This blogpost was written on July 9th, 2019
At the heart of the original Eurosceptic critique of the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) was the contention that the people of the UK had never been told the unvarnished truth about what EU membership would involve and the sovereignty they would have to sacrifice. They were “deceived” into backing membership and because they were so deceived the UK’s membership always lacked legitimacy. It was a house of cards built on a foundation of lies, Eurosceptics contended.
The original critique was, in essence, that the UK never voted to be a province of a “country called Europe”. It would be more than happy to be involved in a customs union and single market, an EFTA/EEA business arrangement, stripped of all references to a political journey ending in an “ever closer union”. Trading together as free nations, preferably without any of the “supranational” decision making that was the hallmark of the EU. Preferably under “common sense” British leadership.
Before 2016, prominent Brexiteers would have taken EFTA/EEA, or some variation thereof, in a heartbeat. As Clare Foges noted in the Times
The prominent Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan, MEP, declared in 2015 that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”. Owen Paterson, MP, a veteran Eurosceptic, said that “only a madman would actually leave the market”. In late 2015 the founder of the Leave.EU campaign Arron Banks tweeted that “the Norway option looks the best for the UK”.
Now, such pragmatic, moderate “Eurosceptism” has given way to an all consuming desire to “burn the house down”, to leave the EU at all costs, even if that means the end of the UK as it is today. Torch the EU while on the way out for good measure.
For a majority of the Tory selectorate, those “(self)-chosen people” who will pick the next leader of the Tory Party and, in all likelihood the next prime minister, destruction of the United Kingdom and economic chaos are prices worth paying for the delivery of Brexit. Any form of deal with the EU is treason. (See this thread form David Allen Green here)
The former Conservative MP, now Brexit Party MEP, Ann Widdecombe, caught the visceral hatred of the hard-core Brexiteers for the EU when she thundered in the European Parliament:
“There is a pattern consistent throughout history of oppressed people turning on their oppressors, slaves against their owners, the peasantry against the feudal barons, colonies against their empires and that is why Britain is leaving.”
That a wealthy, white English Brexiteer could use such language is doubly shocking.
First, because it is not remotely true that the UK has been invaded and enslaved by the EU. Hard as I try, I never can quite remember EU tanks rolling off the Calais-Dover ferry, to make their way through the lush Kent countryside, destroying all before them. What I do remember is the UK, as a voluntary member of the EU, taking an active part in the shaping of European legislation, much of which liberated rather than enslaved.
But it also shocks because in talking about the many oppressed people who turned on their oppressors, the slaves on their owners, the colonies against their empires, Widdecombe could have been talking about the history of the British Empire. Except she didn’t realise that she was. Because for many Brexiteers, who mourn its loss, the Empire was the bringer of Christianity and culture to lesser breeds without the law, modernity supplanting ancient ways. The Empire was the future, not the past.
In the minds of many Brexiteers, the former colonies now yearn for Britain to be free from EU servitude and entanglements so that it can, once again, resume its rightful place at the centre of a global network of nations. Picking up where it left off in 1973, when it betrayed the Commonwealth, to join the Common Market. When it walked away from loyalty to “kith and kin” to throw in its lot with Johnny Foreigner.
It often seems that Brexiteers yearn for a return to the world of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Britain was, just about, still a global power, warm in the embrace of the white Commonwealth, with the Beatles and pop culture yet to shatter old and settled ways. And the Irish knew their place – exporting food and emigrating to the UK to build roads and houses.
Except, that most of the ex-colonies just don’t see it that way. As Priyamvada Gopal writes
The oft-told story of a benevolent Britain “bestowing” freedom on her colonies when they were deemed ready for it is largely myth. In reality, resistance, often violent resistance alongside famous non-violent movements, was a central part of the story.
Lest it be forgotten, “violent resistance” against the British Empire was born on the 19 April, 1775, at Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts, when the American War of Independence began. It came to an end in 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, what we might refer to as a Withdrawal Agreement. It was not a “no-deal” Amexit!
While precise figures are not available, to say that there were about 20,000 deaths, including death through disease and in POW camps, on both sides would not be wide of the mark. To put this another way. At the time of the American War of Independence the British Empire did not have an Article 50 exit procedure, allowing for departure after two years’ notice, following several rounds of friendly negotiations. Guns were involved.
Nor did the British Crown did take the trouble to put one put in place after that either.
Neither was Irish independence, partially won in 1922, achieved through an A50 process. Blood and bodies littered the streets of Irish cities and the Irish countryside. If the English think the Brexit “backstop” is “brutal” they should ask the Irish about the “Black and Tan alternative arrangements”. These were innovative ideas, ahead of their times, put forward as invisible ways of handling contentious issues.
