Brexit is Britain’s Independence Day
Stephen Michael MacLean discerns ‘the end of the beginning’
Independence Day. That was Boris Johnson’s description of June 23rd last year, as he and fellow Leave campaigners canvassed the United Kingdom for Brexit, making the case to exit the European Union and strike out into the world once more as a sovereign nation. What a year it has been, with much to come before the official break in March 2019. ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end,’ so Sir Winston Churchill described an early Allied victory in the darkest hours of World War II. ‘But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
Many trace the origins of Brexit to Bruges in September 1988, when Margaret Thatcher declared that ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.’
Yet with what hopes did the European project begin. The horrors of the war never far from its mind, and with the Soviet threat and the spectre of nuclear devastation before it, the Continent took a positive step toward removing barriers to trade and opening up new markets for competition, innovation, and productivity. Thus was born the European Economic Community (‘Common Market’) in 1958. Alas! conceived in the bureaucratic mind-set, the EEC soon trod the familiar statist path, culminating in 1993 when it became known as the European Community, signalling that politics was added to its economic remit. Political integration now became the central thrust, but a proposed constitution stumbled when plebiscites in several member countries failed, and sleight-of-hand was resorted to with the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, a constitution in all but name.
UK Eurosceptics took their lead from Mrs Thatcher, and while the Westminster establishment encouraged an inexorable move toward continental union, opponents mounted a rear-guard action. To quell unrest, prime minister David Cameron offered Tory MPs in the Coalition Government a referendum on Europe in exchange for their support. When a majority of Britons voted for separation, Mr Cameron resigned the premiership and was replaced by Theresa May. Although hitherto a tacit supporter of staying in the EU, she assured the country and her party that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’
But even then, Churchill’s ‘end of the beginning’ was far from view. Some argued that the Government could not legally begin the ‘Article 50’ exit without the consent of Parliament; the Government lost this round and the Supreme Court appeal which followed. Legislation therefore made its way through both Houses of Parliament and ultimately received Royal Assent, just in time for Mrs May’s stated March deadline to trigger the formal EU exit. She then gambled on an early election to increase her Commons majority, failed in her gambit, and must now steer EU negotiations through a two-year ‘Brexit’ session with a minority Government.
Formal meetings began Monday, with the UK-EU negotiating team charting the contours of the course forward. Already Britain has conceded to the European timetable, focusing on the rights of foreign citizens, the border between the two Irelands, and the ‘costs of the divorce bill’, before undertaking any discussions on future trade relationships. Yet it is likely that these talks will be somewhat more amenable for the Conservative government than its dealings with those Westminster ‘colleagues’ who threaten a non-confidence vote in Parliament unless it adopts a ‘soft’ Brexit approach to its single market and customs union agreements with Europe.
Much hard work and uncertainty remain, but the Brexit anniversary is still an occasion to celebrate. As a young, failed electoral candidate, Benjamin Disraeli remained resolute. ‘I am not at all disheartened,’ he vowed. ‘I do not in any way feel like a defeated man. Perhaps it is because I am used to it. I will say of myself like the famous Italian general, who, being asked in his old age why he was always victorious, replied, it was because he had always been beaten in his youth.’ From Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech on, Brexiteers have been fighting and have been frustrated for thirty years: they are now battle-tested, and they know that British independence is in sight.
Stephen MacLean maintains the weblog The Organic Tory. He writes from Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada