The conservative journalist Peter Oborne has recently recanted his support for leaving the EU, arguing that Brexiteers should think again. The arguments he uses to explain his retreat clarify why Brexit is not really a conservative choice. Oborne’s article exposes not only the exhaustion of the Tory right’s case for leaving the EU, but also the profound conservatism of the most influential voices on the so-called left of politics.
According to Oborne, Brexit “has turned Britain into a laughing stock.” There are several sleights of hand packed into this remark, and exposing them reveals why a good conservative like Oborne might be thinking again. Firstly, insofar as Britain does look ridiculous, it is not because of Brexit itself, but because of British MPs’ determination to prevent Brexit. The spectacle of parliament reneging on its own promise to take back ultimate legislative authority into its own hands, in order to ensure that those powers remain outsourced to the executive meeting in the European Council, all the while bleating about parliamentary sovereignty, is indeed laughable. The supine failure of the government to offer any negotiating position to the EU at all, has been excruciating and obvious to all. The total lack of confidence that parliament has shown in the British people, who are its only real source of authority, and the resulting political chaos, is truly pathetic. So, a second deception weaved into Oborne’s comment is that it is not “Britain” that has been made into a laughing stock, but the British political class and its institutions.
Moreover, to whom does the British ruling class appear foolish and incompetent? The conventional claim, which Oborne apparently endorses, is that Britain looks ridiculous to the rest of the world. However, if any of the major players are laughing at the British, it is not out of superiority but nervous anticipation. Germany’s business elite openly profits from the economic devastation of its European “partners”, but is still unable to save its economy from recession or its political parties from meltdown. France is ruled by a pompous emperor-bureaucrat, who has had to keep the riot police on the streets, repressing gilet jaunes demonstrators, for almost six months. The USA is led by a pathological liar and narcissist. China is a super-corrupt, one-party state that can only keep control by building a dystopian Panopticon.
It is not before the world that the British political class is revealed as a laughing stock. It is before its own people that its political institutions appear weak and ridiculous. Our politicians are clearly desperate to continue colluding with other elites rather than having to lead their own people. And this might give any conservative pause for thought.
From a conservative perspective, parliament’s continual trashing of its own authority needs to stop. For a Brexiteer, the obvious way to bring this damaging spectacle to an end would be to insist that parliament act on its promises, implement the referendum result and leave the EU. Why does Oborne abandon that route and instead retreat? This is particularly remarkable given that he recognizes the strain on the nation that EU membership entails. He acknowledges that the EU is not democratic and that it has brought politics into disrepute. He even sees that one consequence has been that “The invisible ropes that bind nations to those who rule them have grown ever more taut. Our politicians should wake up and accept they are in danger of snapping.” You might think that such a vivid danger to the nation would constitute a compelling reason for a conservative to double down on Brexit rather than abandon it.
Oborne gives several reasons, but two are particularly weighty for him. The first is the economic outlook. For Oborne, the Brexiteers’ belief that
the British economy…would survive and flourish on its own… is now unsustainable... investment-led growth has collapsed… The trickle of companies announcing plans to leave Britain has turned into a flood… For political reasons many are careful to blame factors other than Brexit. Do we believe them? Or is [it] too much of a coincidence?
There are indeed many other factors at work in the world economy, and Oborne plays down the extent of the positive news about the British economy. But, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that Brexit is the only reason for recent negative investment decisions. What does this argument amount to? Confronted by the uncertainty generated by political resistance to the decision to leave the EU – much of it funded and organised by big business interests themselves – some businesses have decided to play safe and not invest. To surrender the democratic decision to leave the EU because of this capital strike is simply to accept Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “there is no alternative” to satisfying the preferences of big business; accordingly, the CBI’s will to stay within the EU cannot be defied.
Similarly, Oborne also adopts another key element of the conservative case for Remain. He worries about the appearance of renewed economic tensions and protectionism between the Europe, North America and China, concluding that “I don’t think any country that is small relative to these blocs can rely on the WTO alone. We would be adrift and at the mercy of larger powers as we try to go it alone.” Once again, the conservative logic is clear: the economy rules democracy; democracy cannot rule the economy.
For its Tory supporters, Brexit was never fundamentally about democracy, it was about the power and prestige of Britain, its upper classes and their institutions. Oborne sympathises with Leavers’ belief that “democracy can only exist and flourish within a nation state”, and he admits that “this argument remains valid – and powerful”. Indeed, he claims to “respect those who say yes, all this is worth it to pursue a dream of independence” because “it is a noble dream.” But ultimately the “noble dream” of independence and democracy must be sacrificed in the face of the capitalists’ unwillingness to budge.
