WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin MP discusses the psychology of breaking free
The Palace of Westminster is an entirely different place following the pre-Christmas general election. After months when MPs were consumed by deadlock, indecision, division, and anxiety, the election result resolved the paralysis. Disraeli, the nineteenth-century Conservative prime minister was famous for saying that “England does not like coalitions.” By this, he did not mean only that they were generally unpopular, but that our system of government works best when a strong government has a clear majority. The attempts at the end of the last parliament for the House of Commons to take over the role of the government was leading to a breakdown in the norms and conventions of our largely uncodified constitution. It is also true that in our system, hung parliaments are relatively rare. So, the election of a government with a clear majority is a return to normality and stability. And the relief around the Palace is palpable, if traumatic for those who did badly (Labour and LibDem).
The new government has a mandate to “get Brexit done” and just as I write, the Withdrawal Agreement Act has been given Royal Assent and is being implemented. Boris Johnson’s campaign was appealing to those who wanted an end to the rancour and indecision. But his victory also rested on a substantial disaffection with Labour: a real fear that a Corbyn government or another hung parliament would begin to have disastrous effects on the economy and on our political stability. So many voters held their noses to vote for Boris, despite not trusting him or even despising his views and his personality. The tone Boris struck in his victory speech – that these votes were only lent to him – was tacit and tactful acknowledgement that his mandate requires him to confound his critics. His victory is only a qualified vindication of him and his party.
And of course, getting Brexit done is by no means like the boys’ adventure story… “and with one bound, he was free.” In fact, the Withdrawal Agreement enmeshes the UK in ongoing obligations to the EU, which have the potential to restrict the UK’s negotiating freedoms as we move towards the end of 2020 when the UK leaves the ‘implementation period’ – poorly named since there is as yet little agreed to implement. It is not unreasonable to assume that the UK, having spent 46 years being integrated into the EU, will take many decades to establish our new independent status.
As one of those who set up the Vote Leave campaign, and campaigned for Brexit, I am relaxed about this. I expect the government to negotiate with far more verve and confidence than before the election, because it has the democratic legitimacy and authority that a mere referendum vote does not have in a system of government based on representative rather than direct democracy. However, there is more to it than that.
31 January 2020 represents a watershed in British history, just as joining did in 1972. Whereas 1972 was the start of a trajectory towards “ever closer union” (as the Treaty of Rome states), 2020 is breaking from that. The psychological effect of breaking free is by far the most important single factor. Many commentators will be hunting, perhaps with some cynicism, for the tangible advantages of leaving the EU, such as the ability to control particular regulations, or to trade certain items or services with other countries on different terms. It is fair to ask, “Show me the advantages of being out!” But the real advantage is in our national attitude.
We have voted for national independence and democratic self-determination. We have decided to take responsibility for our own future. We have rejected dependency, subservience and subordination to a higher constitutional authority. We have decided to take the risk of striking out on our own. We will now have both the freedom, but also the obligation, to exercise that freedom, which we did not have before. It opens possibilities which have been placed out-of-bounds to governments for half a century. It will take some time before we can as a nation imagine the possibilities and potential that can now be realised, but it will energise the nation, particularly as we move into an era of new technologies and whole new industries.
The EU will be nervous about how successful we may become, but in the end they will be more preoccupied with their own internal difficulties, which are created by the very nature of the treaties by which they bind themselves: the lack of transparency and accountability, the economic sclerosis of their high tax, high regulation and inflexible economic system; the burden of a single currency without any legitimate way of transferring wealth from its richer to its poorer members, which has already inflicted so much damage on some of their economies.
But the UK will want to remain on the best of terms with our EU partners. They remain our partners in so many ways. And the potential of what we can achieve will always be so much greater when we work together.
And don’t expect the Boris administration to be plain sailing. There will be new controversies – about the nature of our free trade agreements, about tackling climate change, domestic social policy reform – that will keep British politics interesting for many more centuries.
Our constitutional settlement is almost unique, in that it rests on a continuous and uninterrupted development lasting more than 1,000 years (since the Norman invasion). Our 46 years in the EU will be seen to be one of the less significant and shorter periods of our historical development – an improbably constitutional experiment which was never likely to be successful, once we had regained our confidence after the economic trials of the 1970s.