As the Government prepares to trigger Article 50, the big beasts of our political past – Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, John Major, and even Tony Blair – are contributing their thoughts about Britain leaving the European Union. Not surprisingly, many of these politicians, whose whole careers were defined by Europe, are not best pleased that we should be leaving the EU.
This nostalgia trip we have embarked upon is a reflection of the great sense of disappointment, and almost disbelief, that many of the political Establishment still feel about the vote on the June 23, 2016. On February 17, Blair gave a speech in which he asked voters to “rise up” against Brexit. As if on cue, another former Prime Minister, John Major, delivered a speech very much along the same lines 10 days later – although Major’s style, as befitting a former inner-city councillor, was naturally more aggressive and scrappy than the high-flown rhetoric of Tony Blair.
This year, ironically, marks the tenth anniversary of Tony Blair leaving Downing Street. For John Major, it has been 20 years since he was in power.
As a backdrop to this scene, we have witnessed the House of Lords scrutinising the Article 50 Bill (EU Notification of Withdrawal Bill). Their Lordships have debated Brexit for hours. Many powerful speeches have been given. Many people who debated this issue 20, or even 30, years ago in the House of Commons are now rehashing their arguments in the House of Lords.
We heard Lords Lawson and Lamont, both former Chancellors, speaking for Brexit. On the other side were a host of other former Cabinet Ministers and party leaders, headed by Lords Mandelson and Ashdown.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the referendum had never happened, and that we will be condemned to a never-ending debate about the EU, conducted by many of the same protagonists who have been saying the same thing for decades.
Yet while this Groundhog Day repeats itself, the Prime Minister has shown calm resolution, and a steady resolve to see Brexit through. Of course, debate is important – what are politicians for if they can’t discuss issues? But there has to come a point when the debate ends, and we get on with the process of leaving the EU.
The House of Lords’ role in triggering Article 50 is ambivalent. It is no secret that a large majority of that House voted for Remain – but the Lords know that, as unelected legislators, they have very little authority to frustrate Brexit.
The solidity of the Government’s majority, when the Article 50 Bill passed through the House of Commons without a single amendment, was a testament to the skill of the Chief Whip and his team. Despite the Lords’ amending the Bill, it is highly likely that Article 50 will be triggered before the end of March 2017 – which, after all, was the exact date the Prime Minister had indicated would be the deadline.
People might say this is much ado about nothing. Blair, Major, Mandelson, even Heseltine, have been described as yesterday’s men who are unlikely to get in the way of the Prime Minister’s commitment to Brexit.
As every day passes, people get more used to the idea of Britain leaving the EU – and it would require very different circumstances for a majority to vote to rejoin an organisation they so conspicuously and memorably voted to leave in the summer of 2016.
The other development loosely related to the House of Lords, and the bestowal of titles, is the unseemly debate (if it can be called that) between Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell.
Farage, clearly upset that he missed out on a knighthood, is blaming Carswell for frustrating it. In doing so, Farage, likeable and persuasive though he can be, is showing a more petulant side to his character.
Part of the former UKIP leader’s appeal to his friends and supporters is the fact that underneath the bluster, he is a fairly traditional kind of man. He respects British institutions, and would clearly very much like to be honoured by the British Establishment he openly affects to despise. It is striking, indeed, that he still wants a knighthood: one would have thought that Britain leaving the EU was testament enough to his significance in our recent history.
Many would argue that Farage has been a more significant figure in our recent political history than John Major. Yet the tensions within UKIP were perhaps inevitable after its principle objective, British withdrawal from the EU, had been achieved.
Like Major, Blair, Mandelson and many of their colleagues who now grace the House of Lords, Farage is now a historical figure. His big achievements relate to the period before the referendum – to the gadfly, almost protean, nature of the insurgent political party he led.
UKIP grew almost exponentially between the 2005 general election, in which it secured just over 2 per cent of the total vote, and 2015, when it secured 12.6 per cent. If the political party were a start-up company, Farage would have become a very wealthy man.
Yet much in the same way as the Dreadnought rendered all other battleships in the Royal Navy obsolete, when it was introduced in 1906, Brexit has made much of our recent politics irrelevant. David Cameron, freshly re-elected as Prime Minister in 2015, has left the House of Commons. George Osborne now prowls the backbenches. It is simply unprecedented for both the Prime Minister and Chancellor to have left office so soon after winning a general election.
As Lord Crewe said in 1625, about the disappearance of great families which had dominated England in the middle ages,”Where is Bohun, where’s Mowbray, where’s Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality”.
Regardless of their individual merits, the country will not be shaped by the likes of Heseltine, Clarke, Blair or Major. We need to consider the kind of country we want to see in the future, not revisit the arguments of the past. We need hear younger and fresher voices in the debate about our future as a country, free from the constraints of the EU. I can only hope that the triggering of Article 50 will move things forward.