In his youth Bruce was a devout Marxist and civil rights campaigner in Northern Ireland. In maturity his political direction veered right and he became Political Editor of The Spectator and regular contributor to both the Daily Mail and Independent. He remains a staunch ‘Camronite’ and does not like jazz.
No Brexiteer is more convincing than Roger Bootle. As a tribe, the Leave camp tend to be in the grip of romanticism: never wise in politics. To listen to them, one would think that in post-Brexit Britain, the sun will shine from March to November, we will never lose another Test match and we will be able to negotiate trade deals all over the globe. Roger is an unillusioned realist. He accepts that there will be costs, but believes that they are a price worth paying. In terms of economic culture, we diverge from the EU, which has absorbed French statism and Colbertian mercantilism, plus a more modern ‘whatever you’re doing, stop it’, attitude to regulation. Allied to a quest for political union, which commands little support in the UK, all this creates an unbridgeable difference. Over time, once unrestricted by the EU, we would be able to do what we do best: earn our living on the high seas and allow an open, free-trade economy, liberated from regulatory excess, to play to its strengths.
It is mightily persuasive. I was a tepid remainer, but not out of belief in Europe. It might deem paradoxical, but I thought that we should stay in because, on its own terms, the EU could not work. The Single Currency was surely unsustainable (though I have worn out several sandwich boards in pursuit of that prediction). Its collapse would take political union off the agenda. I therefore argued that we should hold on, pro tem, because it would be easier to negotiate the best arrangements for us when the rest were menaced by tumbling masonry.
After the ‘No’ vote, most of those arguments ceased to be relevant, as the world turned upside down. Amidst all the confusion, there are two obvious conclusions. First, it would be absurd to argue that one referendum resolves the issue for the rest of eternity. Yes, there was an enormous ‘leave’ vote: the largest single vote in British political history. But the ‘No’ total, less than four percent behind, was the second largest. A General Election victory by four percent might provide a working majority for a whole Parliament. It would not abolish party politics. It could be overturned. So could the Referendum.
But how? That brings us to the second point. It is not easy to harmonise referendums with British politics. Mrs Thatcher once said that they appeal to dictators and demagogues. Since then, they have crept into use when major constitutional questions are to be decided. Despite the Lady’s doubts, that seems reasonable. It would be inconceivable for Scotland to separate from the UK without a referendum. Yet once a referendum does take place, it introduces a finality into the debate, which goes far beyond a mere Parliamentary majority. It seems equally inconceivable that the 2016 Referendum could be reversed, unless there was a dramatic change in the geo-political landscape. This could occur because of an economic crisis in the UK, so that a sizeable majority of voters decided that Brexit had become a grave threat to living standards. Yet that does not seem to be happening, fortunately, and no patriot should wish such a misfortune upon his country.
The alternative reason to rethink Brexit would be a crisis on the continent. In the short-term, that does not appear likely, unfortunately (nothing wrong with ‘politique du pire’ as long as the foreigners are getting the ‘pire’). In view of this, Brexit will almost certainly happen. So what will it mean? That is deeply unclear. The easy solution is a hard Brexit; no deal with the EU, so that trade takes place under WTO rules, with a maximum tariff of four percent. Given the decline in Sterling’s value, that is not onerous. As we are running a sizeable trade deficit with the EU, one might assume that the others would be happy to continue to trade on present terms. But there is a flaw in that assumption. It is based on the premise that the EU is a rational organisation, operating in pursuit of economic self-interest. If that were the case, there would be no Euro.
It is vital to remember that the EU is primarily a political project. Indeed, it is a characteristically Enlightenment project, based on the reshaping of human nature in order to achieve a higher political destiny. Marxism, fascism and apartheid are classic examples. In each case, the proponents were unmoved by the prospect of economic dislocation and human suffering. That was a price well worth paying, for such a glorious goal.
Thus it is with the EU, one reason why the high priests of political union are so upset with us. Their attitude is a blend of snobbery and insecurity. On the one hand, they view our refusal to respond to the grandeur of political union as a form of moral negligence. On the other, they are uneasily aware that much of the European public is unconvinced by the enthusiasms of the Euro-nomenclatura. They fear the contaminating effect of Brexit. ‘If it is good for the British’ many European voters might say: ‘perhaps it would work for us?’
That is why many European political leaders want to punish the UK. If we negotiate a deal that is good for Britain, some European electorates might decide to follow our example.
This could mean that a hard Brexit would be dangerous. If the rest wish to punish us, there is an obvious target: the City. The City of London is the most sophisticated financial centre in the world. Its capital markets are crucial to the successful operation of European economies, as many Germans seem to recognise. But some French officials, still mercantilist, still ready to believe that anyone else’s gain must involve their loss, think that they see a way to strike at Britain, whatever the consequences for European capital flows.
That might seem an argument for a negotiated Brexit, but there is a difficulty. The terms on offer could well prove unacceptable. Not only would Britain have to make a large contribution to the EU’s budget. Our firms would still be subject to EU regulations. We would still be unable to make our own trade deals, we could still be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and we would still not be able to control our borders. Many British voters – and not only enthusiastic Brexiteers – would find that intolerable. They would insist that Brexit means Brexit. Once you leave, that is it: no contributions and no rules. If that view were to prevail, there would be no deal.
In recent years, it has been hard enough to interpret the past, let alone predict the future. At the risk of looking foolish, I shall now attempt to make a forecast. First, Britain and the EU will reach agreement on our contribution and the Irish economy. In so doing, the tolerance of the Brexiteers will be strained to the uttermost. The Prime Minister’s political survival would be on a knife-edge. But she would just about survive. Then the tough talking will begin, about trade, regulations, the ECJ and immigration. The outcome will depend on political conditions here and on the continent. If they are feeling threatened by their publics’ growing Euro-scepticism, they will try to be tough. If Mrs May is under pressure from exasperated Brexiteers, so will she. The likely outcome: mutual recrimination and no agreement.
We face months and years of uncertainty. That is the only point on which we can be certain.