The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
There is no better way to get yourself out of the kind of hole we find ourselves in today than to grow your way out.
All the emphasis to date has been on the debt which hangs round our neck like an albatross. But while it was right to worry about this and to take measures to bring it under control, now we must get an engine fired up whose sole purpose is growth.
Where can this growth come from? It is easier first to identify areas where it cannot and should not come from; namely the self-indulgent areas such as we had known for the decade before the credit crunch hit us in 2008.
More than any other sector, the construction industry has taken the brunt of the recession. Once, it was commonplace to see giant cranes at work in every city centre, out of town shopping development and business park. Not anymore.
All is quiet on the Western Front, yet at the same time we have a crisis in housing. Millions of newcomers have flooded into our country and they all need accommodation. And while this moribund industry is virtually at a standstill, millions of our young people cannot get on to the housing ladder because prices are still too high.
Nothing is more likely to bring these prices down than a massive programme of building which closes the gap between supply and demand.
More housing means more carpets to be fitted; more furniture and electrical appliances to be bought; more soft furnishings; more blinds; more kitchen utensils; more visits to DIY stores – the list goes on and on. So here is one area crying out for a massive growth strategy.
With interest rates at an historic low there was never a better time to take out a mortgage, if only the product was there at an affordable price.
What about infrastructure projects to which we are already committed? Surely these could be fast-tracked. The Olympic project has shown us what can be slung up in a remarkably short time frame.
And then there’s Boris Johnson’s pet project: the Thames Estuary Airport to complement Heathrow. The estuary project would not only send a powerful signal to the world that Britain is determined to get ahead of the curve business-wise and continue to host the world’s number one airport; it would also be a faith restoring project as well as, hopefully, the world’s most exciting and, perhaps even beautiful, airport. Even the green lobby would have to have all its boxes ticked.
In our efforts to get energy prices down – a very necessary prerequisite for growth – why don’t we and the rest of the struggling West release a large part of those strategic reserves of oil we all built up to fight the Cold War in the event that it became hot? And why, for that matter, are we pussyfooting about getting up the massive reserves of oil which lie all around the Falkland Islands? At a stroke it would make us oil self-sufficient and even allow us to make the European Union independent of Russian or any other single country’s oil. Imagine what clout that would give us in Brussels!
We could set up ‘Enterprise Zones’ in depressed areas with special tax breaks. There could also be NI exemptions for new start-ups as well as firms employing fewer than 50 who take on new employees.
Yet underpinning it all should be massive, irresistible pressure on the banks to make it all possible. And funnily enough, quite apart from the massive liquidity injected into the banking sector via quantitative easing (money printing), Britain’s big and medium-sized companies are sitting on a huge stash of cash, too frightened to spend it. Rather than wasting political capital debating House of Lords reform or gay marriage, the government must develop a more coherent business strategy to inspire confidence in the business community.
With the pound so much more competitive than before the crisis and historically low interest rates provided by our recapitalised banks, we are in so much better a place than our continental rivals who have yet to bite this most difficult of bullets. Altogether we have very much going for us, if only we could be brought to see it.
Growth can also come from the world beyond Europe which occupies 60% of our export market – some of which in the developing world is not in recession at all. In this regard we have a competitive advantage since much of what we have kept of our once mighty industrial capacity is now at the cutting edge – and consequently difficult for foreigners to poach – such as Rolls Royce aeroplane engines and other high-tech earners such as our renowned computer software sector.
While we do not exercise that hard power that we once deployed around the world any longer, we still deploy plenty of soft power. We punch far above our weight everywhere.
There is a huge amount of warmth and goodwill to be found towards us in the world. You have only to look at that great gathering of the Commonwealth of Nations every four years to see that. Nowadays you even have countries which were never part of the empire applying to join the grouping.
I do not see it as fanciful that one day Uncle Sam himself will wonder why he has not re-joined his original family. Perhaps there is some truth in what George Santayana, the famous Spanish-born American philosopher, poet, and humanist, said when he opined in the nineteenth century: ‘Never since the heroic days of Greece was the world ruled by such a sweet, just, boyish master’.
We are mad not to capitalise on all this. And the wheels have been greased for us by the world choosing to speak our language before any other. We don’t even have to take an interpreter with us.