Now to Stride into the Sunlight

Ian Jack

  • What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit by Daniel Hannan
    Head of Zeus, 298 pp, £9.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 78669 193 4
  • The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign by Arron Banks
    Biteback, 354 pp, £9.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 78590 205 5
  • All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman
    William Collins, 688 pp, £9.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 00 821517 0

How do we feel about Brexit now that a year has passed? As the old advert for tonic wine used to ask, above a drawing of a housewife with her head in her hands: Tired? Depressed? Anxious? No other public event in my lifetime has had such an invasive and lowering personal effect – in memory, the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went almost before you could say ‘Armageddon’. The visionary glint in the victors’ eyes just adds to our losers’ despair. ‘After 43 years, we have pushed the door ajar,’ the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan writes dreamily. ‘A rectangle of light dazzles us and, as our eyes adjust, we see a summer meadow. Swallows swoop against the blue sky. We hear the gurgling of a little brook. Now to stride into the sunlight.’

This idyll comes early in Hannan’s What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit. Striding into the sunlight, we encounter Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the slightly more contemporary figure of Theresa May, whose ambition to make Britain ‘the global leader in free trade’ Hannan quotes approvingly. Free trade is the great elixir. ‘Free trade doesn’t simply put more money into the hands of the lowest earners. It doesn’t just eliminate extreme poverty globally. It is also the ultimate enabler of peace, having done far more to bring countries together than any number of EU directives.’ He quotes another political hero, Richard Cobden, the Manchester textile manufacturer and Anti-Corn Law Leaguer, who described free trade as ‘God’s diplomacy’, not bothering to notice that in the case of the redundant cotton weavers of Bengal, the casualties of cheap Lancashire cloth, God must have been taking a nap.

Hannan is a significant figure in the Brexit story, though not as well known as he should be or (we’re safe to assume) would like to be. Tim Shipman in All Out War, to date the fullest and most reliable account of the campaign, describes him as ‘one of the most eloquent’ of the Tory Europhobes. Political uncertainty has never been his problem. In his various capacities as think-tank director, Daily Telegraph leader-writer and speechwriter for Michael Howard, he has been agitating against the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU throughout the 25 years since he was a student politician at Oxford. As an MEP he helped persuade David Cameron to withdraw the Tories from the conservative-liberal mainstream in the European Parliament and locate them much further to the right, in an anti-federal grouping that happened to include Nazi apologists from the Baltic states. And, according to Shipman, he was a significant ‘intellectual driver’ of the push for a referendum that began inside the Tory Party during the 1990s. In response to the Maastricht Treaty, he and Mark Reckless, another Oxford student, founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain; soon after, as the salaried director of the European Research Group, which served the informational needs of Eurosceptic MPs, he met another recent graduate, Douglas Carswell, and convinced him to join the cause.

The three young men – born in 1970 or 1971 – had certain similarities in their personal histories. Hannan and Carswell spent their childhoods in faraway, politically disturbed countries as the children of British expatriates: Hannan’s family had a poultry farm in Peru, while Carswell’s parents were doctors in Uganda. Hannan and Reckless boarded at Marlborough before Oxford. Carswell went to Charterhouse before UEA. To see them as a social ‘type’ might be stretching it; nevertheless they share a flashy certitude and know-all bumptiousness that might stem from their ambition, as outsiders in the muted social codes of England’s ancient universities and more expensive public schools, to make their mark. Hannan, after all, was the Vote Leave campaigner who stood on a desk and recited the St Crispin’s Day speech to his colleagues when the news came through of Leave’s victory, and perhaps to do that it helps to have been raised as a little Briton in Peru.

In What Next, Hannan decides that Britain now sits squarely in an ‘unfrozen moment’ of the sort described by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin in his three-step theory of change: freeze, unfreeze, freeze differently. The opportunity probably won’t occur again in our lifetime. He has a fundamentalist’s clarity: ‘Here is our chance to create a free-trading, deregulated, offshore Britain – an entrepôt trading with the EU and the rest of the world, working for the reciprocal dismantling of tariff and non-tariff barriers wherever possible, but being prepared to reduce its own barriers unilaterally if necessary.’ Hong Kong and Singapore are exemplary: if all the world could be like those busy little islands, we would live in a happier, richer place. The state should stand aside unless it can be shown that it needs to ‘do something – operate underground trains or regulate university admissions or run libraries’. Taxes should be simpler and flatter. Regulations covering everything from financial products to consumer safety should wherever possible be binned: farewell to the ‘quangocracy’ – the Food Standards Agency, the Financial Conduct Authority. Regulations are rackets that favour cartels. Not only that, they encourage consumers to abandon their own watchful good sense and in that way sometimes make things riskier. Why, an experiment in the Canadian Rockies showed that when all warning signs were removed from mountain roads, the number of accidents actually fell!

