We are in a time of national division following the referendum. A vote has been held and 700,000 people (less than 1% of the population) moved the result in one direction. Feelings are strong on both sides and clearly the government is trying to find a path between a rock (Immigration) and a hard place (Trade with the EU).
Into this, Melanie Philips of the Times enters with her size Nines to add fuel to the fire in an article entitled “If May goes soft on Brexit there’ll be a revolt” (paywall). Overall, she is clearly seeking to raise the temperature and draw battle-lines. Like many staunch leavers she wants Brexit at any cost and will accept no compromise. There are several questionable points in her article however I’ll try to summarize along 3 broad themes.
Fulfill “promise” on Immigration
Philips is disparaging of any backsliding on free movement. “…Mrs May’s repeated claim that the British people want to see ‘some controls’ on movement of individuals from the EU to the UK. No they most certainly do not. Those who voted Brexit want complete British control over Immigration” . She then goes on to say “The EU insists…no access to the single market without accepting this free movement of people” and “Remainers say there’s no alternative if Britain is to stay in the single market”.
The implication is clear. Brexit voters were promised an end to free movement, that free movement and the single market are 2 distinct issues and its only the “vindictive” (her word) EU and pessimistic remainers that insist on the 2 being tied together. To ignore this clear promise would be treachery.
Vote Leave did not actually promise to end Free movement. In fact below Daniel Hannan, MEP and leading Brexiteer, states (roughly 1:30 minutes in) from an interview the night after the result, that:
“(our model) wouldn’t be exactly Norway (but it would be close and that) means free movement of Labour” and “I have just spent 4 months addressing rallies virtually every day and at every one I have said…we will have some control over who comes in and in what numbers…we want a measure of control“
The same words in fact that Philips states are a sell out when applied to May. He also says (with a guilty smirk) “its all there on YouTube, you can see it all” when questioned by Evan Davies on what was said against what was heard.
Similarly Boris Johnson in his Telegraph Column following the result stated:
“It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so” and “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down”
The reality, as Philips must know, is that Vote Leave were actually looking for a Norway style model (if they ever thought at all about the situation following a vote they did not expect to win). As such they could not and did not, ever, promise to reduce immigration because Norway style models require full free movement (if you search you will not find a single commitment to any such reduction in numbers). In fact early on they even leafleted Asian communities saying that Brexit would lead to increased commonwealth immigration.
This, as Philips will be aware, is the great lie at the heart of the Leave Campaign. Most of the Leave leadership felt that immigration was somewhere between a non-issue and good for the economy. Tactically they decided they could win the vote by playing the immigration card but they never had any serious intention of reducing numbers. But they overplayed their hand resulting in the most downbeat “victory” speech in modern history
and the complete disappearance of Johnson, Gove and Stuart for a week afterwards. No such promise was made, but one was inferred, and UKIP, the far right and Philips want to stir up trouble based on this inference.
Britain’s “strong hand” in negotiations
Philips believes that the UK is in an extremely powerful position as regards negotiations with the EU, in fact she says “(They) need us more than we need them, they sell more to us than we do to them. Vindictive Tariff wars would hit their own car makers, farmers and wine growers”. Either she doesn’t understand the actual cards we hold here here or she doesn’t care, as this argument was nonsense when it was first used 3 months ago and has only become more nonsensical over time.
To repeat the obvious, the EU takes almost half our trade, we take about 10% of theirs. We must negotiate some kind of deal (or we end up on WTO and our economy tanks), they would like a deal, but no deal would simply create a blip, not a crisis and they will still sell us Audis, BMWs and french wine and cheese even if Tariffs are in place. No serious commentator believes we have a strong hand (see this Treasury Select committee video and for the reactions of said committee as the reality of the UKs negotiation situation sinks in). It is not that “Remainers start from the assumption that Britain has a poor hand to play in negotiations with the EU”, it’s that remainers start from a position of reality.
However, Philips then states “So its excellent that Liam Fox is already lining up trade deals with Australia New Zealand and the US“.
This is the same Liam Fox who was “slapped down” less than 24 hours later for his poorly judged comments re our future relationship with the EU. That said, note that Australia has a population of 23 million (7 million more than the Netherlands) and is 9.5 thousand miles away whereas New Zealand has 4.5 million (less than Ireland) and is 11 thousand miles away. As such they represent perhaps 5% of the single market. As regards the US, see here to understand why there will be no US trade deal until our EU position is finalized and that any deal will almost certainly be the other side of 2020.
Saying “it’ll all be awesome if the Remainers would just get in line” does not make it so. Belief is not enough, and blind optimism is no replacement for competence.
“Good” leavers and “Bad” remainers
Finally, we get onto the thread that weaves through the entire article. Philips talks about the relative values and positions of Leave and Remain voters, and who has a right to a say in the direction of our country.
- “have a deep attachment to Britain, whose History and Culture defines their political identify”
- “(believe we should) rule ourselves and make our own policies”
- “(are involved in a) Great revolt against an entire political establishment”
- “don’t rate democracy as that important”
- “emphatic in their belief in British powerlessness”
- “start from the assumption that Britain has a poor hand to play”
- “Have no confidence in their Country”
- “(Denounce) Brexiters as bigoted and ignorant”
- “Think of themselves as European rather than British”
This is not cherry picked, these are the terms used by Philips to describe Leavers and Remainers. The implication is clear: Leavers are plucky, have a monopoly on patriotism and represent the true face of the British underdog sticking it to the man. The Remainers however dismiss their country and democracy, are elitist and are (albeit passively) undermining the UK. In another age they would be labeled corrupt, weak and bourgeois. This shows a clear desire to paint Remainers as the new “other” – shifty, Union Jack hating EU collaborators who are the enemy under the bed.
Overall, it is clear from the article that the wishes (which she has defined) of the 17 million must be met without compromise, and the wishes of the 16 million are essentially irrelevant. If these Brexit wishes are not met, well, “there’ll be a revolt”. As for the 16 million, any dissent undermines the country (and the state) and they therefore need to be quiet.