• Brexit Day

    Even at 12,000 miles distance, I was able to celebrate the moment when the UK left the EU. There was a personal element to my celebration. I recalled that, as I record in my published memoirs, I was shocked when I found myself – in a debate on the Maastricht treaty – speaking to an almost empty chamber, and my sense that, if British MPs couldn’t be bothered even turning up when significant powers of government were being handed over to an outside agency, I couldn’t see why I, as a Kiwi, should bother either – it was a significant factor in my decision to leave British politics and return to my native New Zealand.

    So, as the whole ill-judged episode was brought to an end on 31 January, I celebrated – but my principal feelings were those of relief, regret and anger.

    I felt relief that the British people’s decision to regain their sovereignty had at last been honoured. I felt regret at the wastage – of opportunity, of prosperity, of self-belief – that 47 years of vassalage had meant for us. And I felt anger at those who had led us into such a damaging dead end and who had more recently striven might and main to keep us there.

    It was, after all, the predecessors of today’s remainers who had persuaded us to sign up to the ill-fated venture in the first place. They sold the idea to us on a false prospectus – that it would open the door to greater prosperity and that it would mean no loss of the powers of self-government.

    I think I can claim to have been one of the few to have debunked such claims from the outset. I knew from my work in the Foreign Office and my years in our embassy in Brussels that the terms on which we were urged to join what was then the Common Market could hardly have been more calculated to weaken, rather than benefit, us.

    The record shows beyond doubt that my fears were justified. The British economy languished, our trade deficit swelled, our manufacturing industry was decimated, our trading links with the rest of the world were weakened, our cost of living was pushed up – not entirely the consequences of our European involvement, it is true, since domestic policy mistakes also played a part – but the operations of the Common Market, then the EEC and then the EU, were clearly inimical to British interests over the whole period.

    And all the while, as our economy faltered, we found that assurances that there was no intention to create a European super-state were just hot air. We found ourselves in an entity with its own central bank, its own supreme court, its own powerful executive and its own so-called parliament – all with the power to tell us what we could and couldn’t do, and all enjoying powers superior to those of our own institutions.

    We have discovered just how far-reaching those shackles have been as we have struggled to disentangle ourselves from them through the exit process.

    Those who had urged us on in the first place closed their eyes to these consequences. They were driven by what seemed to be an almost religious fanaticism, but which was in reality, I think, an expression of what they believed was a kind of cultural superiority. They saw themselves as European, rather than British, because they felt that, unlike their fellow-citizens, they alone were able to enjoy the great glories and pleasures of European civilisation – the music, art, literature, food and architecture. As a consequence, they were impervious to the concerns of those they regarded as their inferiors.

    Leaving the EU has at last restored to us the chance to shape our own future. There seems no reason, looking forward, why two entities – the UK and the EU – with so many shared interests and so geographically close to each other, should have any difficulty in agreeing on a mutually beneficial trading arrangement and on a range of other useful cooperations on what I like to describe as functional opportunities – that is, we work together where it makes obvious sense to do so.

    Our future is indeed bright if British energy and ambition are now put at the service of our own interests, rather than of some fanciful and elusive European identity. It might even be that Commonwealth countries like my own, so long cold-shouldered by the British, might be persuaded to forgive their ill-treatment and enter new arrangements that will benefit all parties.

    Bryan Gould
    2 February 2020