What cause for hope?
I have refrained thus far from commenting on the outcome of David Cameron’s pitiful re-upholstering of the status quo when it comes to our membership of the European Union.
Suffice it to say – for now – that it does not feel tremendously good to live in a country where the prime minister is actively engaged in manoeuvres to hoodwink, short-change and circumvent the people he is supposed to represent.
Oh, of course Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would have done the same thing, fudging the debate, spinning non-existent concessions into giant victories and generally taking us for fools. But history gave David Cameron the torch of liberty to stub out, and so most of my anger remains directed at the man who prances around falsely calling himself a conservative.
But more than any one single betrayal, what is most disheartening for Brexiteers is the constant drip-drip of defections, compromises and unfriendly fire coming from within the supposedly eurosceptic segment of the Westminster elite. I never thought for a moment that David Cameron was anything other than a fully paid-up europhile and an eager servant of Brussels; his treachery stings my sense of honour and democratic sensibilities, but it was in no way surprising. I had factored the government and the media unfairly tilting the scales from the start – their antics do not wound.
What does hurt are the smaller, incessant letdowns inflicted on our side since David Cameron won his unexpected majority last May and offered the referendum through gritted teeth. What hurts are all of the members of the Conservative eurosceptic aristocracy – people like Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, some (though not all) of whom I once respected – whose professed commitment to British sovereignty and self-determination has mysteriously gone AWOL now that eurosceptic words must be matched with deeds.
What hurts are the other high-profile eurosceptics – including some, like Nigel Farage, without whose courage and tenacity we would not be having this referendum in the first place – who it turns out had barely given a thought to how Brexit might actually happen, how it should best take place and what a post-Brexit Britain might look like in one, two, five, ten and twenty years’ time. And what hurts is when these unexpectedly ignorant people spread false platitudes and easily-debunked talking points among their large online followings.
Our only hope is that the majority of Britons have not yet fully tuned in to the debate. While we in the bubble and the Twittersphere feel every ebb and flow of online sentiment, there are many, many more who have not been paying attention and whose first main newsflash of the year will have consisted of David Cameron receiving an all-round roasting for failing to stand his ground in his negotiations with the EU. This may yet work in our favour.
This leads me to perhaps the most simultaneously cathartic and infuriating article yet written about David Cameron’s underwhelming “new deal” with the EU, by Allister Heath in the Telegraph.
Heath begins well enough:
It is at times like these that even people of a conservative disposition begin to rage against our establishment. We are all used to stitch-ups from the political class, but the closing of ranks around the European question is breathtaking in its scope and scale.
In five months’ time, we will be asked to make a historic decision about who governs us, and how; the outcome could be of far greater importance than most general elections. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation has failed to nudge the dial by even one millimetre, and it’s likely that at least 40 per cent of the public, more than voted Tory in May, will end up backing Brexit. It’s therefore still conceivable, just, that a majority will vote to leave, sending shockwaves around the world. And yet these people – millions and millions of them, and by all accounts a majority of Tory voters – have been almost completely abandoned by an establishment which now refuses to represent their views.
How can that be right? And how can it be good for our political institutions for such a large proportion of the electorate to feel ignored or even despised by those supposedly elected to represent them?
Indeed. It is bitterly ironic that at a time when Britain’s left wing finally have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader who (regardless of his electoral viability) makes them excited to get out of bed in the morning, conservatives are landed with an arrogant centrist who believes in nothing and quite probably laughs at their expense every time he disappoints them by tacking further to the supposed middle. And this betrayal is evident nowhere more so than on the subject of Europe, where the Tory leadership only rediscovered their respect for eurosceptics when the rise of UKIP in 2014/2015 raised the prospect of mass defections.
