The Con of Brexit; a time for Redemption?

The Long Read: In this series of long-reads, Frank examines key issues of the day and relates them to Consumer concerns

This long-read examines the journey to the EU Referendum and the information supplied to Consumers/Citizens

Shortly after the 2016 EU Referendum, I appeared on a number of Radio Stations, eager to hear my view on the result and how it would affect Consumers.

Despite the ‘victors’ claiming a decisive result, the path ahead was simply not clear. Broadcasters were keen to hear from me what I thought would happen to Consumer Rights in a newly liberated Britain. I was not able to provide them with a roadmap or reassurance and in fact I found myself repeating exactly what I had been saying on the build-up to the Referendum. Frustrated with this lack of ‘clarity’, I advised several broadcasters that if they thought that the vote, brexit and the debate would now disappear, they needed to hang on, because the ride had only just begun!

As the months have slipped by, it is clear that certainty is a fickle mistress and indeed she may elude us for many more years to come!

I don’t think that there are many, whether you voted to Leave or Remain, who would declare honestly, that calling for this vote on the EU, its aftermath and the future of this country, has been a rip-roaring success!

There have been many analyses about the reasons or rationale behind why people decided to vote they way they did. Whilst these exercises were useful, I detected no ‘smoking-gun’ moment from the various findings, only confirmation what I already knew; that People or Regions in the UK had languished through the years of austerity and were fed-up of Westminster Politicians, who were generally indifferent to their concerns; a fact that is evident the further North you travel from London!

Then we have had inquests into allegations of gerrymandering and how the various campaigns were run, resulting in inquiries into alleged breaches of electoral funding rules along with studies into so-called Russian-influence in the Referendum.

One aspect of the Referendum that does not appear to have been examined, is how the people of the UK were seduced or persuaded to vote as they did; were Citizens subject to a long-burn political model to suit an agenda?

Following the vote, we have been exposed to the political wound of Westminster, with politicians caring not for the affect upon the likes of you or me, but it now seems, determined to satisfy their noble quest for the illusion of sovereignty.

By now, I suspect that you may be openly or secretly asking the question of how did we get into this mess; where did it all begin?

This is an important question for ALL Consumers because whatever happens next in this ‘brexit’ saga, it will affect the way you transact with companies, your rights against those companies and how you deal with companies across borders. Equally, Consumers need to understand the debate that lies behind so-called ‘red-tape’ or Regulation and how the very loss of those protections will alter their own relationships not only commercially, but also socially & politically.

To answer this primary question, we have to return to the Major government years. In a very open dispute with his Party, John Major was at war with some of his colleagues over the Maastricht Treaty, the Social Chapter and the Eurosceptics in his Cabinet. In an un-guarded moment, in between interviews, he was simply asked why he just didn't sack the errant Ministers, he replied:

“Just think it through from my perspective. You are the prime minister, with a majority of 18, a party that is still harking back to a golden age that never was, and is now invented (clearly a reference to the time of Mrs Thatcher's leadership). You have three rightwing members of the Cabinet who actually resign. What happens in the parliamentary party?”

Moments later, he referred to them, as ‘bastards’ and offered the ‘Lyndon Johnson Maxim’: ‘It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in!’

Whatever the late 20th Century angst about Europe, our current difficulties began with the election in 2005, of the PR-savvy David Cameron, to the Leadership of the Conservative Party. Fresh and newly minted, the son of Blair set forth with his huskies and his debating skills, to deliver a fairer and cleaner Britain.

His opinions on Europe were clearly set out in the Tory Leadership hustings, beginning at the Tory Party Conference in 2005; he lamented the Tories defeat at the ballot-box against a government:

“…that has complicated the tax system, dumbed down the education system, demoralised the health system and bankrupted the pension system. It has made promises that no one believes, passed powers to a European Union that nobody trusts and set up regional assemblies that nobody wants and nobody ever voted for”.

I will leave to one side issues concerning tax, education, health, pensions and regional assemblies; each of those would be capable of their own analysis!

I watched Cameron when he made this speech and for me this was the first public declaration of his beliefs and intentions towards Europe. 

He referred to the passing of Powers; how then would he account for the previous Conservative years, when they were instrumental in creating the European Union? 

