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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Take back control of our destiny

Published by The i paper (2nd April, 2018)

Take back control was a great political slogan. It had stark simplicity. It smacked of nostalgia. And it was elastic enough to reflect differing concerns of voters. It united red-faced nationalists wanting fewer foreigners in Britain with wealthy suburbanites seeking a smaller state and struggling families understandably infuriated by static pay. Yet this same flexibility makes a poor foundation for building a strong cultural, economic and political strategy after departure from a 45-year communal alliance.

So with less than one year before our exit from the European Union, it remains hard to discern the final shape of future relationships. Pledges made before the vote by leading Leave campaigners have largely dissolved. To take one example among many, Tory MEP Daniel Hannan insisted ‘absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.’ Now listen to Theresa May earlier this month: ‘We are leaving the single market,’ she said. ‘Life is going to be different.’

Indeed it is. Britain is carrying out an act of gratuitous self-harm that weakens our economy and global standing. It seems even sillier in a world of rising nationalism, populism and protectionism. It seems even sillier in a world of rising nationalism, populism and protectionism. Some welcome ‘Brexodus’, the recent sharp fall in migrants, but it exposes only the dwindling appeal of our country as creative folk head elsewhere than to our firms, fields and hospitals – significant first small steps being taken by individuals and businesses as we slide along the slippery path from Brexit.

Taking back control was said to be about democracy yet Remainers, – representing almost half the electorate – are routinely accused of being ‘unpatriotic’. This reveals the desperation of Brexiteers as their glib and threadbare claims get ripped apart by reality. Key players promised departure would be simple since ‘the UK holds most of the cards’. Yet from financial payments and fishing through to transition and trade deals, Britain keeps giving and Brussels gleefully taking in discussions to date.

That mythical ‘control’ seems to mean acquiescing to anything the EU demands while postponing tough problems and then proclaiming triumph. It is reminiscent of King Pyrrhus with his famous quote that ’If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined.’ Posturing Brexiteers grit their teeth through each setback, focused amid their froth and fury on ensuring Britain actually quits the community next year – even if this makes little real difference for fishing, free movement and public finances over the subsequent transition period.

This process has been pitiful from the moment a prime minister who once spoke about risks of Brexit triggered Article 50 without slightest clue over shape of a deal. Both main parties play pathetic political games over departure despite internal majorities believing it damages British interests. Many MPs bovinely back a cause knowing it corrodes prosperity for constituents. Our politics is left so diminished that Brexiteers who argued for free trade now bleat about a French firm making our new blue passports as ‘national humiliation’ – and Labour laughably agrees.

Opponents focus on chipping away to soften the blow. This is understandable: cliff-edge Brexit would be a disaster and it is desirous to retain closest possible links with main trading partners. Prepare to see peers amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to a tsunami of outrage, then the Commons tested to see if enough MPs have the bottle to back Britain staying in the customs union. A successful revolt putting nation before party would make it easier to resolve the Irish border question – and secretly please both the prime minister and chancellor.

How may voters realised taking back control meant clinging on to Europe’s coat tails in this desperate style? And however you cut the cake, Britain is ceding some power. A former Norwegian minister for Europe told me he used to fly to meetings of the United Nations in New York just to find out what was happening from fellow European ministers. Such is the farce that awaits Britain. Yet we are unlikely to end up with such a close deal as Oslo after May chose to interpret the referendum as backing for her own hardline stance on immigration.

Already there are discreet discussions over extending the 21-month transition period, when we start paying to abide by rules set in Brussels without any input. Every nation is, of course, bound by a web of multilateral ties in a globalised world. Yet for all the bold talk of British exceptionalism, we are left in weak position for trade deals with other nations. As the chief Chinese negotiator said to his Swiss counterpart pleading to exclude luxury timepieces from their one-sided trade deal: ’You may have the watches but we have all the time.’

It is too much to hope backsliding Brexiteers make the big concession: admitting they fooled voters with flawed arguments. But never forget this was billed as a struggle for democracy. So remember how Brexit secretary David Davis said a democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy. And Nigel Farage saying he would see a 52-48 defeat as ‘unfinished business.’

The nationalists and Europhobes focused always on repeal, not just resistance. Those that believe Brexit is bad for Britain should not be satisfied with improving terms of departure. Whether inside or outside parliament, they should follow the lead set by rivals in never giving up the battle for their beliefs. They should feel free to keep on fighting to overturn a folly and not be cowed by critics. Perhaps there will still be a second vote on any final deal. Regardless, everyone must be free do their patriotic duty – especially if means really taking back control of national destiny.

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