It was not good when a near-unanimous political consensus refused to talk about immigration and reflect the genuine concerns and fears of the British people – and this craven refusal to have an honest discussion with the British people led in no small part to the rise of UKIP. Nobody really says it, but it is not good when there is a cross-party consensus in favour of preserving the NHS in aspic rather than asking anew how best to deliver healthcare in the twenty-first century. That kind of lazy self-satisfaction leads us to crow about the fact that Britain is the best place in the world to die, while failing to question why we are not the best country if you actually want to recover from illness or injury. And it is not good when a stultifying political consensus conspires to keep Britain inside the European Union at any expense.
Heath goes on to make the not unreasonable point that the British establishment’s relative pragmatism might in fact handle Brexit rather well, ensuring that Britain remained open and tolerant where a similar seismic event taking place in (say) France could have far worse ramifications:
The establishment is wrong about the EU, but it’s not wrong about everything. Its interests and beliefs, by and large, are pro-globalisation, supportive of property rights and of the rule of law; its power and determination has helped ensure that we have stuck with these broad principles regardless of who has been in power. By the standards even of much of the developed world, it is astonishingly uncorrupt. Its instincts are far superior to those of many other ruling elites: the French equivalent, for example, is far more detached from reality, immeasurably more statist and doesn’t really grasp market economics.
If Britain were to vote to leave the EU, our establishment would make sure that we remained an island of economic liberalism, at least relatively speaking, and a safe haven for capital and talent; by contrast, France would embrace hard-Left economics and protectionism were it to leave.
Brexit is thus far less risky than its opponents would have us believe. We would remain fully engaged in trade and the international economy, even if treaties would change. Our elite’s power, its ability to absorb political change and its adaptability would ensure that it soon turned a Leave vote to its advantage, just as it always makes the most of all periods of intense change.
Again, no real argument here. Self-serving as all elites are by definition, the British establishment is far less insular than many others.
But here is where Heath loses (and infuriates) me. Having condemned the arrogant behaviour of David Cameron and his rootless Conservative Party, and railed against the establishment stitch-up currently in progress, Heath concludes:
As soon as we were to vote Leave, the establishment would go into overdrive to regain control of the changed reality. A new deal with the EU would be cobbled together; we would be given some sort of associate membership, a much looser relationship that allowed the EU to pretend to the outside world that it wasn’t disintegrating. The electorate would buy it in a second referendum: having showed who is really in charge, its anger would have been satiated. The EU would have no choice: its negotiating position is far weaker than we generally realise.
In the same way that the House of Lords is still full of barons, even though most of the aristocrats have left, or that the Church of England remains our established church, despite having become largely irrelevant, our relationship with the EU would have changed radically yet everything would still look the same when it came to trade or travel. Some hardcore Eurosceptics would be angry, but it would be a very British compromise. If we vote to leave, against the wishes of the establishment, we can surely count on it to pick up the pieces and help make the new order work.
Having displayed such seemingly strong eurosceptic credentials throughout the piece, why does Heath then pivot to making a plug for “associate membership” to be formally agreed in a second referendum? Why reintroduce these two half-baked ideas from the past into the present discourse? Have we not comprehensively proven that associate membership of the EU is a misleading scam?
Where Allister Heath is absolutely correct, though, is when he describes the way in which senior figures from the establishment are “closing ranks” on the question of Europe, and when he highlights the sheer duplicity of those politicians who built comfortable little careers on the back of their professed euroscepticism only to embrace party conformity when it matters most.
I don’t see it ending well. And I think that David Cameron and the Conservative Party could come to regret the betrayal of their more eurosceptic party base even more than Nick Clegg must have regretted his famous pledge not to raise university tuition fees.
What David Cameron & co fail to realise is that the reason people “bang on” about Europe is because it is absolutely central now to our governance and what’s left of our democracy. An awful lot rides on the outcome of this EU referendum, and will have potentially profound consequences for how Britain and the world trade and co-operate in future. If we find this subject fascinating, it does not make us cranks and obsessives, as we are often sneeringly dismissed – rather, it makes us informed and conscientious citizens.
