The contributions of former British prime ministers to public life are frequently problematic. John Major is no exception. In his autobiography written two years into his now twenty-one year retirement, Major concluded that whereas his predecessor Margaret Thatcher had been ‘at her happiest confronting political dragons’, he had always chosen ‘consensus in policy-making, if not always in policy’.
In his keynote address to the Creative Industries Federation at the end of February, Major’s deeply-held respect for consensus was evident in his assertion that ‘I welcome rigorous debate – but there must be respect for differing views that are honestly held’. Throughout, as is his style, Major’s decency and personal amiability were matched by his characteristic sincerity.
In a speech focused entirely on the government’s negotiations with the European Union, Major rightly characterised Brexit as the ‘most divisive issue of my lifetime’ both in the language of the debate – ‘its intolerance, its bullying, and its name-calling’ - and in its effect on dividing ‘the four nations of our UK … [the] regions within them … political colleagues; families; friends – and the young from the old’. As a nation, we have become, what Peter Hennessy calls, ‘an extended family that does not know itself’.
Major’s speech particularly affected me as part of the Leave voting portion of the British public.
Like Major, I want Britain to be ‘influential, not isolated; committed, not cut-off; a leading participant, not a bystander’. What is particularly egregious about the claims of Mogg, Farage and co. that Major was trying to subvert the ‘will of the British people’ is that they are entirely without context. I voted with the belief that, not only would we remain part of the Single Market and the Customs Union, but also that we would undoubtedly have a second referendum on the final deal - a referendum that I am certain that I would have voted for membership in.
I recognise that this is totally misguided. I had not expected the hubris and the downright arrogance that the most forthright of our Brexiteer chums have acted with in pursuing Brexit at all costs. I deeply dislike referendums but presumed that any sensible government would recognise that in this period of change we have already had one referendum and would offer another to ratify the final terms with which we would potentially leave.
My vote to Leave then was not so much a reaction against the European community as an ideal – it is founded on noble, cooperative, communitarian ideals – but as a reaction to the abysmally poor terms that were on offer during the referendum.
Despite achieving an exemption from ‘ever-closer union’ – in itself somewhat questionable as it is at the heart of the founding principles of the European Union – Cameron’s deal was without firm substance and questionable to the extent that it would have been maintained. It is, however, infinitely better than what is being offered to us now.
As a one-nation conservative, with Major’s deep concern that we will negatively ‘affect the lives of the British people for generations to come’, it is highly worrying that I cannot see any scenario where the lives and living standards of the majority of our people are not detrimentally affected by this decision. On top of this, the potential to further destabilise the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland and to push Scotland towards the exit door from the Union is surely cause for alarm. The complexities of this decision, and most potently the incompetence of our government throughout the process – from the lack of contingency planning before the referendum to the repeated missteps of the May premiership – have made this a lose-lose for both Britain and to a lesser extent Europe.
This is not to say that Brexiteers are being deliberately malicious or deliberately irresponsible with our constitution and the sanctity of the kingdom. It is that in a country where, as Major rightly highlights, ‘only 37% of the electorate’ voted to leave with the other 63% voting in favour or not voting at all, the more ardent Leavers do have genuine concerns about a decision that they deposited their time, effort, and emotion in to. As Douglas Hurd once said of Margaret Thatcher, ‘there was no deliberate desire to hurt, simply a determination by hook or by crook to get [their] own way’.
In a similar article that I wrote in June 2016, I triumphantly proclaimed my belief that Britain had never been a truly European country. It’s a view that I still hold to some extent; Britain has never embraced the ideals of Europe in the way that mainland countries like France or Germany have. But I now believe that I was wrong to presume that this meant that there was no place for us in the political union of Europe.
The politicians that have most shaped my formative thinking – Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, John Major, Douglas Hurd - have all been part of our post-war entanglement with Europe. All have contributed to the ever-increasing accord between our nations. All have counselled against being on the wrong side of progress in Europe. Ultimately, that tradition is the political compost that has shaped my politics.
What I am trying to say here is that voting to Leave once is not a life sentence. There is great fluidity in this debate and the ability to change one’s mind. It is clear that we need an approach that does the least damage – whether that is a highly watered down Brexit or a willingness to reconsider the decision. Imbued with this question is the matter of political leadership. Could a British Prime Minister in the near future muster the courage to tell the country that the decision is futile and impossible to achieve?
There is no one Brexit, no concrete ‘will of the people’ that must be obeyed, no one vision in those who voted Leave two years ago.
With the current situation, it is therefore the prerogative of all of us on either side to reconsider, to do as Major counselled to reflect ‘in mature judgement’ that ‘they really do believe that the outcome of the negotiations is in the best interests of the people they serve’. If that is not the case, if these negotiations are not in the best interests of the people, then it is clear that serious and mature leadership, like Major’s, is needed to deal with the trouble ahead.