NON-FICTION: BREXIT: HOW EUROPE WAS ABANDONED

June 04, 2017

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A country divided: a banner favouring Brexit is displayed outside a home adjacent to one that opposes Britain leaving the EU | AP
A country divided: a banner favouring Brexit is displayed outside a home adjacent to one that opposes Britain leaving the EU | AP

Forces of globalisation, regional integration, and neoliberal economic policies have been increasingly on the rise since the end of the Second World War. Winston Churchill, the ageing servant of a dying empire, took the world by surprise in September 1946 when he suggested the creation of a “United States of Europe” in a speech at Zurich. Then, the speech of the United States’ secretary of state George Marshall at Harvard University for the economic uplift of Europe (popularly known as the Marshall Plan) further strengthened the idea of a more integrated Europe. Subsequently, in May 1948, Churchill presided over the Congress of Europe held at The Hague. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 and Britain joined the European Community in 1973. The question of Europe, in British politics, has not been of any particular party. Conservatives and Labour have switched sides on the issue several times, opting for a pro-European approach while in government and cashing in on the populism of anti-Europeanism when in opposition. This trend was broken by David Cameron in his campaign for elections in 2015 when he promised a referendum on European membership if he became prime minister.

All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman is a voluminous narration of the tricks and tactics employed by the two rival sides on the question of British membership of the EU. At the outset, it should be declared that the book does not discuss the ideological paradigm involved, politico-economic causes or the near and distant consequences of Brexit. It treats Brexit as a strategic battle fought on the political canvas of the United Kingdom and delves into the tactical moves exercised on this plebiscitary chessboard. The narrative is more like a fast-paced thriller than an academic debate on the merits and demerits of Britain staying in or opting out. With each successive chapter, new characters appear and complicate the plot for a reader who is not well versed with the British political scene. The story is reminiscent not only of Game of Thrones-style of political intrigues of rival parties seeking to capture the crowning moment, but also a complex web of characters shifting loyalties and having motives that date back sometimes several decades.

The story begins with the announcement made by the then prime minister Cameron on Jan 23, 2013, promising to call an in/out referendum if he won the 2015 general elections. Cameron, who had been leading the Conservative party since December 2005, became prime minister in May 2010, replacing Labour’s Gordon Brown. Cameron’s announcement was an election gambit not liked by many of his colleagues, particularly his long-time aide and chancellor of the exchequer (equivalent of a minister of finance), George Osborne, who, nonetheless, provided his unwavering support to the prime minister in a cause that lost him the following of several old allies and party leaders.

A guide to understanding the Leave/Remain debate in all its glory, with all its gory details

The EU project has always seen many critics in Britain. However, it became a serious concern for a large number of British citizens after a soar in immigration from the Eurozone that resulted from financial crisis and rising unemployment. New political forces such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) were trying to cash in on the popular anti-European sentiment. In Shipman’s view, it was these concerns that forced Cameron to hold a referendum to settle the matter once and for all. Shipman also makes it clear that Cameron was not happy with the current arrangement of the EU. What he promised his voters was to renegotiate with his European counterparts in order to change the rules in favour of Britain. The results of his renegotiations in February 2016 proved to be too little too late.

Three major organisations were set up to campaign for leaving the EU. Foremost was Vote Leave, created in October 2015 by Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings, two of the best political strategists in Britain. They were later joined by Conservative MP and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove; and Conservative MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Vote Leave included leaders from Labour and Ukip as well, but was dominated by the Conservatives. The focus of its campaign was economic arguments against the EU. Its launch video told viewers that the UK was sending 350 million pounds to the EU every week, a figure much debated during the campaign and one that proved to be exaggerated, Shipman informs the reader. This exaggeration has also been highlighted by Denis MacShane in his book Brexit: How Britain Left Europe in the following words: “The total EU budget does not exceed one percent of the total European GDP. And of that one percent about four-fifths go back to member states, including Britain, in the form of payments to farmers and poor regions.”

The second organisation, Leave.EU, was co-founded in July 2015 by Ukip donor and businessman Arron Banks. Its central argument related to immigration. The third organisation, Grassroots Out, was formed in January 2016 by Ukip leader Nigel Farage and others as a result of differences between Vote Leave and Leave.EU. On April 13, 2016, the Electoral Commission declared Vote Leave as the official campaign representing the side for leaving the EU. Hence, Shipman has dedicated a large part of the book to Vote Leave and its internal workings.

Britain Stronger In was launched on Oct 12, 2015, independent of Cameron, and secured the backing of the prime minister only at a later stage when he was convinced that an official Remain campaign was necessary to win the coming referendum. Its main argument was the economic risks Britain would face in case of leaving the EU. The

UK-EU referendum took place on June 23, 2016. The voter turnout was 72 per cent; 52 per cent voted in favour of leaving while 48 per cent voted to remain. However, like an interesting thriller, the book does not end here and goes on to tell the tale of how Theresa May was elected prime minister — to the surprise of many.

In Shipman’s analysis, “The referendum represented a revolt of the provincial classes — ignored, maligned and impoverished — against the cosy metropolitan consensus on Europe, the benefits of immigration and the belief that national economic prosperity trumps personal experience of hardship.” He goes on to describe the fatalistic view of some Remainers who try to rationalise their defeat by advancing two arguments. The first is that Brexit is a result of three decades of Euroscepticism. Even Cameron had nothing substantially positive to say about Europe before the referendum campaign. The second explanation blames the overall political atmosphere around the globe where an angry middle-class is revolting against the negative consequences of globalisation. However, Shipman clearly delineates a number of decisions by the Remain campaign that contributed towards its loss.

Shipman highlights that while Vote Remain stirred the emotions of people in a “post-truth” manner, Stronger In sought to fight a rational campaign. Then there was an over-reliance on the expected support of Labour that did not materialise. Shipman quotes James McGrory, chief spokesman of Stronger In, regarding Jeremy Corbyn who was the leader of the Labour party: “If he is against the EU, fine, be against it, but he did the worst of all possible worlds by being some sort of sceptic Remainer.” Shipman is of the view that Cameron had called a referendum on a subject that barely anyone understood. In his final verdict on Cameron, Shipman states that, “he was tactical where he needed to be strategic, confident when he should have been nervous, resolute in sticking to a campaign plan that he should have changed.” We must also consider that the remain option was not simply remain; rather, it was remain and reform, which several voters thought almost impossible in the face of European reluctance to substantially change the rules of the EU.

Shipman states that identity politics also played its part. Eighty per cent of people who defined themselves as English — that is, from England and Wales — voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those calling themselves British — that is, from Scotland and Northern Ireland — voted Remain.

It is indeed a commendable effort by Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, to have come up with an enormous and fully referenced tome within four months of the referendum. It is, indeed, a recording of history in its full glory and with all the gory details. One defining feature of the work is that the author does not pass any value judgement on who is right and who is wrong. He simply informs the readers, quite meticulously, of all the events leading up to the referendum and tries to gauge their influence on the verdict given by the people of Britain. There is much more to the book than can be dilated into a short review; while it is a rollercoaster ride of a thriller for politically aware readers, the only shortcoming is that for anyone who is not aware of the many characters that appear in it, it becomes a mystery to solve, requiring them to find about these characters on their own.

The reviewer is a civil servant and a freelance writer

All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit
Sank Britain’s Political Class
By Tim Shipman
William Collins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008215156
688pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2017