Can Brexit save the Union?

Can Brexit save the Union?

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 18, January, 2021

THE POLITICAL EDITOR of the Financial Times, Philip Stephens, has just published a 464-page dirge on our exit from the EU called ‘The Path From Suez to Brexit’. The title is presumably meant to emphasise the rightful place of Brexit in our list of national disasters and its link to our imperial heritage.  Remainers, it should be remembered, see Britain as still and uniquely suffering from ‘post-war imperial decline’, despite the fact that unlike France, for example, we did not follow real defeat in war with two bitter colonial defeats, the downfall of a republic and near civil war.  

Germany meanwhile, defeated, divided and occupied by four allied powers, really did learn what post-war decline could mean. Whereas our economy grew, Empire was peacefully transformed into Commonwealth while unlike the French and Americans we actually won a war in the Far East in Malaya. Only a small proportion of our population was involved in the Empire (as I demonstrated in a previous article) and India provided the largest volunteer army in world history to help us win the Second World War. Little wonder then that most British people gave hardly a passing thought to the loss of Empire after 1945, while British governments were often criticised in the 1960s for granting African colonies their independence too quickly.  

All this would later baffle conscience-stricken commentators on the Left. Suez, however, gave them a way round this. Suez seemed to prove that we were nasty, recidivist imperialists and aggressors after all. It was Robert Harris, I think, who once wrote that we must always have Suez branded on our foreheads as a mark of shame for attempting to overthrow that nice Colonel Nasser. Stephens, taking up the other trope, writes that Suez ‘laid bare the realities of post-imperial decline.’ Which, of course, is equal nonsense.  

Suez was an adventure which was concocted by the French and the Israelis in which the British were invited to participate. France and Israel needed the RAF to make their scheme work. Eden had little idea how to respond to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and until 1956 had a very good record regarding Egypt. But the Canal was strategically a vital international waterway in his eyes and so he allowed the French to persuade him it was a case of ‘canaliser le colonel ou coloniser le canal’ as they put it. Hence British participation.  

Eisenhower, who was running for re-election, got upset and demanded Eden’s head. An ambitious Macmillan was only too ready to supply it. But Suez itself had no serious diplomatic consequences for Britain. On the contrary, by 1958 both we and the Americans were again intervening militarily in the Middle East, us in Jordan, the Americans in Lebanon. By 1963 Kennedy had even given us Polaris on the cheap and de Gaulle was so infuriated that he vetoed Macmillan’s bid to enter the EEC.  

Here again Stephens gets things entirely wrong. He writes that any idea of national sovereignty outside the EU was always a delusion. Yet de Gaulle himself knew the truth. Why, he asked, did a world power like Britain, with its American and NATO allies, nuclear weapons, cheap food from the Commonwealth and democratic institutions want to join the EEC? It didn’t make sense. After all to any neutral observer or a cold-blooded realist like de Gaulle himself, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg were just a bunch of losers who needed each other.  

The trouble was that Macmillan and Heath had become fully fledged European federalists like their friend Jean Monnet. They sought to prevent de Gaulle and Adenauer, whom they viewed as French and German nationalists, from stymying the development of the recently created European Economic Community designed and created by Monnet’s federalist chums before de Gaulle had seized power. This meant Britain herself would have to enter the Community to take over the leadership of Europe and save federalism. Heath met Monnet several times in secret to arrange entry terms, Macmillan lied to de Gaulle about being an anti-federalist and promised to get him Polaris from the Americans. However, de Gaulle saw through him and vetoed his entry bid. He ridiculed the prime minister quoting him the title of Edith Piaf’s song: ‘Ne pleurez pas m’lord!’ 

Meanwhile Macmillan had set up a ‘Long-Term Policies Committee’ under Sir Frank Lee whom he brought out of retirement and this planned a common European currency, a European army, a real European Parliament, common European education and other European goodies. It forecast that Britain would lose its national sovereignty. Sir Gladwyn Jebb, our ambassador in Paris, was absolutely delighted. Inside the EU we would have less influence, he forecast, than Texas in the USA. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, also predicted the end of British sovereignty but he wanted Macmillan to come clean about it. This never happened. Instead, Douglas Hurd, Heath’s amanuensis, arranged to pay Monnet’s Action Committee for a United States of Europe, £15,000 a year (a tidy sum back then) through Lord Edmund Plowden’s personal bank account in the City, for the Tory Party to become a secret corporate member. The other major parties, according to Francois Duchene, Monnet’s official biographer, later did the same. The EU had therefore corrupted British politics even before entry. (Hurd’s dealings with Monnet can be found in the Monnet Papers in Switzerland.) 

It was not until 1973 of course that we actually joined the EU and only then once President Pompidou decided he needed us to balance the rising influence of West Germany under Willy Brandt with his ‘Ostpolitik’. Heath still surrendered everything including even our fish to get accepted. His chief negotiator, Sir Con O’Neill, boasted that his motto had been: ‘Swallow the lot! Swallow it now!’ Not exactly the diplomacy of a Metternich or Bismarck, far less that of a Palmerston or Salisbury. Even Chamberlain and Halifax might have refused such humiliating terms. 

Membership cost us unnecessary billions although that is not the tale told by Philips. He, like so many of the chattering classes, bought the EU’s propaganda. Relentlessly monolingual they seemed to imagine themselves as polyglots. They boasted our students could now study in Europe although only 0.4 per cent ever did. (They were equally monolingual. European universities could only attract many of them if they taught in English!) But university staff became Jean Monnet professors, readers and lecturers and got grants from Brussels to study and lecture on every tedious aspect of EU policy. Meanwhile European universities slid their way down university world league tables. Newspaper editors fooled themselves that negotiations over farm subsidies (for a long time the main object of EU funding) constituted Realpolitik and represented world influence although it was embarrassingly clear that without any armed forces EU power could only be soft power. Only Arabs and Africans admired the limited degree of ‘unity’ Europeans ever achieved. Little Norway, remarkably, could negotiate the Oslo Accords which were a much greater diplomatic achievement than the Venice Declaration or indeed any other declaration that was ever issued in Brussels.  

