22 July 2021
by J.R. Thomas
Alas, the birthday boy seems to keep missing important events. No Freedom Day party for him; he was playing with his petard and got hoist by it. Irony can be cruel sometimes. That Boris could not celebrate Freedom Day because he was locked in Chequers has caused much amusement, but he also missed an important fifth birthday. No, not that of young Wilfred, or indeed young Dylan; but June 23rd was the 5th anniversary of The Great Referendum Day, or as we might call it if was not likely to cause too much confusion, Freedom Day. Yet it passed pretty much unnoticed, even by this august organ. Which we must now put right.
On 23rd June 2016 we got up and most of us went to the polling station to cast our votes as to whether we should Remain, or Leave. Like a sort of country ballad, straight in from Nashville. Our loved one in Brussels didn’t want to lose us and didn’t think we ought to go, but dear Dave knew we wouldn’t desert our distant love. He had tried to persuade the fair belles of Brussels to help him out a bit and make themselves a bit more attractive, but they said they wouldn’t; why should they after all, they were in every way perfect. To which Dave said “fine”, and as he had made a solemn promise at his party, he went ahead with delivering that promise. He asked the people. Oh Dave. What a rookie error. Never ask the people. That’s not what leadership is all about. Even if, as Dave was, you are sure of the answer. Lead the people, do unto them what you know, as a leader, needs to be done to them. Put the fear of God, and employment and blockades and friendlessness into them. Or they might just do the opposite.
Because when Dave and George and all their friends were about to get the champagne out of the fridge as the polls closed and the early results started to come in, the people were found to be revolting. In Sunderland, where the frightening process had been especially thickly applied, the people were very revolting. 61% of them wanted to go, and only 39% to stay. That was wrong, clearly. The largest local employer, Nissan, was widely reported to be likely to shut down its car manufacturing plant, and all its suppliers would follow suit, if Britain left the European Union. But the people of Wearside seemed not to care, or perhaps they don’t like been told what to do by distant toffs (believe it, they don’t). And Dave knew then it was all over. Britain would be out of the EU, and he and his mate George would be out of their jobs. And if they believed the publicity they themselves had spread about jobs and leaving the EU, they would never get another one.
It was the night of glory, or the night of horror. Friendships ended that night as unforgivable things were said by Remainers to Leavers, and Leavers to Remainers. Your correspondent, such a convinced Leaver that he had even campaigned in the Harold Wilson Europe Referendum in 1975 to try and reverse Ted Heath’s agreement for Britain to join, and such an experienced political observer that he knew Sunderland was a freak result, went to bed, knowing that we would turn out to be Remaining.
But in the morning, the decision was the same. Leave. The Brits had had enough. The margin was tighter, and there was a clear north/south divide, with the south strong Remainers and the north equally profound Leavers. That divide has in itself become a major factor in British politics and one which could result in profound changes over the next twenty years. Or, if it doesn’t, this newly noticed fault line in the United Kingdom could lead to lots of trouble (Yorkshire Independence Movement, anybody?)
And as we know, the result did not mean that it was all was over bar the shouting. In fact, the shouting had just started. Gradually it has died away into some pretty aggressive muttering, but like fires in haystacks, don’t rely on it all not flaring up again. Our exit from the European Union will be seen as one of those extraordinary events that bring about much change, and some of it of a nature that could not have been foreseen. For the Conservative Party, for instance. Dave did do the right thing. He promptly resigned. His party then did a strange swerve and choose Mrs May as his successor. Not least because nobody really knew much about her. She had been a tough Home Secretary, and she had shown some political skill by half convincing Leavers that she was secretly one of them, but also speaking sufficiently in favour of Remain to polish her credentials in that room. (Even now nobody is quite sure what her real views were, or are.) But most people soon knew she was not up to the top job, and it was that factor that gave Boris his opportunity. So, we ended up with a man who whilst a brilliant, witty, and energetic campaigner, has yet to prove that his ability to negotiate complex transactions and deal determinedly with multi-clause detail are his key USP’s.
That could be very significant to the people of Northern Ireland, for example, who were minor players in the end game and consequently got pushed almost off the board. Or perhaps, like requiring nightclub aficionados to show vaccine passports, it was to convince the folk of Ulster that they would be better off governed from somewhere else. Like, say, Dublin.
Or farmers. Long used to following the edicts of government and the financial breadcrumbs scattered across their farmyards to get them to do what governments wanted them to do from time to time, and getting higher prices for their products in return. Now they will have to compete in the open world market of food production, whilst at the same time running their farms to be as green as possible. Those things are not entirely mutually incompatible but to get premium prices for premium products does need great skills in quality control and marketing. Let’s hope they will get time to learn all that.
Generally, life away from the centralising enforcing protectionist EU should be better for British citizens. The government has not handled the exit process terribly well, and Covid means that the transition to low regulation and low tax necessary to get the best out of Leaving is going to be, to put it mildly, a bit tricky. But it also means that seizing the opportunity becomes even more important. The signs are good – not only has Nissan not gone but has hired more people and is about to build a huge car battery manufacturing plant in the north east. And to be outside a protected zone that sells significantly more to us than we to it, and to be able to develop trade links with expanding economies is good. So is it to be self governing once more – at the very least we have only one layer of incompetent government instead of two.
On balance we should have opened a bottle of English sparkling on 23rd June, maybe slightly ruefully and vowing to learn from the whole process. And to thank the people of Sunderland who led the way that exciting night, five years ago.