How did he know that ‘nobody trusts’ the European Union; had he been engaged with focus groups and did those focus groups understand the structure of the EU, the Tories role in creating the modern Europe and the important issue of subsidiarity?

In late 2005, Cameron made a wide-ranging speech as a leadership candidate at the Centre for Policy Studies; he stated that:

“Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's commitment to EU reform and an open, dynamic, forward-looking agenda for Europe simply does not extend beyond making speeches about it…The third great danger which threatens our competitiveness is the regulatory culture of the European Union…The recent i2010 report showed that Europe risks becoming a "second or third-world region" within a generation because of its excessive regulation…I want the Conservative party to take the lead in developing the diplomatic and policy agendas that will avoid that disastrous outcome…There is now an exciting opportunity for a new alliance for EU reform, driven by new leadership on the centre-right…EU reform should have three components…For Britain, the first priority must be the return of powers over employment and social regulation. This would be the strategic imperative of my European policy…Second, the EU must abandon the hubristic constitutional project once and for all…Third, we must give the EU a clear remit to enforce free trade and open markets. This will not only benefit European economies. Removing trade barriers and eliminating trade-distorting agricultural subsidies are essential if developing countries are to become richer”.

Reading this speech, the central theme concerned regulation, suggesting an anti-regulatory agenda. 

The return of powers, a concern about a ‘closer union’ and agricultural subsidies appeared to be the principal motivators in this new policy. 

However, there are two important issues in his then stated policy:

A.  Concern over the ‘constitutional project’ (a Constitution for Europe), which was ‘replaced’ by the     Lisbon Treaty in 2007; it underpins the Conservative Party’s overriding angst over ‘ever-closer union’ and the development of a ‘two-speed Europe’. This latter point was expressed by the former Prime Minister, John Major in his wide-ranging speech in Leiden (Holland), he commented:

“So I see a real danger, in talk of a "hard core", inner and outer circles, a two-tier Europe. I recoil from ideas for a union in which some would be more equal than others. There is not, and should never be, an exclusive hard core either of countries or of policies. The European Union involves a wide range of common policies and areas of close co-operation. No Member States should lay claim to a privileged status on the basis on their participation in some of them. For nearly forty years now, the Member States of the European Union, first six, then nine, ten, twelve, soon to be sixteen, have worked to reduce divisions in Europe. We must not see them reintroduced.That is why an essential component of the future European construction must be flexibility. We need a debate about it”.

The speech expressed some frustration that the perception of Britain was obstructionist to the goals of Europe and was perceived to be ‘a country interested only in a glorified free trade area’. Reading this you could be forgiven for thinking that a British Prime Minister was complaining about not getting his own way, but, to balance that view, his words also expressed how other countries did not always get their own way; this was his own example of the community or union in action.

It reminded me of a discussion I had in 2008 with a senior (Dutch National) civil servant of the European Union (he had over 30 years experience). We talked about the pros and cons of EU membership and the benefits that it brings, both to Member States and its Citizens. What was striking, was his view that the UK consistently presented itself at political, ministerial and at prime-ministerial level, as being detached from the rest of the Union. He pleaded, why didn't the UK fully engage with the European Union; the Union was ready to hear and respond to the UK’s views and its immense diplomatic and governmental experience; Europe was ready but clearly the UK was not!

In the same way that Cameron accused the Blair and Brown governments of only committing to reform of the EU through speeches, the rhetoric of those early Cameron years would appear to mirror the same methodology.

B.  The second issue relates to Cameron’s comment of ‘the exciting opportunity for a new alliance for EU reform, driven by new leadership on the centre-right’.

Let’s examine what that meant.

In March 2006, The Federal Trust, in their European Policy Brief, examined the Leadership manifesto promise that David Cameron made to the Conservative Party. In 2005, Cameron promised his Party that they would leave the European Parliament Grouping of the European People’s Party - European Democrats (EPP-ED), because he considered that the Groupings aims did not coincide with the Conservatives vision. In particular, he held that the Tories did not subscribe to the ‘pro-integrationist ambitions’ of the EPP-ED and that the Grouping did not share the Tories views on Free Trade and the Transatlantic Partnership.

The Federal Trust observed that during his Leadership Campaign:

“His promise was at least partly tactical, a way to gain support from Eurosceptic MPs and from the Eurosceptic membership of the Conservative Party. At the time of his pledge, David Cameron may not have realised all the practical implications of leaving the EPP”.

