STEPHEN GLOVER: A triumph for those who dared to love their country – and I can barely believe it
At 11 o’clock tonight we are finally leaving the European Union behind. I can scarcely believe I have written those words. We will be an independent country again. As Boris Johnson declared yesterday, this is ‘a new chapter in our national story’.
Whatever happens, we have set another course. The year 2021 may be remembered as one of those great turning points — like the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which laid the foundations of parliamentary government, or the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, which ushered in nearly a century of global dominance for Britain.
Too overblown? I don’t think so. Good or bad — and I am full of optimism about what lies ahead — tomorrow marks the first day of a new era. The future is bound to be strikingly different from what it would have been if we had remained in the EU.
And yet, until very recently, this bold new chapter appeared to lie somewhere between unlikely and impossible. This was probably even the view of Eurosceptics, who have warned us over the years that Britain was being dragged bit by bit into a European superstate without its citizens having a say.
Stephen Glover said: ‘The year 2021 may be remembered as one of those great turning points — like the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which laid the foundations of parliamentary government, or the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, which ushered in nearly a century of global dominance for Britain’
Leaving this undemocratic behemoth was for many of its critics beyond their wildest dreams. Go back to 1993, and we find a small group of around 20 Tory rebels harrying John Major’s pro-EU Conservative administration.
Their immediate objective wasn’t getting out of the EU. That was too grand an ambition. No, they were opposing the Maastricht Bill, which turned the European Economic Community (EEC) into the more federalist European Union. The valiant rebels were seen off.
Today, in a moment of triumph for upholders of national sovereignty, we shouldn’t forget that Eurosceptics in both main parties were for decades a despised minority. They were seen as fruitcakes and nutters, mocked or patronised by the pro-EU majority among our political and our media class, who were certain that history was on their side.
But it wasn’t. Painfully slowly, the Eurosceptics built up support. In the 1997 general election Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, which campaigned for a plebiscite on our membership of the EU, won just 2.6 per cent of the vote. Not great, but a start.
Then came Nigel Farage and Ukip, which gradually turned itself into a mainstream political party despite being marginalised by the pro-EU BBC and having to fight for airtime. Meanwhile, election by election, the Tory Party was becoming more Eurosceptic as the EU inexorably (and shamelessly) increased its powers.
‘David Cameron was eventually forced to agree to a referendum, which he and the political establishment were confident would be won by Project Fear, with its spine-chilling prophecies of economic Armageddon if Britain left the EU,’ said Stephen Glover
David Cameron was eventually forced to agree to a referendum, which he and the political establishment were confident would be won by Project Fear, with its spine-chilling prophecies of economic Armageddon if Britain left the EU.
How wrong they were! It transpired that millions of British people didn’t relish being ruled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. They dared to love their country and to believe in it. For many of them, there were more important concerns in life than money. A majority — not huge, but a majority — voted to leave.
And so began the nightmare of the past four and a half years as the political establishment fought back, trying either to reverse the outcome of the June 2016 referendum, or to settle for a form of Brexit that would have left us partly under EU control.
It might have succeeded. When Theresa May introduced her Brexit bill for the third time in March 2019 — it would have kept us tied to Brussels in several ways — Boris Johnson backed it after reaching the ‘sad conclusion’ that it was the only way to ensure the UK left the European Union. I felt the same.
Fortunately — as it turned out — a combination of Jeremy Corbyn’s obstructionist Labour Party and hard-line Tory Eurosceptics defeated the withdrawal deal by 344 votes to 286. Mrs May was soon forced to resign, and Mr Johnson became Prime Minister. Yesterday his deal won a stonking 521 to 73 majority in the Commons.
Stephen Glover said: ‘Then came Nigel Farage (pictured) and Ukip, which gradually turned itself into a mainstream political party despite being marginalised by the pro-EU BBC and having to fight for airtime’
Ah, Boris! As I have admitted in these pages, I sometimes have conflicting feelings about him. Only ten days ago, after he had promised a family Christmas and then changed his mind within the space of three days in what seemed a breach of faith, I even questioned his fitness to be Prime Minister.
I still believe he has made lots of mistakes during the pandemic, and I won’t be at all surprised if he continues to do so. He apparently often finds it difficult to come to a decision.
This characteristic, so unsuitable to the control of a fast-moving pandemic, served him well in his negotiations with Brussels. He waited. He would not be rushed. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier kept repeating absurdly that the clock was ticking. Boris refused to buckle.
Admittedly, he was helped because the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is a reasonable and pragmatic person who badly wanted a deal, as did her mentor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the PM didn’t snatch at one. He held out — while insisting there could be no further extension beyond December 31.
Boris sometimes reminds me of Tolstoy’s hero General Mikhail Kutuzov in his novel War And Peace. In real life, Kutuzov was one-eyed (admittedly no resemblance there), very fond of women and no enemy to drink, sometimes unreliable, and generally rather rackety.
‘In the 1997 general election Sir James Goldsmith’s (pictured) Referendum Party, which campaigned for a plebiscite on our membership of the EU, won just 2.6 per cent of the vote. Not great, but a start,’ said Stephen Glover
And he knew how to wait. He was patient. So he was much criticised for not engaging with Napoleon. After the inconclusive Battle of Borodino he allowed the French emperor to occupy Moscow, re-grouped, won a battle — and orchestrated the long, debilitating French retreat.
Needless to say, I’m not starry-eyed about Boris or his deal. As he admitted over the weekend, it doesn’t offer a great deal of support for financial services. Nor does it give British fishermen as much as they had been led to expect by the Government.
But it does provide for tariff-free trade, and it does magnificently free Britain from the sway of the European Court, and so restores our sovereignty, as the hard-liners of the Tory European Research Group have conceded.
Oh, there are problems ahead for Mr Johnson. I don’t doubt that. Without any great leap of the imagination, one can foresee bottlenecks as the vaccine is rolled out infuriatingly slowly. The public finances are in a mess because of Covid-19, and unemployment is certain to rise.
Then there is Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will exploit every opportunity to try to secure independence for her country. I’ve little doubt this will be the next great challenge of Mr Johnson’s prime ministership. On the outcome will rest his political reputation.
But there are reasons for optimism. One is that in the past few days we have seen the best of Boris, and so there is cause to hope that the best will be repeated. A leader who can pull off what many said was an impossible deal is a politician to be reckoned with.
Another, deeper reason is that we are free. Free, in the first instance, of the futile bickering of recent years. There is no going back for the foreseeable future. Even intransigent Remainers must surely agree that the die is cast.
We’re free to chart our own course as a sovereign and independent nation. Little more than a year ago, that still seemed an unattainable dream. Tomorrow, after more than three decades of argument, which turned into rancorous division following the referendum, a new chapter miraculously begins.
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