As for our new relationship with the EU, Hannan believes that the so-called ‘Norwegian model’ can be adapted to British needs: that membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) doesn’t necessarily mean that Britain has to accept the principle of free movement of people. Liechtenstein, he points out, is an EEA member that has an agreement with the EU to admit no more than 71 EU migrants a year. He realises, of course, that Liechtenstein’s population is all of 37,000; his point is to show that the link between free movement and free trade can be broken if circumstances demand it. Rather than setting targets, a British government that chose to remain an EEA member (the so-called ‘soft Brexit’ option) could curb immigration by removing in-work benefits, making Britain far less attractive as a place to work and save, or by stipulating that migrants must have a job to come to. Neither of these measures, he thinks, would breach the broad principle of free movement of labour (free movement of people, as defined by the EU, is a different matter).

But Hannan has only a limited interest in ending free movement. For him, the far bigger drawback to membership of the single market is that it would force British exports to the EU to continue to conform to the EU’s technical standards even though ‘85 per cent of its [the UK’s] economy … does not depend on EU trade.’ ‘Economy’ and ‘international trade’ are of course different things, and, though the EU’s share of British trade has recently been shrinking, in 2015, the latest year for which the Office for National Statistics has published figures, 44 per cent of UK exports went to EU countries. So why, in Hannan’s mind, would the cost of meeting EU standards be a better reason to leave the single market than the single market’s commitment to free movement, which is the problem the government, seeking to implement the people’s will, seems to have with it?

The answer – that Hannan and his associates Carswell and Reckless can’t bear to accept that immigration was a key component of the Brexit campaign’s success – is evident throughout the book. According to Hannan, immigration featured only as ‘one of many areas where we wanted to take back control, along with taxation, criminal justice, fisheries and the rest’. That people believe it was more than this is the fault of a ‘concerted attempt to rewrite the history of British Euroscepticism: to paint it as anti-modern, anti-market, anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner’ whereas ‘in reality’ it was always chiefly about democracy. ‘British souverainisme is not nativist or protectionist,’ he writes, distancing Brexit’s victory from Donald Trump’s. ‘Where Trump railed at Chinese exporters, British Leavers called for a bilateral free-trade deal with China.’ A ‘frustration with the Establishment’ is all the two have in common.

This description of the referendum, which Hannan sometimes supports with the arguable evidence of opinion polls, is hard to match with the reality as it was commonly reported, and as I remember it. Brexiters, when I met them or heard them in the media, tended to talk about alienation and displacement: how they felt like strangers in their own town, how immigration had put impossible strain on their schools and hospitals and undercut their wages. By implication, the country they wanted returned to them – ‘We want our country back’ – contained far fewer foreigners; whether its economy would live by the undiluted principles of Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage were questions I never heard the electorate address. Nevertheless, not talking too loudly about immigration became an important strategy for Vote Leave, which was the Tory Party wing of the Brexit campaign, whereas its rival wing, Leave.EU, which was mainly the vehicle of Nigel Farage’s Ukip, talked loudly of little else.

Hannan was a senior member of the Vote Leave team. By his account, a polling phenomenon known as ‘the Farage paradox’ showed that when Ukip rose in the polls, support for leaving the EU did the opposite. Sunder Katwala, the director of the think-tank British Future, noticed the correlation in 2014. For most of the four-year period between the euro crisis of 2009 and the rise to prominence of Ukip in 2013, YouGov put Leave ahead by 10 or 25 points; but after Ukip emerged triumphant (with 24 seats) in the European elections of May 2014, Remain moved ahead for the first time. There may be all sorts of reasons for this, but Hannan, noting that the drop in Eurosceptic support was most pronounced among young people, women and ethnic minorities, decided the likeliest was ‘the essentially negative way in which Euroscepticism was being promoted: not as an opportunity for a great country, but as an angry reaction to change’.

It was all very well, Hannan thought, for Farage to win the 2014 elections by ‘galvanising the grumpy’ and securing more than 25 per cent of the vote. But winning a referendum needed twice that share. To win, in Hannan’s view, the Eurosceptic cause would have to transmit a broader and more optimistic appeal than the immigration-focused Ukip had ever managed. What was to be done? In what Tim Shipman says was ‘great secrecy’, Hannan and Carswell drew up a 2014 version of a Cold War plot. With Hannan’s knowledge, Carswell, the Tory MP for Clacton, began confidential talks with Farage about defecting to Ukip. Farage took the bait and Carswell changed sides as a sort of political double agent. ‘We wanted to put men in their trench, and to do that, we had to go over the top,’ is the way Carswell describes it to Shipman in All Out War. Reckless, the Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, joined him four weeks later. Hannan thought about jumping but didn’t. First Carswell and then Reckless won the by-elections that followed, with Carswell increasing his majority; now Ukip had its first Westminster MPs, two men whose only purpose, if Carswell is to be believed, was to ‘decontaminate the brand’. Cameron, panicking at the second Ukip victory, declared he would legislate for a referendum on Europe within a hundred days of a Tory government coming to power; as it did and he did, and here we are.

