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Life beyond Brexit

A forthright new book by the former Tory minister William Waldegrave argues that Britain needs to accept home truths about its standing in the world.

Brexit is the most disruptive force in British life since the Second World War. Regardless of its economic effects, it has whipped up a gale that blows unrelentingly through the sacred groves of Britain’s historic constitution. Democratic civility; respect for the judiciary and the rule of law; restrained acquiescence in constitutional convention; genteel diffidence about exploiting loopholes, grey areas and wrinkles in Britain’s uncodified constitutional arrangements; well-mannered acceptance of the politically neutral expertise of the civil service – Brexiteer ultras have trashed all of these in the pursuit of their obsession. This has led Remainers and anti-no dealers in turn – largely as a form of self-defence – to weaponise parliamentary procedure; to celebrate judges and other neutral arbiters, such as the Speaker, as champions of their cause; and to import a hysterical rhetoric into discussion of intricate constitutional questions that do not admit of easy black-and-white answers.

The storms blowing us towards a hard Brexit have also shaken Britain’s union-state. In Scotland, where settled membership of the EU was a crucial part of the case against independence in the 2014 referendum, the union has taken a battering. The Brexit hurricane is at its fiercest in Northern Ireland, where it has wrecked the Good Friday Agreement and uprooted the protections which for the last two decades depoliticised the border with the Republic. The Tory right and the DUP, which fan these winds, have not yet noticed that the most likely gainers from the disruption of political and constitutional norms are Sinn Féin, the SNP and the Corbynite left. The Conservative Party is itself broken, and Boris Johnson’s manoeuvrings at the very margins of constitutional propriety have tarnished even the monarchy.

William Waldegrave’s wise, insightful book Three Circles into One is a wake-up call for so-called conservatives: if they lay waste to everything around them in the cause of Brexit, what then is there left to conserve? In a coded rebuke to Dominic Cummings, Waldegrave condemns today’s “foolish and fashionable doctrine of disruption”. For Waldegrave himself is the most conservation-minded of conservatives. His first book, The Binding of Leviathan (1978), written while a junior fellow of All Souls and aspirant politician, anticipated several of today’s environmental problems. It was an attempt to get Tories – the natural party of private property and its stewardship – to think seriously about the environment. The book also predicted, uncannily, the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of ethnic nationalisms in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. He has an impressive track record as a political seer.

Waldegrave also has practical experience in a wide range of government departments that touch directly on the hazards associated with a no-deal Brexit. He served in John Major’s cabinet as secretary of state for health (appointed by Margaret Thatcher in her final days), minister of agriculture, chief secretary to the Treasury and as minister in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for science and public services. Before his ascent to the cabinet Waldegrave had served as a junior minister at the Foreign Office and at the Department of the Environment, where he pioneered reforms in local government taxation. Indeed, in his elegant and perceptive memoirs A Different Kind of Weather (2015), there is a disarmingly titled chapter, “The Poll Tax: All My Own Work”.

Waldegrave is that rare creature among politicians, one content to accept blame when he feels it is due, and frank enough to praise opponents when they get things right. His new book includes several warm tributes to Gordon Brown’s obduracy on the single currency and his efforts to deal with the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008.

Frankness extends to Waldegrave’s own political beliefs. Long before becoming an MP, he had been political secretary to Edward Heath, the prime minister who had taken Britain into the European Community. On that basis, I had casually assumed that in the Euro-referendum of 1975, Waldegrave had favoured continued British membership of the common market. Not so, it transpires.

In his new book Waldegrave confesses that instead of campaigning during the referendum with Heath, his mentor and early political hero, he drove off with three friends to Shiraz in Iran. Why did he abstain? It turns out that the schoolboy Waldegrave had actually read the Treaty of Rome, and realised from the outset the significance of its aspiration towards “an ever closer union among the European peoples”. The European Economic Community (EEC) was not just a common market; it was a full-blown political project. Therefore, Waldegrave reckoned at the 1975 referendum, it was dishonest to deny the claims of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell that EEC membership entailed a loss of sovereignty. It was not that Waldegrave was “really against the idea of a politically united Europe; I was just against joining it on the basis that it was something it seemed obvious to me it was not”.

This failure to be candid about the full implications of European integration, Waldegrave argues, has bedevilled British participation in the EEC and then the EU. Our political masters in Westminster and Whitehall have long cajoled Britons with well-intentioned, little white lies about Europe. The hope was that either we would become in due course more European-minded, or that the institutions of Europe would themselves find full political integration indigestible, leaving a semi-integrated Europe of freely trading nation states. If the British political and administrative elite had been more honest with the public from the start we might not be in the current predicament.

Instead, the European movement in Britain was always marginal, and the case for Europe often prudential, cautious and crab-like: never passionate.

Waldegrave is similarly forthright about how he voted in the 2016 referendum: “I voted Remain, because I felt in my children the growth of that very European identity which no mainstream politicians had felt called upon to champion.” Nevertheless, his pencil “hovered for a moment over the other box”, in protest against the evasions and deceptions which meant that the British people had never confronted directly the full political import of EU membership.

