Well, folks, it has actually happened. Britain left the European Union on January 31. This has created enormous attention and extensive international media coverage and there have been huge celebrations in London and elsewhere in the country. It has been described in Britain as the most significant moment in the nation’s modern history.
Feedback after my column on the subject last week has encouraged me to offer further thoughts about how things developed to the point where we are today and to explain what I believe was the inevitability of Brexit. It is said that history repeats itself. But, in this case, it is more a matter of the tide of history taking its relentless course.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the EU is not Europe. Britain has left the institutions of the EU but is not distancing itself from the continent of Europe. This is a hugely varied collection of countries with different histories, cultures and languages which cherish their national sovereignty that in many cases was painfully acquired. The EU is a political and economic federalist project designed to lead to a superstate as a global power on equal terms with the US, China and Russia. But its continuing drive towards ever-closer political union requires a diminishing of the independence of its member states – and, with the rise of Euroscepticism, it is becoming increasingly evident such unification will be hard to achieve.
The motives of the EU Founding Fathers to bring about such unity after the horrors of the Second World War - the most destructive conflict in history - were admirable. Churchill himself, surveying a continent ripped apart by the war, said in 1946 that in order to bring about lasting peace it was vital to build a United States of Europe; and, if the continent could be rebuilt and united, there would be no limit to its prosperity and development. But he and successive British political leaders meant by European co-operation and unity an alliance of independent sovereign states - what French leader Charles de Gaulle later called a ‘Europe des Patries’ – not a single federal state called Europe.
Britain could have been a co-founder of the European Economic Community by signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957 but declined to join what became known as the Common Market, partly because even at that early stage there were doubts about loss of sovereignty. But, in the 1970s, it became apparent, with the withdrawal from empire and the domestic economy in poor shape, it made sense to trade on the best possible terms with Britain’s nearest neighbours in Europe. So, in 1973, a Conservative government signed up to the EEC which was essentially a free association of nations. This was followed by a referendum in Britain in 1975 which predictably produced a comfortable majority in favour of staying in the then Common Market, since that was clearly beneficial to the nation’s economy.
From the beginning, the UK’s membership was something of an awkward fit, with, for example, concerns about the EEC budgetary system and the wasteful Common Agriculture Policy that heavily favoured France’s farming sector and resulted in excessive production creating the notorious butter mountains as well as wine lakes. While the core European countries were already pushing for deeper economic and political union, Britain wanted to be part of a wider, looser trading relationship, and negotiated many policy opt-outs and a large dues rebate.
Then, in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty brought about a fundamental change when the EEC became the EU and a path was set for creation of a single currency, the euro. The UK declined to join either the euro or the earlier Schengen Agreement that provided for a passport-free, borderless Europe. But it ratified the Maastricht Treaty, while eurosceptics opposed it on the grounds that it encroached on sovereignty, with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saying it “conflicted with British democratic institutions and the accountability of Parliament”.
Later, I believe the dream began to sour, partly because the nation’s trust in the EU was damaged by the eurozone’s troubles and the refugee crisis, though for most Britons the EU project was anyway more of a pragmatic question than a love affair, and, for some time, the UK was on what could be called a different trajectory from other EU member states.
Increasingly, critics were calling the bloc authoritarian, protectionist, corrupt and a bureaucratic nightmare. But matters did not come to a head until Britain’s 2016 referendum which was precipitated by the emergence of the UK Independence Party that reflected widespread public opposition to continuing EU membership. The result was a narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU.
There followed three and a half years of bitter wrangling, with the political class attempting to subvert the democratic process until last December’s general election when the British public voted in substantial numbers to leave, and the issue has now finally been resolved.
Thus, the schism was a gradual but largely unstoppable process. There is insufficient space today to opine about the UK’s future during the coming transition period or, indeed, about how the EU will fare without one of its main financial contributors. The UK/EU political declaration speaks of economic partnership and a trade deal. The next stage will be to negotiate the details - and Britain will also continue to co-operate with the bloc in everything from science and technology, climate change, education, tourism and sport to crime and the European Arrest Warrant, security and counter terrorism. So the saga is far from over.
