A lightly edited version of the letter I posted yesterday to my MP Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary. Like Theresa May and Philip Hammond, he was a Remain supporter who seamlessly switched sides after the referendum.
Dear Sir Michael,
Now that parliament has voted for Article 50 to be invoked and the Prime Minister is composing her letter to Donald Tusk, I am writing to you to set out my views on the Government’s White Paper on Brexit. I have also watched very carefully Sir Ivan Rogers’ testimony to the Commons Brexit committee.
I have never felt so angry, disillusioned and alienated from the government of my country, which no longer represents me. I feel the UK is now being steered towards a cliff edge by a xenophobic coalition of Nigel Farage, Norman Tebbit and the Daily Mail. Your party may heap scorn on UKIP, but you cannot deny that you have now fully embraced their agenda.
My conviction that leaving the EU will be a political and economic disaster has only strengthened in the nine months since the referendum. This was not a victory for popular democracy, but an act of self-inflicted damage on the UK by the Conservatives, motivated solely by considerations of internal party management.
When I spent a year writing a book in 2000-2001 on Blair’s first-term constitutional reforms I was struck by the general ignorance and muddled thinking at Westminster on the subject, particularly in the two major parties. Since the late 1990s this seems to have got worse.
The confusion in government thinking is well illustrated by the following passage in the White Paper, which is legally and politically illiterate:
The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.
To whom, may I ask, has it ‘not felt like that’? John Redwood, perhaps? Paul Dacre? It is not the EU that has undermined the sovereignty of parliament, but the referendum, which was defined in legislation as non-binding. It was called in casual fashion without any serious thought to how it might undermine the sovereignty of parliament, which is supposed to be the guiding principle of our ramshackle constitution. The UK is supposed to be a representative parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary democracy. I do not, like Ken Clarke, regard referendums as completely out of place in a parliamentary system, but June 23 illustrated the pitfalls of not having a written constitution setting out minimum requirements for major constitutional changes, such as the need for a super-majority rather than just a 50% majority. The result of David Cameron’s improvisation on the back of an envelope is a constitutional mess. We now have the sorry spectacle of MPs abandoning their better judgment and supporting Brexit out of fear of being seen to oppose the ‘will of the people’, a concept that appears nowhere in any constitutional document. David Davis has told the House of Commons that in 2019 its role in Brexit will be that of a rubber stamp, not a legislature. We see a government fighting tooth and nail on spurious grounds to deny any future role for a supposedly sovereign parliament in determining the final outcome of negotiations with the EU 27. Are we living in Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey?
In four decades as a political journalist, I cannot recall reading any document as delusional as the Brexit White Paper. Very few of its woolly aspirations are achievable. Despite several months of work, it displays a disturbing ignorance in No. 10 of how the EU works and a total failure to anticipate the likely negotiating priorities of the other side. The defenestration of Sir Ivan Rogers for attempting to tell uncomfortable truths to the government was a disgrace. Sooner, rather than later, the Tinkerbell strategy of having our cake and eat it will swiftly fall apart in the face of reality. The government seems to think the EU can with a stroke of the pen replicate our current open trading arrangements with the EU as a ‘third country’ while we reject any role for the European Court of Justice and quit the customs union and the single market. The outcome of this wishful thinking is likely to be a car crash in which we exit the EU with no deal at all. That will be welcomed only by the hardline minority of anti-Europeans who are now controlling Conservative policy. It will make us all poorer.
The White Paper opens with the Prime Minister’s utterly delusional statement that the country is ‘coming together’ and that Brexit now has the support of 65 million people.
The referendum was divisive at times. And those divisions have taken time to heal. But one of the reasons that Britain’s democracy has been such a success for so many years is that the strength of our identity as one nation, the respect we show to one another as fellow citizens, and the importance we attach to our institutions means that when a vote has been held we all respect the result. The victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously.
The losers have the responsibility to respect the legitimacy of the outcome. And the country comes together.
This is complete nonsense. Theresa May is in the position Mikhail Gorbachev was in after winning a referendum on keeping the Soviet Union together in March 1991. The meaning of any referendum is time-limited. As you no doubt remember, the Soviet Union, despite Gorbachev’s referendum win, had ceased to exist by the end of 1991. I and 16 million others voted for the UK to remain in the EU and nothing has happened to change our views, which have been treated with total contempt by the government. There has not been a single conciliatory gesture towards the Remain camp, which has simply been told to shut up and had its patriotism questioned. Far from the country coming together, I sense that public opinion is increasingly uneasy about the course the government is taking and will shift further in the next few months if the economy weakens and it becomes clear what damage leaving the single market and the customs union will inflict, particularly to the highly mobile financial sector and the car industry. Brexit will dig a hole in the public finances and lead to more austerity. The idea that a ‘good deal’ on future trade is achievable within two years is a fantasy. The idea that we should walk away from the EU with no deal at all and rely on new trade agreements with the USA and other countries under WTO rules is even more of a fantasy. The plan floated by Boris Johnson that the UK should emulate Margaret Thatcher at the 1984 Fontainebleau summit and and ‘ask for our money back’ as an opening gambit is absurd. I was present at Fontainebleau, covering that meeting as Reuters Paris bureau chief. The majority of EC states had good reasons for accepting a difficult compromise with Thatcher over the UK rebate. The situation now is completely different, and the EU 27 have no reason to show any flexibility over the Brexit bill to be paid by the UK. They will have the upper hand in these negotiations, not the UK, and will insist the outline exit terms are agreed prior to any negotiations on the future relationship.