Once elected, Cameron made good on his promise, much to the fury and disquiet of his own MP’s, albeit that it took some time whilst the Tories identified suitable partners in the European Parliament; the alternative was to sit as a small grouping with the likes of the French Front Nationale and other European right-wing parties.

The Guardian reported that Cameron had made his commitment to the Tory right-wing group, Cornerstone, to leave the EPP-ED. During the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, Tory candidates were expected to sign an agreement that upon re-election, they would join in a new European Parliament centre-right Grouping. 

One then Tory MEP, Caroline Jackson, called the move ‘pathetic’ and predicted that it would spell trouble for the Party at a later stage. At the time she was reported to have said:

“The Tories are doing this because the party is run by people whose ultimate agenda is to pull Britain out of the EU”.

On her own website (she is now no longer an MEP), in her final message to constituents, she stated:

“I am not happy that the Conservative MEPs have now left the main Christian Democrat (EPP) group to form the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists Group’…[and]…It is very sad that as the Parliament’s powers have increased, the public – particularly here – have come to rate MEPs lower and to understand less about what happens. Ignorance has allowed hostility to the European Union to fester”.

Following the 2009 EU Parliamentary elections, the Tories created a new Grouping in the Parliament called the ‘European Conservatives & Reformists Group’ which was described as ‘anti-federalist’. The new Grouping consisted of members from Poland’s Law & Justice Party, the Latvian National Independence Movement (also known as For Fatherland and Freedom), all with a colourful set of opinions!

But was it just simply a case that Cameron was playing an opportunistic game with his Party or was he really a Eurosceptic?

If we start with Cameron’s alleged promise to the UK Cornerstone Tory Group, to leave the EPP-ED, we can perhaps begin to follow the breadcrumbs.

Cornerstone’s motto is proudly bannered over a faded Union Jack; it states:

‘Faith, Flag, and Family’.

The group describes the Conservative MP members as being, ‘dedicated to traditional values’; belief in ‘spiritual values which have informed British institutions, her culture and her nation’s sense of identity for centuries, underpinned by the belief in a strong nation state’; they stand for ‘monarchy’; ‘traditional marriage’; ‘proper pride in our nation’s distinctive qualities’; ‘[no] state dependency’; ‘lower taxation and deregulation’; ‘commitment to our democratically elected parliament’.

The Group boasts of 40 MP members, some of whom now hold high office or have become overt advocates for the hard-brexit position.

Some of the members of Cornerstone were also members of the ’92 Group’; they were founded in 1964 with the aim of keeping the ‘Conservative Party conservative’ and proved to be a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher and offered challenge to John Major. 

The importance of this Group and its protagonists should not be underestimated in the Cameron story. In 1996, as we were approaching the now famous 1997 General Election, Michael Heseltine (now Lord Heseltine) was interviewed by John Humphries. During their exchanges, Humphries raised the problem of Major facing strong criticism from Eurosceptics in the Party. Humphries raised the spectre that up to 100 MP’s from the ’92 Group’, would produce their own manifesto’s on Europe. Hesletine was incredulous and stated:

“Yes, but the fact that there are a hundred members of the 92 Group doesn't mean to say that all members of the 92 Group are going to produce the sort of manifesto that is seriously different to the Party's policy on Europe. I mean, after all, take the very obvious point I make.   There are significant members of the Cabinet who would represent the strand of opinion that is associated with the 92 Group.   They have great influence with their friends in the 92 Group.   So, there's no grounds for thinking that there's going to be a serious number of Conservative MPs saying seriously different things”, [being the deft politician that he is, he sought to make a similar comparison with Labour MP’s].

Pressure on Cameron also came from the members of another Tory Grouping, the ‘No Turning Back’. This Group were formed in 1985, to support continuance of the Thatcher idyll. Again, if you look at its membership list, you can not only see the cross-over between similar groupings, but that some are now serving as members of government or have become ardent supporters of a hard-brexit.

In 2006, along with another Tory Grouping, the ‘Conservative Way Forward’ (CWF), along with the ‘No Turning Back Group, pressured Cameron on tax policy. When challenged on whether they thought Cameron would ‘budge’, Greg Hands MP (from CWF) (now a Minister of State at the Department for International Trade) stated:

“He's been listening quite well so far on all kinds of issues. This is our way of making a point”.

