Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from former Labour MP and prolific BrexitCentral author Austin Mitchell.
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.
I never wanted to be in in the first place. In New Zealand in the 1960s, I interviewed a succession of British politicians who all assured us NZ’s interests would be protected then went home and sold us out. I voted No in 1975 and won the Grimsby by-election in 1977 on an anti-Common Market ticket and was angered by its effect on fishing, an issue which Ted Heath regarded as disposable in his desperate desire to get in.
Once in, we were caught up in its remorseless drive to ever closer union (English translation: a European empire). We were stuck to it like Brer Rabbit to the tar baby. A succession of ministers claimed to be fighting for Britain but then gave in, until Tony Blair made it a matter of religion for the Labour Party. Stay in and lead has become the conventional con. We never will. We’re on the periphery, the Euro can never work without a state’s authority behind it, the structure is undemocratic and it’s not worth our while to go on paying £11 billion a year to belong to a protectionist bloc designed to suit the interests of France and Germany, not ours.
My views haven’t developed over time, they’ve just got gloomier. Essentially they are economic: the contributions, the higher food prices, the huge £100 billion visible trade gap, the loss of demand and profits – they all constitute a drain on our economy and have all got progressively worse.
BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?
It was exciting to get large audiences listening to my yammering and even better that they supported me. The daftest point was when we waited on the waterfront in Hull with a parrot on my shoulder for a campaigning fishing trawler. The boat couldn’t dock. The parrot shat. David Davis didn’t buy me a drink.
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?
David Cameron’s guru, Steve Hilton, speaking on the same platform in Liverpool – interesting guy.
BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?
In bed. Asleep. It’s what we do in Grimsby.
BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?
No. I was shocked by the bungling. I never thought government could be so weak, Remainers so intransigent, the EU so inflexible and devious and the Labour Party so daft. Hilary Benn’s betrayal of his dad’s devotion to democracy particularly amazed me. I was particularly depressed by the fact that the Labour Party didn’t see that the nation state remains the best way we’ve found of advancing the interest of the people while keeping the process under their democratic control.
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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, several times. The fifth column was so desperate, the Establishment so vengeful and so many experts and institutions so keen to sing for their EU supper that I feared the people might lose heart and be pressured into an Irish-style mind change. My fear was that the bonds of nationhood and the national spirited both faded.
Lasting changes. The Brexit debate has widened the fault lines already developing in both parties, while empowering both the SNP and Sinn Fein and damaging trust in politics and politicians. I’m worried that the two-party system won’t work under these strains and that we need proportional representation to articulate the differences. Boris now has to prove me wrong.
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 expect we’ll buy more food from developing countries and non-European sources, offset Germany’s dominance by trading with other producers, ensure that profits made in Britain pay tax in Britain and use state aid and regional policy to build British industry. I expect a fairer deal for the North and an end to all those bloody signs claiming projects are financed by the EU when it’s really our own money back. All with the added bonus of less Euro-claptrap and a new national focus on building a better Britain. We need to be a nation again.
BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?
After welcoming back all our Euro-officials and Euro-MPs coming across the Channel in dinghies like all the other refugees then vetting their applications to resume British nationality after they’ve gone native in Euroland, I will gird up my aged loins for the battle to come on terms of trade. The EU is intransigent and inflexible. It won’t want either to lose us as their consumer of last resort or to let us build back as a competitive producer. There’s still a lot to play for, and to pay for, though we must insist that some of it is not decided until all is agreed. That’s the Article 50 game.
BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.
As above and discussed earlier, campaigning with David Davis and Martin Vickers plus parrot in Hull in June 2016.