Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from pro-Brexit economist Ruth Lea, who was formerly Head of the Policy Unit at the Institute of Directors, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies and Director of Global Vision.
BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.
When I was at the Institute of Directors (1995-2003), when I dealt with a seemingly endless stream of employment and environmental regulations from the EU. They were intended to create a “level playing field” – in other words, a highly anti-competitive, quasi-uniform and potentially sclerotic regulatory regime (although I did, however, hold back on my anti-EU views at the time, to fight euro membership). Added to which it was, by then, quite obvious that the global growth markets of the “future” did not include the relatively slow-growing EU – which was a theme I developed with the setting up of Global Vision (2007).
Over this period, I never thought the EU could be reformed to make membership tolerable – I could never see the EU adapting to accommodate the UK’s “view of the world”. My experience as a civil servant in the 1980s (when I went to Brussels for official meetings) clarified this perception. The EU then (as now) saw itself as something above and beyond nation states and had, moreover, a continental European (Franco-German) mindset that was fundamentally different in character from the British.
BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?
Difficult to say – there were so many. Perhaps the most bizarre was the Treasury’s analysis of recession if the electorate had the audacity to vote for Brexit.
BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?
I shared various platforms during the campaign. But not with anyone I didn’t know already – whether from the “left” or the “right”.
BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?
I was initially in the ITN studios where, I would say, there was (initially at least) an overwhelming view that there would be a vote for Remain. I got home at about 3.00am as it began to look as though there was a possibility of a Leave vote. When it was clear there was a Leave vote, I was stunned and elated.
BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?
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I did not. I assumed whoever became PM would push on with Brexit, with a straightforward free trade agreement, as soon as possible, and that Parliament would respect the people’s view. Suffice to say, my optimism seriously began to flag with the Chequers Plan in July 2018 (a cack-handed betrayal) and the shocking behaviour of the Commons (and its less-than-illustrious Speaker).
BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?
Yes – two in particular. The first was around the first postponement of Brexit Day. The second was in September/October 2019, around the time of the notorious Benn Act.
It is hard to say – much will depend on what happens to the Labour Party. But even if the Labour Party remains as dysfunctional as it has been in recent months, I would expect a goodly proportion of seats in the North, Midlands and Wales that the Conservatives won from Labour to revert to the Labour Party. Many of the votes were, I suspect, “on loan” because of Brexit and the electoral landscape will, at least partly, return to type. If the Labour Party manages to become an attractive party for the whole country (as in Blair’s day), then the Labour Party could really regain its lost ground in the areas it “lost” at the last General Election.
BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?
I have written thousands of words on this subject – from my Global Vision days onwards. However, once Brexit is done and we really have taken back control of our ability to negotiate trade agreements and amend (aforementioned) regulations, I hope to see a new “global” Britain extending links with the fast growing and friendly parts of the world economy (including the Commonwealth and the US), as well as instituting a programme of regulatory modernisation for the changing needs of business in the 21st century.
BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?
Doubtless recovering from celebrations on 31st January.