What you really should have done if you were in Birmingham on Monday this week was skip the not notably riveting Philip Hammond speech, and head instead for the fringe event run by the Bruges Group starring me, Professor David Myddelton and Charles Moore.
I can’t speak for my performance (modesty forbids me) but my fellow panellists were brilliant: funny, incisive and as optimistic as you’d expect of a pair of ardent Brexiteers addressing the victorious home crowd for probably the first time since that happy day in June.
‘Which of us here could ever have imagined that we’re actually part of the majority: the 52 per cent?’ I asked. And lots of people clapped at the wonderful warm feeling this gave them. But then I introduced a worm into their apple. ‘What we learned on 24 June is that the establishment elite are not representative of the country at large. And what we have learned since is that they are not about to give up any time soon…’
The most obvious example is this new distinction, endlessly promulgated by the BBC, between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit. No one talked about such a thing in the run-up to the referendum. The only people talking about it now are bitter Remainers trying to frustrate the democratic process. Most of us who voted for Brexit want it good and strong and hard.
This is why I think our ex-Remainer PM Theresa May played such a blinder with her forthright Sunday speech on Brexit. Yes I know there are those — even on the Leave side of the argument — who insist it isn’t possible, that there are all manner of complications which will stop us getting our way on tariff-free trade and freedom of movement. But you don’t go into negotiations conceding the pass before you’ve even begun. Just ask that guy who used to be PM.
One of the things I always loved about being an outspoken Brexiteer was being on the side of the people. It was like that time I served briefly in the Sealed Knot as a Parliamentarian pikeman with Col John Birch’s Regiment of Foot, shouting as we marched off to battle catchy slogans like ‘A pox on the King’ and ‘One King, King Jesus’. Within our ranks we embraced all manner of ideological convictions, from the socialist to the libertarian to the shy monarchist. But one thing we all agreed on: that the rotten establishment needed a proper kick up the arse.
It’s the same I think with the Brexit vote. Since the result, lots of commentators have speculated on what it really meant: was it anti-immigration, was it about a yearning for sovereignty, was it about protest, fish, economics, freedom? And Theresa May has wisely recognised that her legacy will largely depend on how successfully she answers these questions.
I think the solution is more basic than our experts realise: what most of us would really like, for a change, is a state that represents our interests. Let me give you an obvious example of this — one that happily Theresa May has addressed already: the legal harassment of our troops.
Almost every sane, normal person in the country at large has enormous respect for our serving men and women. It’s a brave and selfless thing to trade in your Playstation and Mum’s home cooking for a uniform, military discipline and the real prospect of having your legs blown off in a flyblown land where diarrhoea is a way of life.
What kind of deranged, sadistic, unpatriotic tosser would you have to be to send such people to fight for their country not only with their arms tied behind their backs (in terms of rules of engagement) but, worse, to allow ambulance-chasing lawyers (often representing either lying gold-diggers or murderous terrorists) to pursue them through the courts once they got home?
Whoever created this state of affairs — Tony Blair, presumably — was acting flagrantly against the interests of the British people. Anyone, in any pub or café or hairdresser’s across the land, could tell you that. Yet astonishingly, for years, even with a Conservative government with an ex-foxhunting Old Etonian in charge, this outrageous and inexcusable injustice was allowed to persist. It’s one of the many irritations that I suspect a lot of people would have had in mind on 23 June when they voted to give that remote, smug, complacent establishment one massive boot in the goolies.
Note that it’s not a left or right thing. It’s a plain bloody commonsense thing. Now I’ll give you another example, one this time where Theresa May’s administration has fallen woefully short: the Hinkley Point C nuclear project. If the government really has to get involved with energy infrastructure projects, then it has only one job: make sure the British people get a good deal.
In no wise could this be said of Hinkley. It commits Britain to buying outdated technology, at three times the going wholesale rate for electricity, in what has been described as the ‘worst deal in history’ — to the benefit of almost no one save French and Chinese investors. There may be political reasons behind this but the British people don’t care about political reasons. What they want — and deserve, because it’s their money — is cheap, reliable electricity.
What we can see already is that this administration is going to be a mixed bag of good sense and off-the-scale stupidity. On the latter side, next to Hinkley we can put the all but inevitable HS2 and anything to do with ‘industrial policy’; on the former we can put stuff like grammar schools, the scrapping of the Department for Energy and Climate Change and, with luck, the execution of Brexit. Could be worse, I suppose.