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 David Campbell Bannerman, who was formerly MEP for the East of England, Co-Chairman of Conservatives for Britain with Steve Baker and Chairman of Vote Leave’s Contact Group.
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.
It was in the mid-1990s when I first noticed that polls consistently showed the British people wanted to leave the EU and had done so since we joined in 1973. I just felt that we would eventually leave as the EU continued to integrate into an EU Superstate against our wishes and the UK became increasingly divergent. I said this to the Irish Ambassador to the UK in 1996 (when I was Special Adviser on the Northern Ireland Peace Process) – and he went rather pale!
I never thought that we could substantially reform the EU to our satisfaction. I am afraid it was British politicians throughout who have sought to misrepresent the EU as a trade bloc rather than a political Superstate destined to create one country called Europe. EU politicians aren’t so shy. The founding Treaty of Rome says it: the destination is ‘Ever Closer Union’. This is so much in the EU’s DNA, so much part of their founding principles, that ‘reform’ could only mean slowing the pace of integration or allowing the UK more temporary semi-detachment – indeed we have multiple opt-outs today whilst France has none. As we saw with Wilson, and then Cameron, a renegotiated deal would only ever be token and ineffectual – just window-dressing.
Whilst disputed, the technocratic architect of the EU, Jean Monnet, earlier revealed its devious strategy: “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the Superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished through successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.”
I likened this to a British lobster being slowly boiled alive by a Brussels chef in my 2013 book Time to Jump. Well we’ve jumped – and have now made the exit. This process was borne out in my 10 years as an MEP. It was like working with a large jigsaw where every little technical regulation or initiative was really a piece making up that EU Superstate. The measures were quite logical – even if dressed in a mysterious fog of technical boredom and incomprehensible language to obscure their true significance. They were just not desirable. I asked the question: ‘Why does a trade bloc need an army?’ No other trade blocs have armies.
At some point there would be a crisis – in the Greek sense of forcing a resolution, good or bad. We would be faced with the ultimate choice of accepting we would inevitably become subsumed into a mere region within a fully fledged EU Superstate or leave the EU and seek a close but different relationship with it. In the referendum, I used a different analogy – of being on a bus. It might be cosy and friendly on board for a bit, but with the destination blind ‘To an EU Superstate’ and knowing that was the wrong destination for us – and that the driver wasn’t changing the route – then we needed to get off at the next stop, even if that seemed cold and dark. That stop was the referendum.
BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?
There were actually two. One was the result itself at the Manchester count, which I describe below.
The other was welcoming Boris and the Vote Leave Battlebus to Norwich, which all went so well – until what happened next. I had lobbied internally within Vote Leave to get Boris to Norwich, my MEP home and a big regional media centre for the East of England and for BBC Look East. A big happy crowd welcomed Boris, who had been wrestling a large lobster earlier, successfully, at a local seafood market. I had chatted to Steve Hilton, Cameron’s guru, and Penny Mordaunt came too.
What struck me was the welcome from young people, in contrast to the boring stereotyping claim by Remain. So many youngsters appeared with mobile phones held high in the crowd. “Wish me luck in my biology exam Boris!’” “Oh!… I was never very good at Biology”. That confirmed in my mind that Boris was destined for greater things – and really did have a special appeal. I find his humour hilarious (hence the photo!).
I had been in Norwich also when I received a news alert months earlier, on 21st February: ‘Boris to back Leave!’ I confess to turning towards the wonderful Norwich Cathedral and giving a short prayer of thanks. I believed Boris would be transformational to our cause. This was followed by a swift celebratory pint in the 13th century Adam and Eve, one of Norwich’s original 365 pubs, boasting one for every day of the year.
But as we celebrated that successful referendum visit over lunch with campaigners, another news alert popped up: ‘MP seriously injured in attack’. This was later confirmed as Jo Cox MP’s terrible murder.
Having been on a high with this great visit and Leave surging in the polls, it had been looking like a 60-40 win. We were surging. Now, campaigning was stopped, and rightly so. We didn’t know for how long. It was 16th June, just a week before the vote.
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?
That had to be John Boyd from CAEF – the Campaign Against Euro-Federalism and TEAM (a European Alliance of EU critical movements). They are trades union people who really carry on the Bennite tradition of opposing the EU, which they see as a ‘bosses’ club’ or ‘capitalist enclave’, the kind of views with which Jeremy Corbyn would be familiar.
I have never been to a rally to speak where you are greeted by keen young people in armbands (our Remain opponents probably think this is a regular occurrence!).
