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!

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