Which is why the Irish, having experienced “Alternative Arrangements: Mode 1” are rightly suspicious when the English turn up talking about helping out with “Alternative arrangements: Mode 2”.
But why would Widdecombe let the facts of history get in the way of her howl of rage that the British are now the most oppressed people ever (MOPE). A belief system we might call Mopeism.
Mopeism grows out of the belief, headlined at the top of this Briefing, that the people of the UK were deceived into accepting EU membership, tricked into surrendering sovereignty. “The Great Deception”, Booker and North call it. It transcends Right and Left, Labour and Conservative.
Back in the early 1960s, Hugh Gaitskell, the original Labour moderniser, who, as Dr Denis MacShane puts it, was at the time trying to push the party away from “traditional national-statist Labourism” first defined many of the “talking points” that latter day Brexiteers would use. Gaitskell did not like the EEC, the forerunner of the EU. Entering the EEC, he said, would mean the end of control over the economy, over agriculture, perhaps, even over foreign policy.
We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state… it means the end of a thousand years of history.
From the Right, Enoch Powell used almost similar language, telling the Conservative conference in Brighton in 1971:
I do not believe that this nation which has maintained and defended its independence for a thousand years, will now submit to see it merged or lost. Nor did I become a member of a sovereign parliament in order to see that sovereignty being abated or transferred.
After entry terms to the EEC were negotiated in 1972, the then UK government sent a booklet to every home in the country which said:
There is no question of Britain losing essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the economic interest.
First Eurosceptics, and now Brexiteers, have forever held that this was the lie that lay at the heart of the “great deception”. That Gaitskell, Powell and others pointed out at the time that EEC membership would result in a loss of sovereignty is glossed over. For the Eurosceptic narrative to hold, the people just cannot have known what they were voting to do.
The somewhat “light renegotiation” of EEC entry terms by Harold Wilson in 1974 were endorsed in a referendum by 66% to 34%. While this should have put an end to the matter, since then Eurosceptics have argued that the people were presented with a false bill of goods. What they got was not what they voted for. Lies and false claims had delivered the result that the “Europeanists” had wanted, they argue.
The constant refrain of those who questioned the UK’s EU membership was that it was illegitimately secured and should not stand. Because the people were lied to, the people should be asked again. Give us another referendum, was their constant demand.
They got their wish in 2016. And they got their desired result, A vote to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Those who had spent years accusing “the Establishment” of securing a tainted result back in 1974 by being dishonest with the electorate were finally vindicated.
Yet, within days those who had spent a lifetime accusing, now stood accused. Accused of putting a £350m lie on the side of a bus. Accused of saying that leaving the EU would be easy, when it would be no such thing. Accused of claiming that the UK would hold all the cards when all it had were two jokers. And the real dagger to the heart: accused of having no plan as to what Brexit meant, no plan as to how the UK should leave the EU with both its dignity and its economy intact.
How difficult must it be when you have spent a lifetime believing that you knew the truth and believing that when the people also knew the truth it would set them free, to find that a growing number of the people wanted to have nothing to do with your truth. In fact, to find that that not only did they not share your truth but they found your truth to be wrong and perverse and were prepared to actively resit it. To stop you at all costs.
You do what you have always done. Cast yourself, yet again, as the oppressed. Paint yourself, in Fanon’s words, as one of the “wretched of the earth”. Allege that despite the clear “will of the people” a “Remainer Establishment” is doing all it can to sabotage the revolution. “Enemies of the people” are seen everywhere: in parliament, the media, the judiciary, the civil service, the diplomatic corps. Only those who truly believe can be trusted.
But who determines who “truly believes” and what does “true belief “mean?
Writing about Robespierre, the historian Ruth Scurr says that political turmoil can foster unlikely leaders… “the mediocre figure strutting and fretting on the historical stage…”. It is such mediocre figures, possessed of a “fatal purity”, devoid of all doubt, who seize their chance to determine the course of events, she writes. Current Brexiteer names easily come to mind, do they not?
For such purists, complex realities and the compromises that are the everyday stuff of politics must be swept away by a “cultural revolution” that seeks to remake the world to fit with the vision of the pure of heart.
Yet when your entire Eurosceptic career has been built on the allegation that the “Europeanists” lied in the early 1970s, it must rankle when you yourself are accused of being equally guilty of lying. Further, at least in the 1970s the people knew the terms of entry to the EEC, the economic pros and cons. Brexiteers stand accused of not just lying about what leaving the EU would mean, but of having no plan for actually leaving, nor any roadmap pointing the way to a future destination.
When you are so accused, all you can do is to find comfort in Mopeism.