In my own view, one of the most telling factors about Brexit - apart from the public pressure to limit immigration - was Britain lost control over its own laws because under the existing system official EU directives became part of its domestic law and the country came under the aegis of the European Court of Justice.
The EU considers the nation state to be obsolete and, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his address on January 31, it has evolved over the past 50 years in a direction that no longer suits Britain, so the judgment of the people has been to leave. But, while taking back the tools of self-government, Britain will collaborate with its European neighbours for mutual benefit while at the same time reaching out to the rest of the world including trade deals – and it is better equipped to do that, as a more confident, diverse, dynamic, prosperous and stronger nation than it was when it joined the EEC 47 years ago.
It looks like we’ve woken up to a new thought police
In December, I touched briefly on the new expression “woke” and return to the subject today after learning more about it because it seems to be a growing trend. I suggested it was loosely defined as being committed to social and political justice and not least being alert to injustice such as racism.
So, it was interesting to spot a recent article about the woke culture by Frederick Forsyth, pictured, the famed English novelist whose thriller The Day of the Jackal set him on his path as a successful author. He wrote what he called the idiocy of being woke and suggested that it seems to have overtaken and replaced political correctness. He explained it has already developed in to a kind of “thought police whose devotees have arrogated to themselves the right to be offended to their core by anything they disagree with”.
It appears anybody who decides he or she is offended by or disagrees with something they have read or heard because it is deemed to be non-woke can publicly denounce those concerned. The first step normally is to post a complaint on social media and the likely result will be a stream of hysterical reaction from those who purport to be similarly outraged. So the issue escalates into mass condemnation. If the people who are apparently responsible for causing the offence dare to answer back instead of issuing a grovelling apology and a retraction, they are publicly and mercilessly vilified. Any notion of free speech or respect for the opinions of others does not enter the heads of those who claim to be offended. The woke thought process seems to have overtaken universities, in particular. Divergent opinion is shut down in places of learning where differing views and the stimulation of genuine debate should surely not only be tolerated but encouraged.
We are, of course, not talking here about legitimate criticism of those guilty of expressing views in an abusive manner or about slander or defamation that are covered by the law, but simply individuals who have opinions on what might be controversial matters. Others may claim to be offended by those or disagree with them and, therefore, demand the right to bully the holders of contrary views into submission rather than engage in civilised debate when people can disagree without being disagreeable.
In a free, democratic society under the rule of law, one of the most precious rights is to be able to express oneself freely but within the constraints of decency and legality. A balance has to be struck, however, between the right to free speech and reasonable behaviour and courtesy in one’s dealings with others, including respect for religious, cultural and ethnic sensitivities. The trick is to know where to draw the line - and, in determining what is reasonable, it has almost become a cliché that the rare commodity of common sense is so often the key.
The world’s gone barking mad . . .
On a related subject to woke and political correctness, I have come across a story in the UK press which some may find amusing or perhaps regard as lunacy.
Most people would surely agree that cats and dogs on the whole seem happy to be fed, watered and generally looked after by humans who regard them as pets and call them that. But the head of an animal rights organisation in Britain known as PETA is now telling people it is derogatory to use the word pets. This is because using such a term suggests they are merely a “commodity” or a “decoration” whereas they are living creatures with emotions and should not be treated as toys which is demeaning.
So, she tells us we should call them companions rather than pets - and, by the way, we should show them more respect by calling ourselves human carers rather than owners because the latter implies that we regard them as no more than a chattel or disposable possession.
I borrow from a customary expression of a famous UK press columnist in saying you couldn’t make this stuff up. Foreigners will no doubt put it down to weird English humour. In amusing comments online, the good lady concerned is being labelled a numpty, a nut job and just plain daft. Those attempting to be erudite say it is anthropomorphism gone mad. For our part, my wife and I will only stop calling our little shih tzu dog a pet when he tells us that he does, indeed, find it demeaning and he would like us to show him more respect!