Brexit is not irreversible, but it must be Parliament's choice

Those who are now pushing for a harder Brexit were on the margins of our party. They were always there, but they are the ones who have betrayed the achievements of Conservative governments from the 1950s onwards.

Lord Heseltine
Sunday 17 December 2017 11:23
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To exclude ourselves from the councils of Europe is in defiance of what every Conservative government sought to achieve in my lifetime
To exclude ourselves from the councils of Europe is in defiance of what every Conservative government sought to achieve in my lifetime

The situation which the country faces today is a very different one from that which existed when the referendum was held in June 2016.

For me, the essential first step afterwards was that the Brexiteers were put in charge of the negotiations, which they have been.

They patently made a Horlicks of running the show, to the extent that the Prime Minister has had to take away the senior civil servant in the Brexit department and take over the negotiations herself. Even so, the realities of sovereignty in the modern age are becoming clearer. Britain is not in a position to impose its will on the 27 members of the European Union. People can see all that now.

The world that is unfolding has nothing of the promise that was made during the referendum campaign. The notorious £350m a week for the health service that would come from leaving the EU has vanished. It was simply was not credible at the time, but it did persuade a lot of people.

They can also see that there is a deeply divided country in which the younger part of the population is pitched against the older part, and I believe a lot of elderly people have come round to the view that they made a mistake voting the way they did in the referendum.

Then there is the economic situation – frozen living standards are the underlying cause of the Brexit phenomenon, and there is no evidence that Brexit is going to do anything other than worsen that situation. In fact, the latest forecasts indicate a very difficult time ahead for British households and that will change people’s minds on Brexit.

My feeling is that even some of the national press that were supporters of withdrawal are becoming more open minded. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of public opinion and if that changes the Labour party will shift its position, more than it has already, and the pressure to rethink will become harder to resist.

The key to any further change is that Parliament must be sovereign, and we now seem to be moving to a position where the Government is accepting that. I think that is absolutely essential – that it is Parliament that should have the ultimate decision-making power in what happens.

Brexiteers will say the 2016 referendum result is irreversible, but all this stuff about the sanctity of the decision simply does not stand.

Nicola Sturgeon was quite up front after the Scottish independence referendum to say she wanted another one. Nigel Farage said before he won the referendum that if he lost it he would need a second one. As long as Parliament is sovereign and bears the ultimate decision-making power, there is room for change.

I would say to my Conservative colleagues who are not content with the way things are, the same ones who have the integrity to go on saying the same things Conservative governments have said for decades – remember the history of the last 50 years. Every time the Labour party won an election, we set out to oppose the things we disapproved of.

Michael Heseltine says Brexit won't happen

We were always right, we usually won and we changed the course of history, challenging the irreversibility of socialism, which was the prevailing ethos of the 1940s and 50s. That victory has been one of the most enduring and successful features of post-war politics, because we didn’t give in and didn’t give up. There is an important message there.

Those who are now pushing for a harder Brexit were on the margins of our party. They were always there, but they are the ones who have betrayed the achievements of Conservative governments from the 1950s onwards.

Being in Europe is about the ability to influence the world in which we live. To preserve the peace of our continent and the strength, by coordination, to compete with the giant forces of the United States, China and India that will be the drivers of tomorrow.

The fact that we have achieved a period of political stability – we have got rid of the communists, we have got rid of the fascists, we have parliamentary democracy across the continent – is largely down to Europe and our participation in it, and as a result, we have become an iconic centre of attractiveness. Huge numbers of people look to us in the context of political, legal, economic and cultural achievement.

But to exclude ourselves from the councils of Europe is in defiance of what every Conservative government sought to achieve in my lifetime.

The fact is, that from Churchill’s great post-war speeches, to the vision of MacMillan and the tenacity of Ted Heath, to the consolidating processes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major – it was the Conservatives who led and achieved our membership of Europe, in the early days in the teeth of significant Labour opposition.

The reason why the Conservatives did it, is because they believed it was in the essential self-interest of this country to be a leading European power.

Lord Heseltine is Conservative former Deputy Prime Minister and a prominent Remainer

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