Five years ago, if anyone had predicted that Brexit would be such a disaster, with riots in Belfast, gunboats in Jersey to keep out the French, and our trade with the EU in precipitate decline, I would have demurred. Don’t worry, it will be Norway or Switzerland, and it may not happen at all once there is an inevitable second referendum on the terms, I said then.
How wrong. It turned out that none of the Brexit leaders had a credible plan. As soon as Theresa May started producing one, she was destroyed by Johnson, Farage and Cummings, in a lunge for power like Robespierre eviscerating Danton and the moderates in the French Revolution.
As for a second referendum, that came close to happening in 2019 and would probably have yielded a majority to end the whole Brexit nightmare, it probably still would, if held today. But the combination of Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, as inept as they were deluded, got us to an early election instead. And in a general election to choose between Johnson and Corbyn as prime minister, there was only one outcome. A quarter of Remain supporters voted Tory, while virtually all Leave voters backed Boris, which says it all.
Reason and facts are the basis of arguments that ultimately win in mature democracies like ours. It is obviously an unreasonable lie to pretend – just to take the last week – that a trade deal with Australia worth an extra 0.02 per cent of GDP substitutes for a fundamental deterioration in the terms of trade governing half of our imports and exports, as well as the end of the right of Brits even to work on the continent when their livelihoods depend upon it, as for musicians, artists, engineers and architects.
It is an equally unreasonable untruth for Lord Frost, the minister for Brexit, to claim – as he keeps doing – that no one foresaw the problem with having a customs barrier down the Irish Sea, when virtually everyone sensible foresaw it and flagged up the danger as soon as he and Johnson negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol. As the DUP implodes in Northern Ireland and Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s last and probably next prime minister, makes speeches about the path to a united Ireland, reality is taking over.
Were it not for Covid-19, and the success of the British vaccination programme while the European Commission initially flailed, I suspect British politics would today be overwhelmed by Brexit. Once we are post-Covid, the fact that Brexit is so obviously unstable and unviable will reassert itself.
In my view, Brexit almost certainly won’t last in this extreme form and may well be reversed entirely in this generation. It mainly requires leadership, and after a year of Sir Keir Starmer saying “amen” to Johnson on Brexit, in the forlorn hope that Europe would just go away, this is still sorely lacking.
A big question in British politics today is where the anti-Johnson leadership in England is to come from. Once that question is answered, this hard Brexit deal will start to be reversed. The Chesham and Amersham by-election, combined with Labour’s weakness, creates a situation as fluid as when Roy Jenkins – Britain’s only president of the European Commission – created the SDP in 1981. Having been there at the time, I saw how close the SDP-Liberal Alliance came to breaking through, and that was when Labour’s social base was far stronger than now.
My personal five years in politics since 2016 have followed this same trajectory of regret, resignation, disbelief, shock and now determination to reverse this catastrophe.
I played almost no part in the 2016 referendum, foolishly thinking there would be a big Remain majority and not wanting to campaign alongside Cameron and Osborne. Even after the referendum, believing that Norway or Sweden beckoned, I focused on setting up a new cross-party National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) as a state institution to get Britain moving after austerity. It was only when Theresa May declared that leaving the customs union and single market was the definition of Brexit that I started campaigning against it, resigning from the NIC because I simply couldn’t work with a government betraying the national interest so flagrantly.
Today, I am chair of the European Movement, seeking to turn it into a mass membership movement campaigning “step by step towards Rejoin”. You can join here and help us achieve this goal.
For most of Europe, 23 June isn’t remembered mainly for the Brexit referendum. Rather, it was the day, shortly after the 1940 armistice, that Hitler visited Paris to view his new and biggest conquest, on the eve of launching a still greater war, and ultimately a holocaust, across our continent. The European Union was set up to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. It has succeeded, beyond the dreams even of its founders. We belong inside, not outside, for our own good and the good of Europe.
Andrew Adonis was a cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His latest book, Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, is out now in paperback