Another Group piling pressure on Cameron was the Fresh Start Project. They produced their manifesto for change in Europe:

  1. Calling for a reduction in the EU Budget;
  2. A radical change to the Common Agricultural Policy;
  3. Repatriation of structural funds;
  4. Provision of an ‘emergency brake’ on legislation affecting financial services;
  5. Returning competence of social and employment laws to Member States and if that were not possible, to allow the UK to opt-out from such provisions; 
  6. A further opt-out for the UK on EU policing and criminal justice issues not already contained within the Lisbon Treaty; 
  7. Safeguards and non-discrimination of non-eurozone members; 
  8. The closure of the EU Parliament’s seat in Strasbourg along with the abolition of the Economic & Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.

In January 2013, Andrea Ledsom MP, one of the Founders of the Fresh Start Project, held that she hoped that Cameron would realise that:

“the status quo for Britain was not an option…with the eurozone crisis, there is no way the EU will ever be the same again…the eurozone seeks further integration and we must not stand in their way. The British people do not want to go down this route, and we must articulate a sustainable alternative”.

Cameron’s unexpected General Election victory in 2015, led him being pressured to deliver on a promise of a Referendum and to speculation as to the problems ahead of working with a slim majority. In the Financial Times, George Parker’s analysis included this one comment where:

“One moderate Tory MP forecast the right — including MPs in the No Turning Back group — will flex its muscles in the next parliament”.

By June 2015, Cameron came under increased pressure from a new Tory Party Grouping called ‘Conservatives for Britain’ (again, look at the members’ listing and note the repeat of names and their current activity). At this stage, Cameron’s red-lines were being formed for his negotiations with the EU, but, the new grouping was taking the the debate a stage further, describing the then relationship with the EU as ‘untenable’ and Steve Baker MP commented that:

‘Britain’s relations with Europe must be radically stripped back to a deal based on trade in order to satisfy his colleagues’.

That same article also brought pressure to bear on Cameron to dispense with Cabinet Collective Responsibility and allow Ministers to Campaign in the Referendum according to their conscience and beliefs.

By January 2016, Cameron agreed to allow his Cabinet to Campaign for their preferred choice in the forthcoming Referendum.

By February 2016, Cameron returned from Brussels with the final deal on his negotiations and thereby set in train his own commitment to Campaign for the UK to Remain in the European Union.

The unstoppable force of absolute belief & tactics, from a small right-wing ideology, is now a matter of record as to how the EU Referendum Campaign was won.  But, there is also a general consensus that ‘cohabitation’ with UKIP ideology provided a brutal force against a far gentler Remain Campaign. The most telling comment is to be found in a Financial Times analysis where Dominic Cummings from the ‘Vote Leave’ Campaign is said to have advised Johnson & Gove that:

“If you want to win this, you have to hit Cameron and Osborne over the head with a baseball bat with immigration written on it”.

Whilst the Campaign for the EU Referendum is now a matter of historical record, it does raise the question of whether Cameron was an opportunist, or, simply a stooge, being buffeted by the prevailing winds of the Tory Party, or, was he engaged in naively trying to be a one-nation Tory with his own Party, or, was there just a chance that Cameron was in fact a Eurosceptic?

The best clue to his attitude or belief structure can be found in the article: David Cameron - The Accidental European! The article observes that Cameron started off as a Eurosceptic but his grander vision was to unite a Party in disarray over Europe and strengthen their attack on Labour in 2020. His credentials were impeccable; opposition to the Euro and a Special Advisor to Norman Lamont along with opposition to the ‘monstrous’ European Arrest Warrant. However, the view within Politico’s piece is that Cameron came to realise, through the reality of power, that it was better to be in the EU-club, rather than trying to affect change from the outside.

So it is clear, Cameron was on a journey of his own, mixing in the right Tory circles, gaining credibility from his ‘eurosceptic’ credentials, gaining control of his party. But, I wonder whether he wasn't one thing or another, neither opportunist nor eurosceptic, just buffeted by people and events, perhaps reflecting the disputed quote of one Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who in response to a question as to what could potentially throw a government off-course, he is alleged to have said, ‘Events, dear boy, events’.