Pete North concurs:
If by now you don’t have a quietly burning loathing of the media, the political class and the polite society that rules the roost then you’re just not paying attention. If the fact that every corrupt corporate, every subsidy sucker, rent-seeker and grant chaser is now shilling for Brussels doesn’t offend you, then nothing will. Quite simply you are happy to be taken for a fool and used as a cash cow. So too are you content to be managed like cattle rather than considered as a sentient, participating citizen with hopes, dreams and ambitions.
If by now you are not seeing through the veneer of corporate and state propaganda like a pair of x-ray glasses from They Live then there is absolutely no hope for you at all. If by now you think the EU is a democracy and it responds to the wishes of the people of Europe then you’re on another planet. If you think these MEPs and policy wonks are in it for anybody but themselves, feathering their own nests, stroking their own egos and building their own delusional little empires, then you are quite, quite mad.
Conservative eurosceptics have a long memory, and will not soon forget this betrayal by David Cameron. Assuming that the combined forces of David Cameron’s bully pulpit, extensive Brussels funding of the Remain camp and the failure of Brexit supporters (thus far) to read and assimilate the only Brexit plan which stands up to rigorous scrutiny, Cameron remains on course to triumph in the referendum. But spurned local Conservative associations and individual party members will extract a heavy price.
Tory activists may either defect en masse to a reconstituted UKIP or simply stay home on polling day. And who could blame them, considering the way in which they have been treated by David Cameron? Not only could the Conservative Party end up splitting amid partisan rancour (caused by europhile Tory ministers and MPs being given license to campaign freely while those supporting Brexit are sorely constrained), a diminished Tory party could see a left-wing coalition of Labour and assorted socialist chums slip past them and back into power.
But right now, it still feels as though a piece of the puzzle is missing. Cameron’s “deal” appears far too weak, and my mind cannot help but speculate that there will be some long-ago decided but as-yet unannounced additional rabbit pulled from the hat to sweeten the deal, assuming that David Cameron is able to win unanimous support at the coming EU summit later this month.
The Brexit Door is of the same view:
So the deal has been announced and the press and other media outlets have had their first run at the news. It hasn’t been the overwhelmingly positive response that maybe Mr Tusk and Mr Cameron had been looking for.
That leads me to believe that there must be a rabbit somewhere, waiting to be pulled from the hat. Because it’s either that, or Cameron is going to ride roughshod over the Electoral Commission’s advice about the shape and timing of the process for both designation and the campaign itself and go for June 23. His primary motive would be to give the Leave campaign as little time as possible from designation to vote – because he knows that the fight for the ‘Leave’ designation is incredibly important and has been so far taking up a lot of our energies.
One thing is becoming clear to me – the pathway to victory in this referendum is terrifyingly narrow. And it will be won or lost depending on whether Brexiteers can leverage the fact that nearly everybody in the British political establishment has come out in support of staying in the European Union.
Yes, having a proper plan and strategy for Brexit is important. Flexcit is important. But with nearly every authoritative voice in Britain about to begin earnestly intoning the many benefits of Brussels, our most potent weapon may be the British people’s strong sense of fair play, and their likely discomfort at seeing the Leave campaign being outspent, outmanoeuvred, outgunned and shouted down. We have been weak and ineffectual enough thus far – so we may as well ham it up for the cameras and work to build the narrative that this referendum is in fact The Establishment vs The People.
We must turn our current weakness – and it is a great weakness indeed – into our strength. That is the only prospect for victory that I can see right now. That is the only light at the end of the tunnel.
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One thing I find curious is why everyone is now asking who will lead the Brexit campaign. When you dig deeper, they are really asking who in the Conservative party will lead it. Why does it have to be someone in the Conservative party? Nobody in the Conservative party can freely lead such a campaign if they care about their career – unless they believe that they will gain so much glory that they will later lead the party too. So it would be more natural for such a leader to come from elsewhere. And perhaps it would be more appealing to voters of other affiliations?