Readers therefore should devour Robert Tomb’s new, much better written and more objective book, ‘This Sovereign Isle. Britain In and Out of Europe’ if they want a more reliable account of the road to Brexit, which Tombs suggest will soon fade to such an extent that people will wonder why we ever got so excited about it. Not that I believe that it will descend to the same level of inconsequence as the Schleswig-Holstein Question any time soon, although one can but hope.  

In Scotland, we may be sure that the SNP will keep it artificially alive for as long as possible. But even they will be unable to prevent the effects of the free trade agreement bringing its inevitable benefits to Scotland: more control over agriculture and fisheries, despite teething problems, and opportunities that were before closed off. Indeed, Scotland, as a result of Brexit, has already benefited from Britain’s ability to vaccinate her inhabitants much more quickly and efficiently both here and in England than on the Continent, especially in France. Brexit in this way alone has saved lives. Under Sturgeon’s baleful maladministration Scotland has a worse record for a country its size regarding Covid than any other in the world. Now, thanks to English-based (mainly Oxford) scientists not only have steroids and other drugs been found which can cut deaths but a vaccine has been found that may yet put an end to the pandemic. And thanks again to Brexit, this can be rolled out at a speed unequalled in Europe. Brexit is saving lives. Yet Sturgeon’s pledge at the last election was to ‘stop’ it and having campaigned against the horrors of ‘no deal’ she had Blackford and his witless colleagues at Westminster vote for precisely that.  

Worse still, we may ask what sort of state of destitution and deprivation would Scotland be in had not the British Treasury under Chancellor Sunak agreed to extend the Furlough Scheme and its other measures to protect workers and businesses in Scotland? I doubt whether Salmond would now be the most dangerous enemy of the First Minister if it were not by the grace of Sunak. Instead, she would be being pursued by baying mobs through the streets of Edinburgh and Govan protesting about their parlous economic condition. 

Sturgeon’s good fortune is also due to Boris, the chief architect of the Brexit result. I expect him to cut a much more positive figure once the population is vaccinated and restrictions begin to be removed. His policies of levelling up the North of our isle (including Scotland) will come to the fore and he will look a much greater figure on the international stage.  

It turns out, according to one report at any rate, that Biden sees Boris shouldering ‘the burdens of the world’ along with him and rumour has it they should get on quite well. Should a free trade treaty be signed with the USA and should both later become members of the CPTPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership) Britain would be in a trading arrangement that would dwarf the EU. As it is, the two countries should be able to strike an immediate rapport over climate change. Boris has promised a £12 billion green industrial revolution and although modest compared to Biden’s promised £1.5 trillion, Britain has a good green record to boast to the new president. In 2020 renewables accounted for 40 per cent of our electricity, up 9 per cent on the year before. Installation of the first Haliade-X field of wind turbines, the most powerful in the world, will begin in 2023 on the Dogger Bank off the Yorkshire coast. Gas boilers could be banned from 2023 making way for hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. Sales of petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030. Boris paints a picture of Britons cooking ‘your breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner, and the trucks and trains, ships and planes, are running on hydrogen or a synthetic fuel.’ 

Biden will make his first overseas trip in June to the G7 Summit in Cornwall and will once again be under British guidance at the big international climate summit in Glasgow in September. There Boris will demonstrate all Britain’s scientific advances and relate how she is the leading repository for scientific investment in Europe. Her leading role in conquering Covid will already be known. If still First Minister, Sturgeon will be furious. Likely to be side-lined by international leaders, any complaints about Brexit and the lack of a second independence referendum will be out of place (much like herself) and strike a false note. The EU cannot be expected to offer her support. Nor can any foreign leader without breaking international protocol. Maybe she could approach the head of the People’s Front of Judea?  

In the meantime another member of the House of Lords has suggested that Boris should set up a Royal Commission to consider a federal constitution for the UK. This time it is recently ennobled Daniel Hannan. He acknowledges that with England occupying 85 per cent of the UK’s land mass, federalism will not be easy, but then talks nonsensically about a form of internal English devolution involving cities and counties. Why should we put up with such proposals? The Scottish Nationalists, on whose account these bizarre and totally unnecessary measures are presumably being put forward have no interest in belonging to a British state, federal, confederal, centralised, or arranged in any other way. All they want of a British state, is the opportunity to repudiate it. This cannot be repeated often enough. All federalist proposals are irrelevant to Scottish Nationalists and everyone else. Why Hannan does not realise this is hard to understand.  

His most bizarre suggestion was to propose that Gordon Brown should become Leader of the Scottish Labour Party (nominations close today, Monday). This is beyond satire and proves exactly how little Hannan understands about Scotland. Poor Gordon. He would have few followers; be attempting to reform a system which he designed specifically to kill off Scottish nationalism but which has almost led it to its triumph; would be ridiculed continuously and asked which vows he proposes to offer Scotland now. In short he would be like a stranded whale, an object of wonder and pity, although in his case with no hope of a rising Labour tide to rescue him. Only someone completely ignorant of Scottish politics could wish this on him.  

In conclusion, reflections on Brexit merely make one realise what a great achievement it was. Scots should look forward to being part of Brexit Britain with confidence. Sturgeon is not going to take Scotland out of the Union. Brexit will save it.  

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked  

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