By Robert J Davies
THE first thing most people must have thought, when watching Boris Johnson’s impassioned Brexit speech this morning at JCB headquarters in Staffordshire, was this: why doesn’t Theresa May ever give us a rousing performance like that?
What an opportunity missed it has been that a robotic, wooden, non-Brexiteer like Mrs May – however hard-working and well-meaning – should have been picked to deliver Brexit. What a pity that a lively, funny, sharp and deeply-intelligent man like Boris did not win that crown. How different things might have turned out. It is often said that Mrs May deals with Brexit as if it were a problem to be fixed rather than a golden opportunity. And the truth of this is brought home when one hears a speech by someone who believes in Brexit to his bones.
Listening to Boris, something rather remarkable happens: Brexit somehow comes alive and seems exciting, full of potential and eminently worth any short-term pain. That’s exactly how we should think about our departure from the European Union – and not waver in our determination to get it over the finishing line and emerge successfully on the other side.
Of course it is true, that Brexit has proved deeply divisive and certainly a substantial minority of voters chose Remain in the 2016 referendum. Where I live, I get on very well with my neighbours, most of whom voted to leave. But among those who didn’t, the reason for this was immediately apparent. Not for an abiding love of the European Union did they opt to Remain but simply this: a fear of the unknown and a desire to cling on to the status quo.
Conservative-minded folk like me know that feeling well. I often desire to cling on to what I know and trust – even if a change of course might at times be the better option. But here’s the thing: the “status quo” element which made up such an enormous proportion of the 48% who voted Remain will melt away once we find ourselves on the other side and discover that the sky isn’t going to fall in after all.
When short-term problems are ironed out and Britain, the EU and the rest of the world settle into a different way of doing things and life carries on as before – only better – the Remainers of 2016 will become Remainers of a different kind in the future – stalwarts of the new status quo: life outside the EU.
Were a referendum to be held in say, fifteen years’ time to gauge support for possibly rejoining, most of those 48 per-centers will cheerfully vote Remain once more – only this time it will mean the opposite of what it did in 2016. Meanwhile, the 52% who voted Leave out of love for their nation will continue to feel the same way and so any such referendum will almost certainly produce a massive majority in favour of Britain remaining independent.
Thus, our pathway to becoming a united nation once again and putting all the acrimonious divisions behind us, is to do exactly as Boris Johnson said this morning and leave the European Union properly on March 29th, as already laid down in statute. If we go full steam ahead – on WTO rules if need be – then by the end of this year we will be a happier country and one which is healing again.
The opposite will be true if either Article 50 is revoked or postponed or Brexit reduced to a meaningless Brino. The anger and sense of injustice that will cause among not only passionate Brexiteers but the general public will be like nothing we have witnessed this side of the English Civil War. There will be no healing. There will almost certainly be rioting on the streets. But above all, in every hitherto quiet pub in the land and leafy street corner, ordinary, decent Brits will congregate in despair and bafflement, no longer even believing in democracy itself. A very dangerous cynicism will emerge. And the issue, of course, will not go away. The divisions created by EU membership will continue long into the future. Who knows what unpleasant tailwinds that could generate?
One thing is for sure, the United Kingdom will be utterly and totally divided, polarised, tense, unstable and unhappy. We must not do this to ourselves. Delivering on the mandate of the people to leave the European Union is the only solution. It absolutely must happen on March 29th, with or without any agreement. Let us hope Brussels will see sense (although they won’t if we take no-deal off the table) and scraps the hated Northern Ireland backstop. That would be a huge breakthrough.
If not, then we leave on WTO terms and frankly, that is probably the better option long term. If there is some short-term disruption then that can be mitigated with the £39 billion we won’t have to pay to the EU after all. And it is in any case, as nothing compared to the sacrifice our forebears were willing to make in two world wars for the noble cause of living in a free and independent country. In their memory let’s crack on with Brexit – and do a proper job.
Robert J Davies, the founder of the Rural Conservative Movement, is a writer and former newspaper journalist