The UK is not leaving the EU just because a majority of voters in the 2016 Referendum opted to leave or because that decision was finally re-affirmed in the December 2019 election. The UK is leaving the EU because, as some politicians and commentators have understood for the past 70 plus years, membership of the EU entails an unacceptable loss of sovereignty. Think of it — the UK could not even reduce VAT on tampons so long as it was a member of the EU. Of course, sovereignty is a slippery concept and the realities of life in an interconnected world ensure that no nation is completely free to do whatever it likes without consequences. But when membership of a political organisation cuts so deeply into the ability of a government to act independently in the interests of its people, it is right to depart.
Like so many other people I was starry eyed about the emerging EU when I returned from four years in North America just before we joined the EEC. I was a European, not a North American, and the EEC seemed a benign and altogether advantageous idea. I should have known better. It was not until I became a member of the Economic and Social Committee of the EEC in the mid 1980s that I began to understand that the purpose of the organisation was not economic progress but a political union. The political objective of the first European institutions was fully appreciated by the post war Labour Government which, having taken the coal and steel industries into government ownership, were not willing to accept a supranational body telling them what to do. Ernest Bevin, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, said: ‘If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out’. Hugh Gaitskell in a speech to the Labour Party conference in 1962 discussed the idea of ‘political union’ in Europe. ‘It does mean the end of Britain as an independent nation state – it may be a good or a bad thing but we must recognise that this is so…it means the end of a thousand years of history’. As recently as 1983 a Labour Party Manifesto promised withdrawal. Even in 2019 the Labour Party was not a wholehearted advocate of continued membership.
I now appreciate that several of the founders of the original European institutions explicitly supported them as the route to the elimination of the nation state. Unable to agree immediately on a new European Federation, they opted instead for a step by step progression through economic and legal integration. Voters did not come into the equation and indeed for the first few decades when little impact was felt the populace supported their leaders with a ‘permissive consensus’. But as the project has progressed, the issues before European decision makers have become less and less easily resolved. The common interests of the six have been replaced by a cacophony of the 27. Even when EU laws are manifestly out of date and counterproductive it takes years, even decades, to put the damage right. The EU is a dysfunctional legal construct unable to adjust to a changing environment.
The UK leaves the EU today because it can thereby regain a measure of independent positive action in the interests of the peoples of these islands. Gone will be the CAP described by Hugh Gaitskell as ‘one of the most devastating pieces of protectionism ever invented’ and gone will be the rape of British fishing waters (a notable example of ‘the tragedy of the commons’). Of course, if UK firms want to sell into EU markets, they will have to tailor their products to the EU’s rules. That is the same when selling to China or the USA. But within the UK we can innovate – design new products that will sell around the world. There would never have been an industrial revolution in the UK had the UK been tied to pan-European rules. As an independent nation state we can exploit the possibilities of the current industrial revolution to the benefit of our citizens. That is why we are leaving the EU this evening.