“There is a threat to the established party system.”
Not a day passes without new bets and raises in the high stakes of Brexit poker. In 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. Why is the British Parliament rebuffing the will of the people? Will UK leaders stage a second referendum? What would Brexit without a deal mean? Would there be chaos? DIE WELTWOCHE asks British writer, journalist, and Conservative Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, to make sense of the latest scenes in the Brexit drama.
I’m reviewing the press in Switzerland and Europe. They're saying, "The House of Commons has become a sitcom. The parliament is in decay." Daniel Hannan, can you make sense of this all? Is this a tragedy, a comedy, or an absurdity what's happening right now?
The thing that I've always found most difficult about the EU is they didn't only undemocratically subvert the institution, it also subverted the democracy of its member nations. They have to act in ways that are against their constitution, repeatedly, in order to sustain the requirements of membership. For example... I can give you a hundred examples. You can think of another hundred.
When Ireland was made to vote again on the treaty, there was a change in law. Up until then, Ireland had had exemplary laws on the fair funding of the referendum. They had exemplary laws that provided for equal airtime for both sides. That was scrapped in order to get the deal through which means that, now, all Ireland referendums, not just those to do with the EU, will be fought under lop-sided rules. I call it the EU's “hideous strength,” borrowing the title from one of C.S. Lewis' novels. What we're seeing now in the House of Commons is the latest example.
The British people decided for Brexit. Why does your parliament in England not follow suit with the will of the people? Why does it not just say, "Let's move on. Let's have, if necessary, a hard Brexit”? Where is the problem?
That is an extremely good question. It's a very natural question to ask from a Swiss perspective, because you are lucky enough to live in a country where direct democracy is an established part of life, where it is unthinkable not to obey the will of the people… In Britain I'm afraid all of what has caused the chaos over the last two years has one root, one cause. It is the unwillingness of MPs to follow the instructions that they were given. When the House of Commons decided to put this question to the people and they legislated to do that in 2015, it never occurred to them that they wouldn't get the answer they wanted.
People talk about Britain being in crisis. That's really not true. Britain is not in crisis at all. The British economy is faring extremely well. There are more people in work than ever before in our history. Exports are up. Investment is up. Consumer confidence is up. The stock exchange is up. There is no general crisis in Britain, nor is there a constitutional crisis. The Queen is on her throne. The Church is established. No one's trying to cancel the election result. What we have is a political crisis caused by the refusal of MPs to do what they promised they were going to do when they agreed to hold the referendum.
I imagine that the British people, not only the ones who voted for Brexit, are mad at their MPs. How big is the anger and the unrest among the British people?
We're not really that kind of people who riot, or smash things up, or set fire to things. We leave that to our neighbors immediately across the Channel, but I think there is a threat, if you like, to the established party system. I don't think there will be violence or revolution, but, if Brexit is in some way canceled, I think we may see the end of the Conservative and Labour parties in the way that we've known them for the last 100 years.
We're not there, yet. It's important to stress that there is no majority in the House of Commons, yet, for completely overturning the result. There may be a majority for delay. There may be a majority for a different kind of Brexit. But we have not reached the point where a majority of MPs is prepared to go and ask for another referendum. Nor, I feel bad to say, do I get a sense in Brussels that people are looking for a permanent reversal of Brexit. I think they are looking for a postponement until next year, which is a different thing.
Talking about a postponement, I hear analysts say, "Brexiteers are now in panic. If there is a too long extension, there might be a second referendum." Do you think there is a relevant chance that this is going to happen?
No, I don't think so. There was a vote on a second referendum in the House of Commons and only 85 members of Parliament backed it out of 650. In their heart, I'm sure a lot of them want to undo Brexit, but they are not prepared openly to vote in public to overturn the decision that their own constituents have voted. I don't see any problem that there might be a second referendum. Not least because which side would the Labour party be on? Jeremy Corbyn is desperate to avoid a second referendum. It would be a nightmare for him. For a bunch of reasons, I don't expect that to happen.
The reality is Theresa May has made an incredible mess of this negotiation. She's ended up asking for, I think, the worst possible outcome imaginable. Before and during the campaign, and after the campaign, I argued that we should try and get a deal that was similar to yours (Switzerland). Not exactly the same as yours, of course. Our two countries are not completely comparable, but the broad principle should be that we should to try and stay in the large part of the single market whilst staying outside the EU's political institution and staying outside the customs union, which particularly matters because, this is one difference between the UK and Switzerland, we do most of our trade outside the EU.
Incredibly, Theresa May has come back with a deal that would keep us in the customs union, but outside the single market. That is absolutely the worst of all worlds. I would have laughed if you'd told me before the referendum that that would be the outcome. I think there is an argument, if Brexit is postponed, for just changing course completely, approaching with a completely different objective and trying to get something more along the lines of EFTA, which I think would be a way of reflecting what was a narrow vote.
The one thing that Remainers say, which I think has never been actually thought as reasonable for, is, "Look. If we're in the 48-52 vote, the country was very narrowly divided. We should try and come up with an outcome that reflects the concerns of both sides, so far as we can. We should try and have a deal that may not go far enough for some, may go too far for others, but, then, most of the 48% and most of the 52% can at least live with it." I would argue that that is what Switzerland did after, again, a very narrow rejection of the EEA. It has adopted a position which is close to the EU, but outside it. That seems to me that that's a reasonable democratic point.
You mentioned the term “chaos” before. Analysts say, "If they do cold Brexit, or a hard Brexit, it's going to be chaos." Do you agree with that?
No. I think something that expresses it very well was a phrase that Boris Johnson used during the campaign where he said it will be like the Nike swoosh, the symbol on the trainer. There will be some short term disruption, because anything worth doing involves functional term disruption. But very soon people will look back and say we should have done that a long time ago.
Changing our trading position to become less European and more global? Of course, that involves some disruption, especially to some of the big established players, but it creates many more opportunities.
Having to come up with a different set of regulations? Of course, there is some short term adjustment of people trying to understand the new rule. Once we live under our own regulations and not somebody else's, we can suit them much better to our own conditions. So, I think that would be the outcome of a no deal Brexit.
By the way, they're calling it a “cold Brexit” or “hard Brexit,” or whatever, or calling it “crashing out with no deal,” or whatever. These are all very tendencious, very biased, loaded ways of describing what it really is which is leaving in a way that the EU has not expressly laid out for us. We don't have to wait for their permission to leave.
The local party in Aldershot was trying to get you to run as a candidate for MP. The Conservative Party vetoed that. Can you explain what happened there?
I don't know. You'd need to ask the Conservative Party. I know that the Aldershot people definitely wanted me to stand, but they were not offered me as a candidate.
Do you have any idea why the Conservative Party vetoed you? Are you too extreme for them?
I really wouldn't have thought so. As you know, my view on Brexit is what I've just explained to you, which is that we should go to some kind of extra type deal, which is hardly extreme. There's an awful lot of people that Theresa May doesn't like to promote. But it's her call, not mine.
Daniel Hannan, 47, has been a Conservative Member of the European Parliament for South East England since 1999. He writes regular columns for The Sunday Telegraph, the Washington Examiner and many more. He is the author of nine books, including Sunday Times bestseller 'Vote Leave'. His latest book is 'What Next: How to get the best from Brexit'.