I’m curious. Before Brexit, can you think of any instance where there was such a concerted effort, across the UK’s academic, media and political classes, to undermine the British position in a major negotiation? Does anything even come close?
I’m not asking about previous situations where there was opposition to a UK government policy. There are, of course, oodles of those sorts of cases. Neither do I mean cases in which there was scrutiny or probing of the coherence of British policies and positions. That happens all the time.
No, I mean, cases where it was argued publicly that the British position was weaker than the government claimed; that the government would fail in all its objectives; that the other countries we were negotiating with were always or almost always right and the UK government’s interpretation of events or agreements or points of dispute wrong; that UK politics would not deliver upon the promises or threats the UK government claimed; and that the UK government should publish confidential documents that it said would undermine its negotiating position. I don’t mean mere opposition or scrutiny, but outright attempts to undermine.
These endeavours are all the more remarkable given that most of the things the UK government says it is seeking in the Brexit negotiations, such as a new free trade agreement with the EU, are things that its most vocal opponents claim they want too. Perhaps some of them imagine that if they can sufficiently sabotage the Brexit talks, voters will “think again” and we’ll never leave the EU. But, superficially, at least, it’s downright perverse.
There is, in any case, a fairly high chance that the EU is incapable of doing a deal at the moment – as a result of political problems such as those in Catalonia. If the EU does summon the appetite for it, the UK will be ready to go, regardless of the subversion. If it doesn’t, then we just have to wait, but a deal will surely be done eventually.
Nonetheless, let’s set all that aside and consider the original question about the ruthless undermining. When did anything similar ever happen?
A little of it may have gone on during Cameron’s negotiations in 2015-2016. Indeed, many commentators did argue back then that a serious renegotiation would just not be possible.
But most of us either actively wished Cameron well (eg Matthew Elliot), or tried publicly to defend the positions he claimed to be arguing for (yours truly), or suggested that if he could get anything substantial at all, he was likely to win the referendum, whether we agreed with him or not (Daniel Hannan).
There was definitely agitation in the run up to Maastricht. There was opposition to Major and an attempt to get him to commit to not signing up for the euro – at least in the first wave. But was it on the scale of current antipathy? Did it attempt to argue that the British position was weak, that Major’s government had no plan, that its plans would fail, that the rest of the EU was correct in all key points, or that key confidential documents should be published? Not that I remember.
I think we have to go even further back to find anything remotely similar. Maybe even as far back as opposition to Appeasement in the 1930s and to the American Colonies policy of the 1760s.
There was vocal, widespread opposition to Chamberlain’s negotiating strategy with Hitler, and that opposition probably include attempts to undermine his position – by suggesting, for example, that Britain might not honour commitments he had made. There were also allegations of weakness, incoherence and the like.
One particularly famous and bitter example of this was during the Oxford by-election of 1938, where the anti-Appeasement Independent Progressive candidate, Sandy Lindsay, Master of Balliol, backed by both the Labour and Liberal parties, opposed the pro-Appeasement Conservative candidate Quintin Hogg (who later served in numerous government roles including as Mrs Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor from 1979 to 1987). Lindsay’s campaign slogan was “A vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler.” Hogg narrowly won.
Another interesting example is the opposition to the government’s policy towards the American colonies in the 1760s. In the 1760s the British government introduced a serious of Acts affecting the American colonists to which those colonists objected, most notably the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed taxes on the colonists.
The British claimed the taxes were required to fund troops stationed in North America after the Seven Years’ War with France, while the American colonists claimed the troops were not required and that the British were squeezing them to fund a standing army it wanted for other purposes.
There was vocal support in Britain for the colonists, most famously from Edmund Burke. Arguably, these sympathetic voices within the British Establishment lent the American malcontents a legitimacy they might otherwise have lacked, facilitating their eventual conversion from malcontents to insurgents.
So perhaps the current sabotage isn’t entirely without precedent. And an element of scrutinising the British government’s negotiating position is of course entirely legitimate. In certain cases attempting to undermine it might even be legitimate – today, most would (rightly or wrongly) regard the opponents of the Appeasement strategy as in the right.
But those attempting to undermine the British government’s position should be careful what they wish for. The most plausible consequence of undermining Theresa May’s government’s negotiating strategy would, after all, be to have her replaced by a government that cared rather less than she does about securing any deal with the EU at all.