The Referendum on Europe: Opportunity or Threat?
– Speech by Sir John Major at Chatham House
February 28, 2017
Well, DeAnne, thank you. And good evening, everyone.
Eight…eight months ago, a majority of voters opted to leave the European Union. I believed then – as I do now – that was an historic mistake, but it was one – once asked – that the British nation had every right to make. The Government can’t ignore that decision and must now shape a new future for our country. Some changes may be beneficial; others may not. A hard Brexit – which is where we appear to be heading – is high risk. Some will gain, others will lose. Many outcomes are going to be very different from present expectations. We will find, to take but one example, that – for all the social pressure for immigration control – economically, we will need their skills of immigrants.
The Referendum was probably one of the most divisive votes in all British history. It not only divided the four nations of our United Kingdom, but opened up divisions within those nations, within political parties, within neighbourhoods, within families, between age and income groups, and among friends. It won’t be easy to heal those divisions and unite our nations. Yet that is what we need to do.
In Scotland, I believe a hard Brexit will encourage a second referendum on independence. This may seem improbable at this moment, but it would be reckless to ignore the risk. As we saw last June, emotion and national pride can overcome economic self-interest. If Scotland were to become independent, both Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom would be diminished. That cannot be ignored as Brexit evolves.
And of course, the same is true of Northern Ireland. Many, many years of painstaking effort went into the Irish Peace Process, which, even apart from Brexit, is now in a fragile moment. Uncertainties over border restrictions between Ulster and the Republic are a serious threat – a threat to the UK, to the peace process, and for Ireland, both North and South. A special deal is going to be necessary. I will return to those important issues on another occasion.
As I voted on the losing side in the Referendum, I have kept silent since last June. This evening, I don’t wish to argue that the European Union is perfect. Plainly, it isn’t. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken.
But, I do observe that we haven’t yet left the European Union, and I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic. Obstacles are brushed aside as if no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.
Now, I am no longer in politics. I have absolutely no wish to re-enter it in any capacity. I do not seek publicity – more often than not, I shy away from it.
But I can’t ignore what I learned in Government. Nor can I forget the people who voted to leave Europe in the belief that it might improve their lives. If events go badly, their expectations will not be met, and whole communities will be worse off. The particular fear I have is that those most likely to be hurt will be those least able to protect themselves.
So, I have two objectives this evening: to offer a reality check on our national prospects; and to warn against an over-optimism that – if it is unachieved – will sow further distrust between politics and the public – at a time when trust needs to be rebuilt. It would be better to underplay rather than overplay expectations.
The post-referendum debate has been deeply dispiriting.
After decades of campaigning, the anti-Europeans won their battle to take Britain out of Europe. But in the afterglow of victory, their cheerleaders have shown a disregard that amounts to contempt for the 48 per cent who believed that future was more secure within the European Union.
Remain voters are of all political persuasions, and of none. Over recent months, many of them have written to me in dismay – even despair.
They are people from every walk of life who have every right to their view, every right to express it, and every right to have their opinion represented and tested in Parliament.
This 48% care no less for our country than the 52 per cent who voted to leave. They are every bit as patriotic. But they take a different view of Britain’s future role in the world, and are deeply worried for themselves, for their families, and for our country.
They simply don’t deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls – even in a referendum – does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent.
Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It’s not “arrogant” or “brazen” or “elitist”, or remotely “delusional” to express concern about our future after Brexit. And nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean – and it is time that it stopped.
Our Parliament exists to scrutinise the Executive. That’s a large part of its job. So, it is depressing to see “Leave” enthusiasts in Parliament acting against their own principles. To win the Referendum, they asserted the sovereignty of our own Parliament: now, they speak and vote to deny that same Parliament any meaningful role in shaping, in overseeing, or in approving the outcome of our negotiations in Europe. Our Parliament is not a rubber stamp – and shouldn’t be treated as if it were.
As a former Parliamentarian, I believe the negotiations to come are so crucial to our nation’s future that the Government would be wise to take frequent account of public opinion through Parliamentary debate.
Now, of course – don’t misunderstand me – of course, neither Parliament nor public can micro-manage the negotiations. We must trust Ministers to do so. And they must have flexibility as they do so.
But Parliament must be free to debate and comment and advise. For it not to do so would be wrong in principle; it would also be unwise politically if – as it might – the will of the people evolves, and the reality of Brexit becomes unpopular.
The hopes of those who favoured leaving the European Union are sky-high. We are told, I quote, that countries “are queueing up to do trade deals with us”; that “our best days lie ahead”.
It all sounds very enticing. And – for the sake of our country – I hope the optimists are proved right. But I’m not sure they will be. My own experience of international negotiations – and the national self-interest that invariably accompanies them – makes me doubt the rosy confidence being offered to the British people.
Negotiations are all about “give” and “take”. We know what the Brexit supporters wish to take, yet we hear nothing about what our country may have to give in return. If anyone genuinely believes that Europe will concede all we wish for – and exact no price for doing so – then they are extraordinarily naïve.
As I consider the complexities that lie ahead, the words of Kipling come to mind:
“I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.”
It is the detail – the what and the why, the when and the how, and the where and the who – that is key to the success of these negotiations. And to avoid later recriminations, the British public needs to be made aware now of the hurdles ahead and what different outcomes will mean for their future.