The core change in the New Britain being forged is – Brexit. It has been hidden behind Covid for a few months. It has not gone away. You have to be wilfully in denial not to see the damage already done, and not to be concerned at what it might mean.
Brexit divided England and Wales from Scotland and Northern Ireland. It divided political parties and families; the young and their elders; business and trade unions; and friend from friend. As its full impact becomes apparent in the New Year, old wounds may re-open.
There is no consensus on Brexit, and never has been. It was a bitterly divisive policy, and uncorked a populism that may be difficult to quell.
The Referendum debate was unlike any I have known before. Emotion overcame reality. And, in the search for hearts and minds and votes, fiction defeated fact and fostered a belief in a past that never was – whilst boosting enthusiasm for a future that may never be. If that mode of politics takes root, it will kill all respect in our system of government.
In the Referendum, Britons voted to leave the European Union. I have never hidden my view, nor have I changed it. To my mind – and I am no starry-eyed European – Brexit is the worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime.
I have seen the EU from the inside and know its frustrations. But have no doubt we were better off in than we will be out. The decision to leave will damage our future in many ways, and the reassurances we are given are unconvincing.
Brexit was sold to our electors on false premises. Promises made will not – indeed, cannot – be kept. To leave the EU – to separate ourselves from our neighbours – was sold as “regaining sovereignty”, but it is, and will prove to be, a long and painful ball and chain on our national wellbeing.
After the Referendum, Brexiteers did not even bother to argue the merits of their case – why should they? – it was “the will of the people”. And once “the will of the people” was asserted as a repeated mantra – and the Brexit leaders claimed to speak for all “the people” – any opposition to Brexit became illegitimate, and any contrary view was howled down.
Free speech for those who supported remaining in the EU came at a price. They were pilloried as “Remoaners”: sticking to long-held principles and policies, and warning of clear dangers ahead was depicted as “sour grapes by sore losers”.
Even Judges were denounced as “Enemies of the People” for ruling on a Point of Law. Opponents of Brexit were cowed, and free speech was curtailed. It was shameful. No democracy should find itself in such a position.
Overseas, the outcome of the Referendum delighted our enemies and dismayed our friends. As our nation voted against its history and its self-interest, a bemused world looked on, wondering why we had chosen to become poorer and less influential.
Brexit was sold to the nation as a win-win situation. It is not. We were promised we would stay in the Single Market. We have not. We were told trade with the EU would be frictionless. It will not be. We were promised we would save billions in payments to the European Union: a bus was driven around the country telling us so. Not so: Brexit is costing billions – not saving them. We were told that our “liberated country” could cut back on bureaucracy and regulations. We now know they will increase – and dramatically. We were promised we would strike lucrative trade deals with America, India, China and others in quick time. Japan apart – we have not.
More recently – and for the first time in our long history – Ministers have proposed legislation giving them powers to break the law. This is a slippery slope down which no democratic Government should ever travel.
And, it was claimed, Brexit wouldn’t increase support for Scottish independence or a united Ireland. It has. It defies logic that intelligent men and women making such extravagant promises did not know they were undeliverable – and yet they continued to make them. It was politics. It was campaigning. It was for a cause. It was also unforgiveable.
If that is how we are going to conduct our public affairs, then not only will our politics truly fall into a bad place, but our word as a nation will no longer be trusted.