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Soon after he joined Ukip, I went to hear Carswell speak at a think-tank meeting held just across the square from the Palace of Westminster. When a member of the audience implied that Ukip’s rhetoric had a racist taint, Carswell took a theatrical amount of offence. ‘Nativism’ was his favourite pejorative – I’d never heard it used at a public meeting before. ‘The one thing more ugly than nativism is angry nativism,’ he said, sanctimoniously advising the meeting to inspect his spotless record on xenophobia and the race question. He wasn’t against immigration. As he wrote in the Mail on Sunday that Christmas, he wanted an immigration system ‘capable of saying a cheery, welcoming “yes” to doctors from Singapore or scientists from South Asia, and a polite “no, thank you” to someone with a criminal record or an inclination towards welfare dependence’.

Here was a striking conundrum. A politician who dreamed of the UK as an ‘optimistic, internationalist and inclusive’ country had defected to a party with a leader who felt that immigration had turned large parts of England into ‘a foreign land’; who felt uncomfortable on suburban trains where nobody spoke English and complained about HIV-infected foreigners getting free treatment on the NHS. The reason is clearer now: Carswell didn’t expect Farage to stick around for long, hoped indeed to precipitate his departure. But Farage did stick around. He resigned the Ukip leadership briefly after he failed to win South Thanet in the 2015 general election – his seventh attempt to win a Westminster seat – but then Carswell overplayed his hand by advising him to keep quiet during the referendum that was now guaranteed. In an article in the Times, Carswell argued that the Brexit campaign should concentrate on the costs of EU membership ‘instead of feeding the idea that EU membership is synonymous with immigration’. Farage, he wrote, should ‘take a break’. The disdain was too much to bear. Farage told Shipman: ‘I read that and thought. “Fucking hell! I’ve spent ten years trying to do that!”’ – trying, that is, to make the EU synonymous with immigration.

In Hannan’s book, Farage emerges as a snarling, thin-skinned egocentric, never happy unless he’s hogging centre stage. But a rival account of the same events, Arron Banks’s The Bad Boys of Brexit, suggests the snarling was sometimes understandable. It is Banks’s contention, for example, that ‘arrangements were put in place’ for Ukip to pay Carswell ‘a considerable sum of money’ if he lost the by-election caused by his defection. It’s also his contention that Carswell was a snake in the grass; he suspects, for example, that Carswell helped the Tories defeat Farage in South Thanet by secretly supplying them with Ukip’s polling data.

As an intimate of Farage and a principal funder of Ukip and Leave.EU – to a total of around £5 million – Banks would certainly have access to such information about Carswell if it existed. However, the question of credibility is ever present in his book; first, because it was written by the ghost-for-hire Isabel Oakeshott, the writer who revealed, without any supporting evidence, that as a student David Cameron had once stuck his penis in a pig’s head; second, because a book that poses as Banks’s diary, from July 2015 until July 2016, was in fact compiled by Oakeshott in a ten-week burst, post-referendum, from emails and texts and what Banks calls ‘my own fallible memory’; and third, because Banks’s shtick is to be an outrageous fellow. ‘Boisterous, Bristol-based insurance tycoon, diamond mine owner, philanthropist and man of the people’ is the way the book describes its alleged author. ‘Mild-mannered with a hint of menace. Expelled from school for pinching lead off the roof and flogging it on the side.’

Like Farage, Banks is a big and rather boastful drinker – he is forever waking up with ‘a seriously sore head’ or ‘feeling like death’ – as well as an English patriot and a monarchist. Like Hannan and Carswell, he had an expatriate childhood – South Africa in his case – before being sent to an unnamed private school in Berkshire, the one that later expelled him. Like them (and like several members of the May administration) he thinks Britain will find its economic salvation in the Anglosphere. After meeting the queen and her husband – ‘a man with a great sense of humour, who smiled as he shook my hand’ – he leaves a reception at the Guildhall more convinced than ever that Commonwealth countries ‘have a major role to play’ in Britain’s future outside the EU.

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Other than his boozing sprees, little about Banks fits his self-description as a man of the people. A rich man with rich friends, he goes to the places rich people go. Nothing in his book suggests he has any strong prejudice against immigrants or an ingrained political hostility towards immigration: his wife, Ekaterina Paderina, is a Russian who overstayed her visa. Immigration (or ‘immigration, immigration, immigration’ as Banks has it) became the motif of the Leave.EU campaign for more practical reasons. Farage knew from years of grassroots campaigning that ‘immigration was a massive issue among working-class and lower-middle-class voters … however queasy it made the bien-pensants in London.’ Arguments about over-regulation and sovereignty were of course important, but Farage was adamant, Banks says, that ‘deepening public concern about mass immigration was the key to Brexit.’