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Why was Britain always such a half-hearted member of Europe? Waldegrave relates this to Winston Churchill’s postwar design – a grand strategy that was continued and consummated by Harold Macmillan, who led the pragmatic retreat from empire and made the first application for EEC membership. Churchill conceived Britain as uniquely placed at the centre of “three majestic circles” – the empire, later the Commonwealth; the English-speaking peoples, a euphemism for the special relationship with the United States; and its geographic home in Europe.

Participation in Europe has always been constrained in some degree by our commitments to the two former arrangements. Although Waldegrave now questions the substantive relevance and reality of the Commonwealth and special relationship to Britain’s future well-being, he admires the skill with which Churchill and Macmillan navigated a relatively benign, untraumatic disengagement from empire, certainly by contrast with the searing political heat that the withdrawal from Algeria caused France. Britain was fortunate then, and less lucky in its current disengagement from Europe.

The Britain of today must cross “a toxic and sulphurous ditch”, whether it leaves the European Union or remains. Either way there will be massive disillusionment. And it will get worse before it gets better. Waldegrave estimates that the Brexit battle has been waged so far by the politicised classes – whether Brexiters and Remainers – but that a massive third group has yet to make its presence felt. This third element is that broad non-political swathe of the electorate which prefers life itself – cooking, shopping, travel, making money, sport, DIY, gardening, home and family – to the froth of politics.

Nevertheless, he argues, this group relies, while scarcely realising it, on the enduring soundness of the British political system: that whichever sensible politicians are in charge – whether the pragmatic centre left of the Conservative Party or the centre right of the Labour Party – government will be exercised competently, enabling everyday life in all its variety to go on. But if these non-political people, who don’t give two hoots one way or the other about sovereignty or the EU, suddenly find in the aftermath of Brexit that the “actual, immediate things they value and on which they depend” are taken away, they may become “very angry indeed”.

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After the inevitable “recrimination and bitterness”, what comes next? Waldegrave foresees four different potential futures for Britain. The one uppermost in the minds of the Conservative right is what Waldegrave dubs the “Singapore-on-Thames” model, a turbo-charged capitalist Britain, wholly outside the EU, which is low-tax, free trading and open to capital and the highly skilled. But many of the left-behind regions that voted for Brexit are unlikely to be assuaged by deeper draughts of deregulation, globalisation and free-market solutions. Indeed, in Sunderland and the valleys of south Wales, Waldegrave notes, they already have a short-hand for this strain of political economy. They call it “Thatcherism”, and it didn’t catch on in these areas when it was tried before. Is neo-Thatcherism likely to become the glue that reunites a sorely divided post-Brexit Britain? He thinks not.

A variant of this provides Waldegrave’s second post-Brexit model, which he likens to George Orwell’s description of Britain in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Airstrip One”. Might Britain after Brexit become a sort of “adjunct” of the United States? But America has always – and not only under Donald Trump – put American economic interests first. Why object to rule-taking from Brussels – where Britain plays a central role as one of the big three players in setting the rules – and become a rule-taker, in a much weaker position, from an immense partner such as the United States, “which has been known, like all hegemonic powers, to trample on smaller animals”?

A superficially more attractive option is the Rejoiner model, returning, after a longer or shorter delay, to the bosom of the EU. “Returnism”, as Waldegrave terms it, would depend on the unfolding story of the EU itself. This approach risks fostering among Leavers a myth of betrayal, of a stab in the back similar to that which Germany suffered – at no small cost – in the Treaty of Versailles and aftermath of the First World War.

Nor would Britain be able to return on the same terms that it has so carelessly thrown away: a “privileged position of semi-membership”, opt-outs and budget rebates. That will have gone forever. The only route back into the EU is to advance four-square behind the European ideal, with all the attendant domestic risks for stability and civil peace. Waldegrave reckons that this third option is “an enormous task. But it is possible, just.”

More realistic, he believes, is pursuit of a fourth option that accords with Britain’s real standing in the world post-Brexit, and as such would be anathema to the nostalgic, imperial fantasies of the hard Brexiteers who have brought us to this pass. Home truths as well as peace and reconciliation will be needed once we are over the sulphurous Brexit ditch. Britain’s best hope is to become a clear-sighted, middle-ranking, free-standing nation like Canada, with a measure of constitutional reform to restore the frayed fabric of our institutional life.

At the international level, Britain will need to jettison its permanent place on the UN Security Council. That was given when it was one of the world’s superpowers, and is now an anachronistic embarrassment: “Give it up! Get real!… Do not let us drive ourselves mad by trying to play at continental games when we are a nation with the same population as one province of India, China or Indonesia.” We need, Waldegrave argues, to punch at our appropriate weight: “Most boxers do.”

Why is this outcome more sensible than the others? Because “it needs the least bending of the truth”. This fourth option of becoming a modest, middle-ranking country also does not preclude eventually rejoining the EU, but only after a long cooling-off period and on the basis of taking honest, enthusiastic “full-blooded” membership. Whatever option is eventually chosen, Waldegrave warns, we are already well past the point of any “return to a status quo”. 

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews

Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain – How did We Get Here and What Happens Next?
William Waldegrave
Mensch Publishing, 138pp, £10 

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace