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29 August 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 11:00am

If Brexit was a vote to leave the single market, why didn’t campaigners say so?

Is Labour really betraying Leave voters by hoping to stay in the single market a few more years? 

By Julia Rampen

John Mills, the Labour donor and founder of Labour Leave, is not happy. Labour’s policy on Brexit has been about as clear as a bus window, but shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer just gave it a wipe. Labour, he confirmed, would seek to remain inside the single market during a time-limited transition period. 

Responding in a series of tweets, Mills described Starmer’s position as “incompatible” with Labour’s manifesto, adding that it “would betray 4m Labour-supporting Leave voters”.

Starmer, though, does not need to retort that the EU referendum was not about the single market – that point is already being made by Oliver Norgrove, a former Vote Leave staffer. “We argue for things which are utterly achievable in the EEA and make no mention at all of leaving the single market,” he wrote, while urging the public to check the official campaign’s aims. 

The EU referendum question itself – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” – offers no answers. So what did the campaigns and key campaigners have to say about remaining in the single market?

Vote Leave

The official Brexit campaign infamously claimed that voting to leave the EU would “save £350m a week”. It also promised control of Britain’s borders, controls of immigration, the freedom to strike trade deals, and to “make our own laws”. 

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It stated: “There is a free trade zone stretching all the way from Iceland to the Russian border. We will still be part of it after we Vote Leave.” Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP and one of the faces of Vote Leave, declared: “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, declared in the aftermath of the vote that Britain would retain access to the single market. 

Verdict: This is the “having your cake and eating it” campaign. It would take a master negotiator to deliver the promises on slashing EU regulation and controlling immigration, while staying in the single market, since multiple EU leaders have said the four freedoms – freedom of goods, services, capital and labour – are indivisible.  

Leave.EU

Although today Leave.EU is one of the most vocal opponents of staying in the single market, both Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, influential members of the unofficial Brexit campaign, talked up the “Norway option” and the European Economic Area. However, in February 2016, Farage said explicitly that he did not wish the UK to be part of the single market. Leave.EU’s campaign messaging stressed controlling borders and immigration, and Farage argued that immigration was suppressing wages.  

Verdict: This was the “don’t mention the market” campaign. Leave.EU clearly prioritised controlling immigration over access to the single market, but talk about the Norway model blurred the picture.

Labour Leave

Although made up of “Lexiteers” such as Mills, curiously Labour Leave did not include leaving the single market as a direct goal in its manifesto (it pledged instead to “secure free trade in goods and services with Europe”). Unlike the other Leave campaigns, Labour Leave did however focus on the economic debate rather than immigration. Individual MPs like Kelvin Hopkins were known to oppose the capitalism that underpinned the single market, but Labour Leave supporters have been notably more vocal in their opposition since 24 June 2016.

Verdict: This campaign was based on a critique of the EU’s economic structure, including the single market. But its supporters seemed rather shy about saying so, at least before 24 June 2016. 

Stronger In

The official Remain campaign made its case almost exclusively on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU, including the freedom to trade, and the consequence of lower prices.

Its website stated: “Being in the single market means we have the freedom to work, travel and study in the EU, creating even more job opportunities for you and your family. If we left Europe, UK businesses would have to pay new tariffs, increasing the cost of trading.”

Verdict: Anyone who came across Remain’s arguments could have little doubt about that. According to Stronger In, the flipside of being in the EU was clearly leaving the single market.

Another Europe Is Possible

The unofficial, left-wing Remain campaign, backed by several trade unions, was lukewarm about the single market. Its opening statement declared that “for all its potential, the EU as it’s currently constituted is run in the interests of multinational corporations for whom it represents a lucrative market”. However, it argued that by staying in the EU, left-wingers had a better chance of reforming the system, and that the breakdown of borders would allow progressives to work across Europe. 

Verdict: This was the “solidarity” campaign, with little defence of the single market, which is presented as a necessary evil. 

Conclusion

If you were knowledgeable in the “four freedoms” before 23 June 2016, it might be obvious that at least two out of three leading Brexit campaigns were happy to quit the single market. But they didn’t make it clear. If you’d listened to the official Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, you would have had a completely different impression – that the single market was a separate issue and nothing to worry about. 

It was the Remain campaigners who made it clear that the single market was indistinguishable from the EU. Their message was dismissed as “Project Fear” by their opponents at the time. Ironic, then, that these days it’s staying in the single market that the Brexiteers are worried about. 

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