CAEF/TEAM was a member of my Contact Group which sought to bring together all Eurosceptic groups and later various campaigns to stop us falling out, to share activity reports and avoid wasteful clashes – such as two big speakers in one place. The formation of the Contact Group was credited with being a ‘pivotal moment’ by the Electoral Commission for official designation purposes and helped to tip the balance in a tight race – with Tim Shipman reporting in his authorative record All Out War! that Vote Leave earned 49 points against the GO! Movement’s 45.
Intriguingly, Communists from CAEF/TEAM shared office facilities with the Thatcherite Bruges Group at one point, which was indeed a bizarre alliance. But the Norwegian ‘No to the EU’/Nei Til EU’ campaign, who I had consulted heavily on strategy, had briefed the Contact Group on their 1994 referendum win and said you have to accept ‘funny bedfellows’. For a right-of-centre MEP, this was my moment. But it was all very mainstream. We shared a common goal and we really needed the Left: ‘We won’t win without the Left,’ as Nigel Farage had told me.
BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?
I was with my partner at the national referendum count in Manchester City Hall, the interior of which often doubles for the Palace of Westminster in films and TV series such as House of Cards and A Very English Scandal, and is known for its vivid murals.
The memorable moment was coming out the Vote Leave room with Steve Baker, Nigel Evans, Matthew Elliott, Gisela Stuart and team early in the morning, around 4am, mingling with Paul Nuttall and others from GO!, all stunned and unbelieving, facing this barrage of dozens of representatives of the world’s media, and turning to see on the TV behind: ‘Out Vote Wins!’. Incredible.
The sense of history still hangs in the air around this building, now being refurbished. I did a late BBC Radio 5 Live interview before the result, debating the SNP’s Stephen Gethins, and a Dutch TV interview where I joked that it would be their turn next (Nexit!). The Dutch are the closest Europeans to us I feel – a similar sense of humour.
I predicted 52-48 – as this was the ratio of Norway’s referendum vote against joining the EU in 1994, and it felt similarly tight. But I confess on the night I feared it might well be 48-52 the wrong way. In the final week it seemed we had lost momentum.
I had used the four-and-a-half hour train journey from Norwich to Manchester to plough through the newspapers. There were some key likely triggers identified: Newcastle as an early result – it would be Remain, but if this was only weak – by less than 10% – that would be significant. It came in at 0.7%. Sunderland was key too – it would be Leave but if a big majority then that would be a major milestone. It was thumping – with that wonderful blonde lady who became the face of the victory who was carried high – and to whom I owe a drink.
But it was the collapse of the pound that gave the game away: I find where big money and traders are involved, the indications are more reliable. The bets going in were predicting an unexpected Leave win! Those were the preliminary results which basically found that the Remain vote could not catch up with Leave. The actual formal result from 382 counts came around 7am with Gisela bemusing everyone with her use of German.
All credit to Matthew Elliott for years of dedication preparing for this moment through Vote Leave and before that Business for Britain, and to Dominic Cummings for his unwavering focus on a disciplined research-driven campaign which identified cost and immigration control as the key factors.
Heading to our hotel, we agonised over which sparkling wine was appropriate to celebrate over breakfast: English or French?! Well, given the fact we like Europe and still want to trade with the EU, we opted for the French. (We both of course like English fizz).
BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?
No. I think the delay and the opposition to delivering on the referendum – three-and-a-half years of this – has been a disgrace. This has exposed some in the Establishment who were prepared to worm their way out of a clear commitment by all the main parties to offer a referendum and then to abide by, and honour, its result. They clearly thought they knew better, because they have accumulated more degrees and are richer. A case of ‘Let them eat cake!’ – as with Marie Antoinette in the Versailles bubble, shortly before losing her head when the people rioted.
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David Cameron made it clear: “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.” I have met people in their 40s and 50s who came out to vote for the very first time and had to be shown what to do. They did so on the basis this was an important vote, and they could make a difference.
What we then saw was a shameless and shocking attempt to overturn the biggest democratic vote on any single issue ever. They used spurious legal devices, the overturning of parliamentary conventions, devices such as a proposed rigged ‘People’s Vote’ second referendum, and comprehensively and arrogantly abandoning manifesto promises.
Thank God for the British electorate who gave these undemocratic forces a good kicking through the ballot box by backing Boris Johnson to Get Brexit Done. Their opinion from 2016 was clearly not heard loud enough – but has been after the 2019 election. Change UK, Grieve, Bercow, the decision-revoking Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s Remainery trickery and EU game playing: where are they all now?
We made the mistake of trusting the Government and Parliament just to deliver the result, and didn’t continue to campaign. Thank goodness for BrexitCentral!
BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?