Oborne concludes that “we need to swallow our pride, and think again. Maybe it means rethinking the Brexit decision altogether.” Yet, for most Leave voters, Brexit was not about “pride”, it was about what the Leave campaign slogan said it was about: control. “Rethinking the Brexit decision” means reversing the demand to take control of our own society. Or, to put it another way, if we are not in control, what is there for voters to be “proud” of? For the elite, including its Conservative members, by contrast, there is some degree of control available to them, even in the post-democratic EU form of government. And as Oborne sees it, because Tory Brexiteers have failed to win over the elite, they should back off before any more damage is done to the credibility of the entire political system.
This central conservative concern with maintaining the power and prestige of British institutions leads to Oborne’s other main reason for his change of heart: his embarrassment at the false prospectus put forward by his own team – the Tory Brexiteers.
The Brexiteers made a succession of claims about leaving the EU that have turned out to be untrue. They said it would be quick and easy. They said that a raft of trade deals would be available by the time we left the EU. To quote Liam Fox, “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.”
On this point, the Tory Eurosceptics’ case for Brexit does indeed stand badly exposed. That the British government has proved to be incapable of making even a half-decent deal with the EU is in no small measure the consequence of the Brexiteers’ own political weaknesses. After winning the referendum in 2016, and with the Conservative Party at their feet, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove revealed their total lack of serious preparation for winning the referendum, let alone for delivering Brexit itself, and promptly dropped the ball. Nigel Farage declared “Independence Day” and, despite the obvious and well-known failures of all previous plebiscites against the EU, wandered away. Tory Remainers were left to implement a decision they did not fundamentally support. Worse still, fully two years after the referendum, cabinet Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG could not come up with an alternative to May’s derided Chequers Plan that has led us to the disastrous Withdrawal Agreement, pathetically citing a “lack of time”.
Centrists and left-wingers love to hate Johnson and Rees-Mogg because they are caricatures of the old British establishment. But to mistake these caricatures for the real thing, as the British left has done, was always simple-minded. What the politics of Brexit have demonstrated beyond any doubt is that Tory Euroscepticism was always a wayward, eccentric tendency in the British establishment. It was just powerful enough to cause trouble, but never really offered a coherent alternative for the British upper classes. Critically, as Oborne’s recantation makes clear, Euroscepticism today is not really conservative. If you are seriously trying to preserve the existing institutional power structure so as to maintain the wealth, prestige and influence of the British upper class, then Remain is for you.
Tory Euroscepticism is an empty posture. It arises from the trauma experienced by those loyal to once-traditional forms of British power and prestige that have declined precipitously in the past half-century. Euroscepticism, like High Toryism, thinks of itself as conservative but it is really atavistic. It is trying to revive institutions and a way of life that have already lost their material basis. The Eurosceptics wanted to revive the Westminster model of politics, but could not understand why the very elite that they were a part of had abandoned that model a generation ago. They kidded themselves by blaming the foreign “Brussels bureaucracy” for oppressing parliament and denying Britain its sovereignty, rather than facing up to the fact that parliament itself voluntarily limited its sovereignty because the British ruling class could no longer rule Britain in the old way.
The depth of our political class’s commitment to limiting its sovereignty, and governing in collaboration with other European governing elites, has been fully revealed in the past three years. The Eurosceptics’ parliamentary defeat over Brexit is proof positive that the British ruling class is dominated by Remainers, and that it seeks to rule Britain by continuing to outsource legislative functions to the supranational political networks that it participates in. It is these institutions that true conservatives must conserve.
What Oborne’s recantation teaches us is that there is no truly conservative case for Brexit because Brexit threatens established institutions and power structures rather than reinforces them. Certainly, this is what Oborne, as a good conservative, has learned from the past three years. In a revealing comparison, Oborne writes, “It has become clear to me, though I’ve been a strong Brexiteer, that Britain’s departure from the EU will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s.” For Oborne, all attempts by working people to try to assert control over their circumstances through either trade unions or parliament only lead to “disaster”. As he points out, left-wing Leavers are “looking forward to British departure from the EU because they rightly see that the EU prevents the imposition of socialism”.
That there is no truly conservative case for Brexit is significant in itself. But this conclusion raises two further important issues.
First, if Oborne is right, conservatism is in a hugely weakened position. As he seems to recognize, the interests of the established order now lie with institutions that put the nation under intolerable strain. Ordinary citizens for whom patriotism is a key commitment will have to look beyond the Conservative Party. This has created the basis for an unstable populism, which is much less loyal to existing institutions. The figurehead of this tendency, Nigel Farage, has now openly declared his goal of political “revolution”. The previously straightforward connection between conservatism and loyalty to the nation is broken, and the idea of the nation is more open to redefinition than it has been at any time since the early nineteenth century.
Second, the exposure of the emptiness of the conservative case for Brexit throws the left’s loyalty to the EU into sharper relief. Brexit is the radical, democratic option. The left’s fervent belief that Brexit expresses the power of conservative nationalism generally and figures like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg in particular was therefore not merely simple-minded. It was also an evasion of reality: an evasion of the task of seizing the moment to take control from a ruling class in disarray; an evasion of political leadership of the nation.
 See generally Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Winchester, Zero Books, 2013)