Realising that their Tory rivals in Vote Leave would try to leave the subject alone, Farage and Banks put it at the heart of their efforts to ‘engage millions of voters who dislike and distrust the political classes’. ‘Let’s shake this up,’ Banks tells Farage. ‘The more outrageous we are, the more attention we’ll get; the more attention we get, the more outrageous we’ll be.’ When, in January 2016, Sweden and Denmark decided that people entering their countries from the south needed to show ID, Banks is gleeful: ‘This is what happens when head-in-the-clouds liberalism finally smacks up against reality … I think this is a turning point. Euro elites can no longer shut their eyes to the crisis of mass migration.’ Two months later, a poll commissioned by Leave.EU and published in the Daily Express ‘confirmed the scale of unease among voters about the prospect of a country with a population of 77 million people being able to take advantage of our NHS and benefits system’. That country was Turkey, which applied to join the EU in 1987. Negotiations have made little headway since then and were suspended late last year; even if they were ultimately to be successful, Turkey’s accession to the EU would still require the unanimous agreement of the member states. Still, Banks believes that the thought of ‘a Muslim country becoming part of an organisation that enforces free movement’ would make most voters very uncomfortable. ‘This is toxic for Remain and Nigel’s very keen to push it.’

And so it goes on. ‘We will do whatever we need to do to get people talking about it [immigration],’ says Banks, which on 13 June 2016 means ‘exploiting a dreadful incident’ at a gay nightclub in Florida, where 49 people were murdered by a Muslim with an assault rifle. Leave.EU posts an ad showing terrorists waving AK-47s under the words: ‘Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity’. Three days later, Farage unveils the Ukip billboard showing a winding trail of refugees and the slogan ‘Breaking Point’. ‘Have I done the wrong thing?’ wonders Farage, who is portrayed throughout Banks’s account as a more anxious and pessimistic figure than his public appearances suggest. Some ‘sanctimonious lefties and establishment types’ accuse the Ukip leader of ‘vile xenophobia’ but Banks tells him to hold his nerve: making waves was the point of the exercise. When news comes through later the same day that the Labour MP Jo Cox has been murdered in the street, Banks writes in a sudden treacle-rush that it ‘puts everything in perspective … two little kids have just lost their mum.’ Then he commissions a poll on her death and happily concludes that it doesn’t seem to have made any difference to voting intentions. ‘Sanctimonious politicians on all sides of this debate might like to pretend the question of whether this terrible tragedy might affect the referendum outcome has never crossed their minds, because they’re too busy feeling sorry for her family. It’s bollocks. They all want to know – and there’s nothing wrong with asking.’

One of Banks’s more endearing qualities, provided you’re not a victim of it, is his talent for petty indiscretion. For example, journalists who’d been especially helpful to Leave.EU were each sent a Fortnum’s hamper for Christmas. He names the names: Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail, Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail, Christopher Hope at the Daily Telegraph and Caroline Wheeler at the Sunday Express. He even quotes Heffer’s thank-you note: he found the hamper at home when he got in after ‘an arduous day killing pheasants’.

The team at Vote Leave came to hate Banks’s turbulence; that he and Farage shrank rather than increased the vote for Brexit became an important Vote Leave belief. But Banks makes a plausible case for the opposite. When the Tory minister Chris Grayling met him, Banks records, he ‘drearily recited the Vote Leave mantra’: no talk of immigration, just a regurgitation of the ‘free market spiel about the wonders of globalisation and how Europe is holding us back’. The makers of a documentary commissioned by Leave.EU to sway undecided voters are similarly written off as ‘hardcore Atlas Shrugged types’. ‘We’re not going to reach the people we need to reach,’ Banks tells them, ‘if you start going off on one about how Brexit is an opportunity to deregulate the banks and flood the country with cheap Chinese steel.’ And when the future is expressed like that, in a way that may be close to the looming actuality, it does seem impossible that anyone other than Daniel Hannan and his followers would have voted for it.

But, unlike the organisations that led the campaign, Brexit voters can’t be divided into two – Hannanites on one side and Faragists on the other. The voter who was impressed by the financial argument – Vote Leave’s extra £350 million a week for the NHS – wasn’t necessarily tut-tutting at Ukip’s stance on refugees and immigration. In my experience, he was shouting his agreement. Too many headscarves in the high street, too much money sent to Brussels, the Empire, St Crispin’s Day: it was out of this turbid sea that Theresa May – ‘submarine May’ as the Remain side knew her – suddenly surfaced.