro-revoke Liberal Democrats, the People’s Vote campaign, Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve, Tony Blair, Gina Miller, the bloke in the kimono with the baseball bat, and the shambolically divided Labour Party.
No, what decided to Get Brexit Done was the all-but-forgotten voters themselves. In 2016, they plumped for Leave in record numbers in a referendum, in the biggest vote ever given to anything or anyone in this country. A year later, they did so for a second time, with over 80 per cent supporting parties pledged in their manifestos to deliver Brexit. And this month, they backed Brexit for a third time, giving Johnson a near-landslide majority of 80 seats.
This was the real we – those that Lord Kerr had failed to remember; or put aside as of little importance; or assumed would simply know their place by also “coming to heel” in due course. The British people.
As we put it on January 1: “into those mere three words [“come to heel”] is packed a universe of assumptions: about the supposed inevitability of Britain remaining in the EU – despite the British people deciding otherwise, in the biggest popular vote in our history; about the relationship between rulers and ruled; about the omniscience of an ascendancy class that crosses national boundaries, and so can’t be held accountable at all.”
We wish Lord Kerr a very happy 2020. And hope that he doesn’t mind us adding that 2019 was the year in which he was forced to come to heel. And the rest of the Remainer Ascendancy with him. When he and they whistled, the voters turned the Nelsonian equivalent of a deaf ear. When they whistled in turn, they and he were dragged helplessly along by the command of a democratic vote.
Which is as it should be. The sooner he and they come to terms with it, the better for the rest of us. And for them too, by the way.