There have been some unedifying scare tactics use on both sides of the EU debate and it is hard to see the solid wood of the arguments for and against at all through the dodgy obfuscating trees. So to make it clearer here is the bottom line. "Brexit" is a pathway to the takeover by the political Right in Britain. All the rest is noise.
In 1990 the Conservative Party committed matricide. After eleven years in office the blessed Margaret Thatcher (Peace be Upon Her) was unceremoniously booted out of office by her own Cabinet. That Cabinet had had enough of Thatcher's increasingly strident style - especially her growing antagonism to the European Community (as it then was). Europe was the final straw, but as now it was cover for a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have been (at times fragile) alliances between Right and Left. Indeed at present both of our main parties are fighting bitter internal battles. The Tory one is of longer duration, however, stretching back uninterrupted to that fatal day in November 1990 when Thatcher was forced out of office. Uneasy has lain the crown on the heads of her successors. John Major, a decent man for all his lightweight persona, struggled and largely failed against the still Thatcherite internal opposition in his own Party. (The country at large rather liked him and surprisingly re-elected him in 1992). In succession to Major the Thatcherites tried to get control again with a series of leaders who they saw as being "One of Us" - William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were all Thatcherites and all failed because the country had solidly embraced the centre ground with New Labour.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown knew that Britain can only be governed from the centre (that Thatcher decade apart). In 2005 the Conservative Party, after a third successive Election defeat, got the message as well. David Cameron, a clever pragmatist, won the leadership defeating the Thatcher choice (and initially favourite) David Davis along the way. The Conservative Right didn't like it much - Cameron positioned himself not as Margaret Thatcher's heir but as Tony Blair’s! This reached its apotheosis when Cameron did a deal with the "Soft Left" Liberal Democrats after the inconclusive 2010 election.
So whilst Cameron and Clegg carried on governing as New Labour had - from the centre ground - those Conservatives who didn't like this regrouped and plotted. This plotting was fairly open. Michael Ashcroft established the Conservative Home website which whilst nominally evenly balanced was in fact firmly in the hands of the Thatcherite Right. At "The Spectator" the tone was similarly neo-Thatcherite. Newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph - always Conservative - now fell into the hands of the further Right (the Express went Far Right and became an organ of UKIP). Crucially the Murdoch press (The Times and The Sun) was recruited as well - though in the case of The Times this was a little more subtle.
The 2015 election confused the plotters. They expected Cameron to lose and were positioning themselves to install a "One of Us" successor when he did. But the Great British Public stymied them again. With "Call me Dave" safely back in Number 10 the Conservative Right played their final card. Cameron had promised a referendum on Britain's EU membership and by God they were going to ensure he delivered one! This referendum promise had been an attempt by Cameron to satisfy the demands of his Right Wing - as well as to reduce the appeal of Conservative defector Nigel Farage's shallow but simplistically effective United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). There was little interest in the country at large in having a battle over Europe. There were other priorities for the Government than this surely?
Well actually the "Leave" campaign thought there were "other priorities" as well! "Brexit" (that hideous, but clever, neologism) was nominally, of course, about Europe. But it was deep down really about what the Right calls "Freedom". This "freedom" predicates free markets above all. This has become known as "Neo-liberalism" and is associated especially with laissez-faire economics. It advocates support for extensive economic liberalisation - privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, and substantial reductions in government influence on the State and expenditure. The Thatcher credo.
The European Union is essentially a capitalist construct - which is why opposition to it was initially (in the 1960s and early 1970s) mainly a Left Wing concern. But even forty plus years ago there was a hard core of conservative objection to Britain being part of the project for European political and economic integration. During the 1975 referendum Enoch Powell, effectively the leader of this faction said this:
“The nation is being invited to confirm the surrender, and the permanent surrender, of its most precious possession: its political independence and parliamentary self-government, and the right to live under laws and to pay taxes authorised only by Parliament and to be governed by policies for which the executive is fully accountable through Parliament to the electorate.”
There is little, if any, difference between what Powell said forty years ago and what the conservative Brexiters say today. Like them Powell was anti-interventionist, a believer in the power of the market and like Thatcher a monetarist. The quote above needs to be seen in an economic as well as a governance context. The two are linked. Powell feared that Britain would lose the freedom to apply a strict economic regime because of Europe’s removal of some of its sovereignty (the fear was unfounded as the Thatcher years showed!). That fear is at the heart of the Brexit case today. Daniel Hannan, for example, puts it like this:
“Will the United Kingdom be an independent nation, trading with its friends on the Continent while living under its own laws? Or will it be part of a country called Europe?”
The European Union is, as I have said, a capitalist construct – but it is a regulated one. And broadly these regulations apply to all of its members. In pure terms this is a restraint on competition but in a pan-European context it creates a level playing field on which competitive behaviour can better operate. “Better” in the public interest sense. No member can, for example, cut prices or wages in an “unfair” way to seek commercial advantage. Of course what is “unfair” is subjective which is why there are democratic institutions (e.g. the European Parliament) where a resolution is sought.
The libertarian right and believers in so-called “business freedom” like The Freedom Association
are, of course, opposed to regulation generally and regulation from Brussels in particular. And they are prime movers in the Brexit campaign. And this brings us to the heart of the subject. On the Right there is a precise correlation between support for Brexit and support for this kind of free enterprise. Not any old wishy-washy mixed economy free enterprise. Hard , rigorous, “libertarian” neo-liberal free enterprise. Thatcher plus
if you like.
Targets of this group in the past (apart, of course, from the EU) have included the BBC, the NHS, the Trades Union movement – indeed anything that rings of public control, public ownership or social democracy. They want no less than a revolution with privatisation and free enterprise being the norm across the economy. But they know that they cannot do this when Britain is in the EU as the rest of Europe and the EU, as its legislative glue, has embraced the mixed economy – albeit one that has capitalist underpinning.
So the Brexiters strategy and the strategy of the “Free Enterprise” brigade are inextricably tied together to the extent that the joins are seamless. Tactically the sequence is:
- Britain is persuaded to vote “Leave” on June 23rd
- A leadership contest in the Conservative Party commences
- A Right Wing leader is chosen (or more likely the self-interested front man Boris Johnson – a man unburdened with ideology or beliefs).
- Johnson’s cabinet is stuffed with Right Wingers who launch the revolution.
- The leadership lacuna in the Labour Party allows the Conservatives to win a mandate for their Right Wing economic agenda in a swiftly called General Election.
The rest will be history – as will be the United Kingdom as a modern nation.