BY EFFIE DEANS
I have finally come to my senses. I repent. If only I had a time machine I would go back to June 2016 and vote to Remain. I began to realise what an awful rotter I was when a mysterious new virus began to emerge from China. It was obviously caused by Brexit. If only I’d not voted to Leave then Prince Philip would be alive. I feel guilty about the volcano in La Palma which is showing justifiable wrath at Britain for daring to think it might manage without the EU. Help me Mr Lammy. Help me Baldrick. What can I do to atone? It’s my fault we are queuing for petrol.
It’s now more than five years since we voted to leave the EU. It’s longer than the First World War. Soon it will be longer than the Second World War. Yet out of all the political events in British history, this alone has the power to cause reasonable people to reflect on what might have been and point out I told you so about any and every bad thing that happened afterwards.
If we had not declared war on Germany in 1914 it is reasonable to assume that France would have been defeated quickly. This might have cost France a bit of money and another province, but the upside for the world would have been no Russian Revolution and no rise of fascism in the 1930s. But the calamity of voting for Brexit clearly outweighs all other counterfactuals.
Every election changes history for good or ill. If we hadn’t voted for Thatcher in 1979, we might not have closed down the pits and steel industry, but what other events might have happened. We just don’t know. This is why counterfactual history is more bunk even than normal history. There is a possible world where we wake up to find that Remain won the referendum, David Cameron stayed on as Prime Minister to be succeeded shortly afterwards by Jeremy Corbyn. This was no doubt what Lammy and Baldrick wanted. But would it have led to only wonderful things happening? We will never know. Because it didn’t happen.
But the fault of Baldrick and friends in attributing petrol shortages to Brexit is not so much that it is impossible to know what would have happened if we had voted their way. Maybe under Corbyn there would have been no money to buy petrol. More importantly as the time from an event increases, the multitude of causes becomes so enormous that it becomes ludicrous to attribute this event to that cause. I may speculate that France losing the First World War might have saved us from Communism and Fascism, but this might have meant that a later world war involved extensive use of nuclear weapons. Saying this event wouldn’t have happened if only we had done this, implies knowledge of a possible world that didn’t happen. But there is no such knowledge.
There are certain events in history that are decisive. Whether you regret it or not, the election of Thatcher changed Britain in such a way that there was no going back to how things were in the 1970s. Labour kept losing until it accepted this. So too with Brexit. It has decisively changed the path we were on.
The reason the French were so angry about Australian submarines was because they could see that the Entente Cordiale (1904) that led us to ally with France in 1914 had quietly come to an end. Strategically Britain’s role had changed utterly. Our role of propping up France did not survive Barnier. This leaves France with the dilemma it has had since 1870. France is too small to compete with a united Germany. This is why it has sought to merge with Germany since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The trick for France is to end up ruling this merger. The danger is that at some point Germany loses its sense of guilt and seeks to rule France. But this is something France will have to work out on its own, because Britain has learned finally that we do not have to be involved as we were in 1914 and 1939. We can leave them to it as in 1870. Bonne chance M. Macron.
When something decisive happens, for good or ill, there is no going back. People who go on about petrol strikes caused by Brexit, don’t get this. It’s like someone on Mao’s Long March complaining about blisters. If only we hadn’t gone down this path instead of staying at home. These people fail to recognise the decisiveness of the event which is precisely why they complain.
The idea that Britain might rejoin the EU is like the idea that Britain after Thatcher would go back to the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent. At the next election no serious political party will propose a referendum to join the EU. Even the SNP which still favours independence in the EU would not allow us to have a referendum on it. The reason is that it is politically impossible to persuade the electorate to rejoin the EU.
The offer in 2016 was between the continuing EU membership with the conditions that were then and leaving. But that offer no longer exists. It is not clear even that the EU would allow Britain to rejoin under any circumstances, given how troublesome we have been since joining. But if it did allow us a second chance, it would make absolutely sure there was no way we could change our minds. The way to do this would be joining the Euro.
If Britain had joined the Euro there would have been no Brexit, because leaving a currency union involves all sorts of risk as we discovered during the Euro crisis involving Greece. So, logically if you set the condition of membership as being joining the Euro you bring stability into the EU. This is why joining the EU from scratch requires that you join the Euro. It also requires that you join Schengen. This means that there would be no need for refugees to sail across the Channel. They could just get on the Eurostar. Once in the EU you would effectively be in Britain, because there would be no checks that could stop you.
The Euro and Schengen would stop even most Remainers from voting to rejoin. This is why no one will campaign for it and why EU membership is a dead issue in British politics.
The only person who does not realise this, of course, is Nicola Sturgeon. She like Baldrick does not realise that 2016 decisively made Scottish independence impossible to achieve without damaging Scotland. Scottish nationalists may pretend that they could obtain opt outs from the Euro and Schengen, which Britain would be unable to get. If they are wrong on this, then Scottish independence looks as unattractive as the UK rejoining the EU. But even if Scotland could obtain such opt outs we would still be in the wrong trading bloc. It’s not just that we trade more with the other parts of the UK than the EU its that almost all of our trade is shipped through England and uses English ports. Any sort of regulatory border between England and Scotland would damage Scottish prosperity and quality of life. Its hard to see how either secession or EU membership could make up for this.
Few Scots are aware of these issues now, for which reason Sturgeon and the SNP remain popular, but it’s also hard to see how this lack of awareness could survive a campaign that concentrated minds. The SNP’s argument is much worse now than it was in 2014. Something decisive happened in the years since, but it’s easier to bang on about Brexit rather than recognise this.
After all if joining the Euro would have stopped Britain leaving the EU, then leaving a currency union with Britain would be equally as challenging for Scotland.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.