I didn’t think it really could be, despite everything, because it would have destroyed any faith in British democracy and ushered in dangerous alternative direct opposition on a par with French-style street protests. These diehard Remoaners were really playing with fire – there were prepared to trash every tradition, principle and convention, just anything, to stay in the EU.
As someone involved in calming the situation in Northern Ireland, and who had to meet several of those involved in The Troubles and ask how they ended up in conflict and in jail, I really feared the consequences of such failure.
But we came very close. Before the general election, by virtue of the last rotten Parliament, the Government was in paralysis and could have been stuck there for years under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Every single other party with MP representation came out against Brexit using a host of devious and underhand techniques. It was vital we went to the country and got a majority. 80 was such a huge relief. Enacting the Brexit result ceased to be about the rights and wrongs of Brexit; it became about democracy itself.
This is no less than a political revolution and it is far far more than just about our relationship with the EU. Brexit has shone a searchlight on our Establishment and found it to be self-serving, rotten and compromised in parts, and too much of it had become a mere agency to deliver the will of the EU, simply incapable of thinking as a proud, independent, sovereign nation state.
We need now a further Trump-style swamp draining revolution which addresses the fact more than 80% of those in academia are left-wing and PC, with many more obsessed with gender neutral toilets than with freedom of speech, and with our elite Oxbridge universities having become dangerously out of touch, with Remain votes of more than 70% in Oxford and Cambridge.
We have a BBC that has shown deliberate metropolitan elite PC bias that has imperilled the very high values on which it was founded; and we have a Civil Service that failed comprehensively to deliver Brexit – indeed it has actively sought to block it. Whitehall is simply not fit for purpose and is still generalist, inept, ill-qualified and self-serving – in the days of expertise, focus and specialism.
We have too many corporatist businesses which were fanatical about the EU, failing to serve the best interests of Britain and by driving wages down and people into poverty by not ‘training and retaining’, but bringing in cheap labour from abroad instead.
And a Remainer-dominated elite – pop stars, film stars, celebrities – who have deep contempt and disloyalty for their own country, yet wish to hold onto all the privileges and freedoms provided by it regardless.
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?
Freer, happier, wealthier – that’s my vision for post-Brexit Britain. Big Globalists not Little Englanders. Outward-looking, world-leading, value-enhancing.
Free to do our own deeper and wider free trade agreements with countries around the world, huge economies with which the EU has failed to secure trade deals, like the USA (2020?), India (you could double Scotch whisky production alone by removing 150% luxury tariffs), China, Australia and New Zealand. Escaping the EU’s near 20,000 tariffs means cheaper food for all, particularly the least well-off.
Freedom to control our own borders again and to choose and invite those who we want into the UK for our collective benefit; not to have to accept uncontrolled immigration from only the EU, overloading our public services and housing, and penalising many countries such as Australia, India and Canada with whom we have so much shared history.
Freedom to strip out reams of EU overregulation from amongst the 700,000 pages that make up the EU’s body of law (Acquis Communautaire) – a Nelson’s Column of paper.
Examples abound: Procurement rules holding back smaller businesses for UK Government contracts – that could take their share from one quarter to one third and substantially benefit the UK economy. Scrapping the Working Time Directive that imposes a £4 billion a year cost on the NHS in expensive locums, such as penalising surgeons sleeping overnight in hospitals to ensure early starts on operations. Revisiting the complex REACH chemicals directive that imposes 5,000 pages on small firms.
Freedom to spend our own resources our own way. The £12 billion net in EU contributions (£19 billion gross under EU control) that can be redirected to improve our own transport infrastructure (not that around the EU), right around the UK. I would reverse a lot of the Beeching rail cuts and am working on a paper on this.
Freedom to recover our own foreign policy and not be hide-bound by the EU’s integrationist Common Foreign and Security Policy, such as our emerging new leadership over a middle way on Iran. To avoid our strong defence procurement industry being carved up and dispersed around the EU or our troops ever being forced to wear EU stars within EU Battlegroups to fight the EU’s enemy again.
BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?
I will be going through former MEP office papers, whilst watching the wonderful Six Nations kick off!
But on 31st January I will certainly be celebrating opposite Big Ben – bongs or no bongs – with fellow Brexiteers courtesy of Leave Means Leave. We have earned the right after this huge battle against all the odds, all the setbacks, all the abuse, to celebrate, and to celebrate well – and noisily.
But from 1st February on, let us all try to seize the opportunities Brexit brings, but seek to heal the divisions. We are doing this for the greater good of all Britons, regardless of their views on the EU. Let’s take them with us. As Churchill said: ‘In Victory, Magnanimity!’
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, with Boris Johnson when the Vote Leave battlebus hit Norwich on 16th June 2016.