The basic contradiction in the government’s strategy is that it cannot reconcile the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ open to free trade with the backward-looking protectionist priority of controlling EU immigration, which formed the basis of the victory for the ‘Out’ campaign. Keeping as many ‘foreigners’ out of the UK as possible is economically illiterate as a policy objective. Globalisation implies free movement of labour, along with capital and goods, as the government will discover when it tries to negotiate agreements with India and Australia, to name but two. Free movement and immigration from the EU have been of huge benefit to the UK economy. ‘Taking back control’ means more regulation and more bureaucracy. To anyone who believes in a liberal free trade regime and the UK being ‘open for business’, it makes no economic sense. I look forward with interest to see how the Home Office will manage the visa and residence system not just for millions existing EU residents but for those hoping to come here in the future, skilled and unskilled. The latter will be needed to pick our vegetables in East Anglia, as at present, and to serve coffee in Prêt à Manger. But the government has backed itself into a position with its immigration targets in which every ‘foreigner’ who remains here or arrives, even a student, is a policy defeat and each one who is forced to go home is a policy success. Applying this daft policy to Italians, French, Germans and Poles makes as little sense as applying it to the Irish, who will still have free movement.
I regard EU citizens not as ‘foreigners’ or immigrants whose presence is by definition undesirable. They are my fellow citizens and I want it to stay that way. But we now to have a prime minister whose hostile attitude extends not just to EU citizens but even to refugee children in the direst circumstances. If Theresa May had been in charge of the Home Office in 1939, there would have been no Kindertransport. The children would have died with their parents. I feel ashamed to live in a country whose head of government understands so little about the history of international human rights law that she would like to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights. The proclaimed open, welcoming and tolerant nature of the UK has already been undermined since the referendum by a rise in open hostility to EU citizens, many of whom are already deciding that their professional future no longer lies in the UK.
As a former foreign correspondent it pains me to see the marginalisation of the UK, which used to be a leader in European foreign policy. This decline has been largely the fault of David Cameron, who will be viewed by historians as the most inept prime minister in foreign affairs since Chamberlain. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and even Gordon Brown exerted a lot of influence in Europe. As an example, you will recall Major’s achievement in protecting the Kurds in the aftermath of the first Iraq war. By contrast, in the recent crisis over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the UK should have had a front line role as one of the powers that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons. But the Minsk agreement has been left to France and Germany, with the UK having no involvement.
Brexit will further marginalise the UK, and at best leave it in the position of Canada as a friendly but distant country outside the European family. A prominent UK role in NATO will not compensate for the damage already done by Brexit to the UK’s credibility as a reliable partner in Europe. The government may well be correct in arguing for the primacy of NATO over plans for EU military integration and planning. But by leaving the EU it has deprived itself of a seat at the table where these issues will be decided, and made the development of an EU alternative to NATO defence more likely.
The UK’s perceived closeness to the Trump administration already puts it at odds with mainstream European opinion on many issues. I find it shameful that the only European politician who fully approves of Theresa May’s policies is Marine Le Pen. I can’t help wondering if the admiration is quietly reciprocated. If, as Sir Christopher Meyer has suggested, the real nightmare for the UK is an EU led by Emmanuel Macron in Paris and Martin Schulz in Germany, what does that say about the UK and its values?
Brexit brings big risks to the integrity of the UK, which the White Paper tries to address but fails. I have no personal objection to the idea of Scottish independence, nor to the eventual prospect of a united Ireland, but the prime minister will no doubt want to avoid following in the footsteps of Gorbachev and presiding over the breakup of the United Kingdom. All the arguments she has advanced against a second independence referendum in Scotland – ‘Tunnel vision, uncertainty and division’ -- can just as well be levelled at her own policies on Brexit. The poker game between the prime minister and Nicola Sturgeon over a second Scottish independence referendum has now started, and my judgment is that Sturgeon, as the more flexible and tactically skilled politician, will inevitably come out on top.
I am confident that by 2019 the delusional vision the White Paper presents of a happy post-Brexit future will have been shattered by a dose of reality. I cannot predict what will happen in the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, but I am sure events in the coming two years will drive a big change in public opinion in favour of remaining in the EU. I would bet on a 60/40 majority for Remain by the spring of 2019. The case for another referendum may look far-fetched at the moment, but it is not going to go away, and it will gather in strength as the implications of a ‘clean’ Brexit become clear. A narrow majority of voters may have supported Leave, but many of them did so because they were lied to. Those lies are going to be exposed. The first referendum on Brexit was a victory for ignorance and intolerance. I expect the second to be a victory for common sense, once the message sinks in that every parliament in the EU will have a meaningful vote on the outcome except our own. A second Brexit referendum, perhaps in exchange for Scotland withdrawing its independence referendum, may be the easiest escape route for the government in the face of impending disaster.
As you have pragmatically changed your mind on Brexit once already, I am sure you will have no difficulty as a common sense politician in changing it again and arguing that circumstances have changed, and the best outcome will be for the UK to withdraw its Article 50 notification and remain in the EU.
John Morrison (aka ‘an enemy of the people’)