Brexit – Crunch Time
by Stuart Millson
Despite a rash of remain-inspired parliamentary motions, an all-out media assault against our withdrawal from the EU, and the prospect of a postponement of our leave date, the wheels of change are turning – both in Britain and Europe.
Notwithstanding being presented as the event that would finally settle the decades-long argument over Common Market/European Union membership, the British electorate’s historic 2016 vote to discontinue membership of that bloc – a decision subsequently ratified last summer in the form of Parliament’s EU Withdrawal Act – has set in motion a series of convulsions, which, no doubt, will still be rumbling through our national life for years to come.
On that referendum night three years ago, when Derby, Doncaster, Dorset and a thousand other places far away from the pro-EU political elite, broke away from 40 years of Brussels control, one of the great post-war, liberal-consensus, sacred-cows was slaughtered – to the horror of most of our politicians, civil servants, academics and broadcasters. The latter have fought a rearguard-action ever since – a cultural civil war against Brexit, employing tactics, such as: ‘Project Fear’ (ludicrous scare stories about economic disintegration and impending shortages of food and medical supplies); a High Court legal action on whether the Government had the sole authority to invoke the Lisbon Treaty ‘Article 50’ leave mechanism; and the accusation that the pro-Leave side made false claims about the nature of the EU – thus requiring a second referendum (a feature of nearly every BBC news report about Brexit) to bring us back to our senses.
To add to the drama on our television screens, the broadcasters have even instituted a digital clock, which ticks away during news programmes, signalling that there are only so many days, hours, seconds left until the “unthinkable” happens – the beginning of the breaking of the chains, as we leave that safe European Union harbour forever and embark into “the unknown”. To compound the message, both BBC and Sky news routinely open their despatches from Westminster with footage of large Euro-flags (the work of Remain militants) fluttering on College Green; allowing the maniac shouts of those unable to reconcile themselves to democracy to punctuate each report. Even Radio 4’s supposedly impartial news “flagship”, the PM Programme, began one of its editions with a recording of a mob chanting: “Bye, bye, bye, Theresa…” – a clear attempt to manufacture a sense of the Government collapsing and of Brexit shuddering to a halt.
Last week, with the Prime Minister unable (as yet) to secure a majority for her exit strategy (the work of two years’ negotiation with the EU), another series of “crunch” parliamentary votes took place in the House of Commons. Several amendments tabled by a vocal cross-party Remain side in the House of Commons revealed the extent to which many MPs – notwithstanding the clear public preference to leave the EU – see Brexit as a malign force which should be talked and voted out of existence.
Motions from Labour’s Hilary Benn and from ‘Tory’ Remainers such as Sarah Wollaston – if passed – might have forced Brexit through a parliamentary mincing machine, reducing it to nothing, or to the fatal derailment which they hope might come through a second referendum. To their credit, the majority of MPs do seem to understand that it is not in Parliament’s best interest to ignore what Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, described as “the moral authority of 17.4 million voters” – even though Rees-Mogg has faced personal criticism for allowing his Brexit purism to stand in the way of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal legislation, based as it is on a degree of compromise with Brussels.
Yet it has been heartening for Leave voters to see MPs such as Tonbridge and Malling’s Tom Tugendhat – a supporter of EU membership at the time of the referendum – fully honouring his constituents’ pro-Brexit wishes by voting for the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal. The Liberal Democrats’ Eastbourne MP, Stephen Lloyd, also resigned his party’s whip in order to keep faith with the voters of Sussex, thus gaining the opprobrium of Europhile LibDem party members and activists. And at the time of the Prime Minister’s deal first coming before Parliament, some 14 Labour MPs (mainly from the Brexit regions of old industrial England) ignored their party line, in order to facilitate our country’s withdrawal.
The Labour Party continued to surprise us last week with its voting behaviour – not least in the decision by their frontbench and hundreds of MPs to abstain from the ‘second referendum’ motion, which is supposed to be Labour’s own policy. As that famous Blairite, Lord Mandelson, observed: the Leader of the Opposition cannot seem to decide whether he is a Leaver or Remainer.
Britain is due to leave the EU on the 29thMarch, although most of the pundits now believe that the date will be postponed – a disappointment to the millions of us who have been relishing the moment of truth when our country officially unshackles itself from Brussels, Strasbourg, Juncker, Barnier, ‘President’ Tusk, Merkel, the Common Agricultural Policy and all the baggage of the last 40 years. But the worth and legacy of Brexit now almost transcends such considerations.
What this remarkable political hammer-blow has achieved is a complete change to the political landscape of all-Europe: the idea that an electorate can defy an elite and secure a change in the direction of its country (albeit, with some give-and-take, and dilution). The unelected leaders of the European Union must now contend with the rise of parties – in France, Germany, Holland, Sweden – all opposed to the Brussels gerontocracy; the creation of a Government in Italy which would dearly like to reinstate the Lira; and the formation of an alliance of Eastern European states, which have asserted their own sovereignty on matters of migration, refugees and nationality.
Brexit may well be slow – its process, tiresome, or not quite what we had in mind three years ago just after the referendum. But those of us who campaigned against the Single European Act of 1986, or the Maastricht Treaty in 1991-92 would never have believed, looking back to those far-off days, that we would ever arrive at where we are today.
Stuart Millson is QR‘s Classical Music Editor
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