Twenty-nine years ago this month, the Vote Leave campaign got underway. Nigel Farage was still making his anti-establishment way as a City broker and a young Michael Gove was heading northwards to work on the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Instead, it was the founder of the movement who did the honours. Margaret Thatcher travelled to Bruges, to the College of Europe, the Europhile madrassa that has radicalised generations of youth to the cause of ever closer union. There in the belly of the beast she smartly explained why Britain was marvellous and wouldn’t it be better all round if the Continent was more like Blighty.
The Bruges Speech was in effect Maggie’s repudiation of the European project, an effort to which she had once committed her energies and one particularly garish jumper. She did not propose withdrawal but she had, unwittingly or otherwise, arrived at an analysis that would come to dominate Conservative thinking on Europe. As the most memorable line from the speech put it: ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.’
Those 32 words are the germ from which Brexit grew. Britain is a distinct nation, author of its own destiny, and when Britain’s interests and Europe’s interests are at odds, Britain will go its own way. When the UK Parliament acts, it will not be put right by Johnny Bloody Foreigner. Euroscepticism, even the left-wing variety, has always been an alloy of chauvinism and democracy. Brexit, when it wasn’t about dodgy claims on buses and looming Turkish hordes, was about ‘taking back control’. It’s hardly surprising that parliamentary sovereignty took a back seat to more populist rationales during the referendum; slapping an EU directive on a billboard and the words ‘BREAKING POINT’ doesn’t have quite the same impact.