Were Cameron’s ‘events’ the long-burn political agenda and its loyal acolytes, who saw their opportunity, to strike a very British Coup, through a malleable Prime Minister?

As is now clear, the very plan that Cameron had for the Tory Party ended in tatters, to be replaced by a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ philosophy.

It is pointless in many respects to rehash the minutiae of how the long road since the referendum has fared, but it is true to say that now, more than ever, positions are entrenched, issues have become binary and indeed absolute.

Not too long ago, a President of the United States lamented the lack of reality and entrenched positions as a threat to not only the operation of government, but of democracy itself. He stated:

“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate”.

It is this absolutism that has invaded our own political and social life. 

We hear daily from those who see the European Union as being perfect and from those, through the ballot box, are in control of an agenda through the spurious claim of the ‘will of the people’.  

The absolutism of British politics reveals the majority of politicians apparently subscribe to the same message; to objective observers, we have perhaps become a one-party state? 

We have become witness to the creation of red lines, not present in the voting booth, that lead only to a hard-brexit. In this political patchwork, created by political disruptors, ordinary lives have been turned upside down, where the enemy is within, suspicion prevails and there is nothing but a bleak future of separation, isolation and uncertainty for the ordinary people of the UK. 

Current debate centres around the #finalsay, but even that has become infected with political fudge, with parliament apparently being the best arbiters of our futures!

The media, frothing with anticipation, lavish column inches and broadcasting hours, analysing the differences between the political players. Make no mistake, the differences are minute; it is as one sage twitter-hack put it - one is the leader of the Gelderland Popular Front and the other is the leader for the Popular Front for Gelderland!

In recent days, the Corbyn seismic-shift has been widely reported as offering hope to the UK through subscription to ‘a Customs Union’. Vernon Bogdanor provides a scathing analysis of this stone-tablet moment, strongly arguing that there is no such thing as a soft-brexit; there is only the choice between a hard-brexit and remaining as a member of the European Union; he believes that the final choice should be made by the people, not parliament.

In my view, this is a time for Consumers/Citizens to realise that this is no longer about Europe; it has become a debate about how a small group of people or a political party can substantially change the lives of every single man, woman and child, through a savage de-regulation agenda; this is about the quest for power at Westminster and the spoils that follow.

I asked earlier how we got into this mess and I have set out how a small but powerful political set have developed their debate and groupings and influenced those, and continue to influence those at the very seat of power and you the Consumer/Citizen.

In determining how we got into this mess, we as citizens have to accept some of the responsibility. We have become a generational nation that can apparently only consume bitesize chunks of news, preferring instead it seems, the réalité of populist television; UK citizens have become detached and content only in listening to strapline political soundbites which in some cases perhaps satisfies a baser viewpoint on how the world works.

Whilst I have been tough in my observations of ordinary citizens, there is I believe also the possibility of redemption. 

I understand why citizens make the decisions they do; they do so on trust and what they don't like, is when someone cons, lies or betrays them. 

I have met some remarkable people in the last 20 years, all of whom have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances, having being betrayed, lied to or simply being misled. In all cases, they have learned never to trust what is said and to check each statement and those that lay behind such statements; if ordinary Consumers can do that, then so too can ordinary citizens.

I have listened, watched and considered the daily offerings of all our politicians and have watched in horror at the laissez-faire approach to Ireland and Northern Ireland. I have come to the conclusion that they all know that this is a bad idea and no matter what they say, they will not want history to judge them for their childish ways; they will turn on you, the public; you will get the blame!

In the coming months, I want you take heed of the words in this article and watch those that advocate hard-brexit, soft-brexit, no-brexit; watch as they tell you that the only way to unite the country is through a General Election.

I do not trust a General Election to resolve this party political quagmire; there is too much at stake, both in ordinary Consumer Rights, Fundamental Freedoms and Access to Justice. 

I have come to the conclusion that the politicians have had their time and they have failed.

We must now return to the people, all of those failures, those manipulations, those betrayals and lies and let the people have the #finalsay in another Referendum, including the Right to Remain in the EU.

Our political redemption will only come from the people; it is time to trust the people who are now much wiser and perhaps more engaged than they were in 2016?