There is nothing extreme about standing by democracy. I don’t know about you, but I am getting sick of the constant suggestion that anyone who sticks up for Brexit must have far Right tendencies. I can’t understand why people are suddenly claiming that anyone who wants to get out of the EU – and follow the instructions of the British people – is a zealot, or an extremist, or Ukip, or Blukip, or some kind of ultra-conservative bigot. Where is this stuff coming from?
It is a matter of historical fact that a desire to leave the EU was once rampant in the Labour party. Can anyone remember the name of the fresh-faced young Labour lawyer who stood for election in 1983, and told the people of Sedgefield that the EEC was an anti-democratic monster that drained the economy and destroyed jobs? It was Tony Blair.
And who told the readers of the Sun on St George’s Day 1997 – as he was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister – that England’s patron saint had “a new dragon to slay”, in the form of “Europe”? Yes, it was Blair again; and before you tell me that Blair will say anything (and you would probably be right) I would remind you that plenty more principled lefties have had passionate pro-Brexit convictions.
Was Tony Benn a far-Right Conservative? Was Peter Shore? Nor is an interest in Brexit confined to the extremes. Some of the most brilliant and original centrists in British politics – I think of David Owen – have now become thoughtful and convincing Brexiteers. Are you telling me that Gisela Stuart is a bigot, or a zealot, let alone in the slightest hostile to foreigners? The whole thing is absurd.
Delivering Brexit is about democracy. We tried for years to make our membership work. For decades the UK government would pretend to the people that our partners didn’t really mean what they said about an ever denser economic and political union; and as the process of integration accelerated, and more and more was decided in Brussels, that pretence became so feeble that when they were finally given the freedom to choose – in 2016 – the people chose freedom.
Now that we are coming out we are not fated to behave as zealots, or bigots, or foaming right-wing nutters. If we get Brexit right, and if we genuinely control our own laws, we Conservatives will have the chance to be more liberal, more humane and more compassionate than ever before.
Let me give you one example. Under both parties the UK government has tried for decades to take a symbolically important step to alleviate the suffering of animals. It has been long-standing policy to vindicate the sovereign right of the UK government to ban live exports.
There is a trade in the export of British sheep and pre-weaned calves to continental Europe, where they are either slaughtered or fattened for slaughter. I am not sure why they can’t be slaughtered or fattened here in the UK, but there it is; that is how the market works at present.
The conditions in which the animals make the journey are shocking – pitching and yawing with the ship in often suffocating and filthy conditions and on complex journeys that can take 90 hours or more. In the case of the pre-weaned calves, it is obviously impossible for their mothers to suckle them in the normal way. It is now many years since the public was alerted to this scandal – mainly by Compassion in World Farming – and some ferry companies were so appalled by footage of the animals’ distress that they have long since refused to allow their ships to be involved.
In the mid-1990s the then Conservative government came under such public pressure to act that it tried to ban the trade; and were told by the European Court that any such ban was incompatible with basic single market rules on the free movement of goods. Cross-border trade in goods was a competence of Brussels, and Brussels said that it was legal.
Now, after years of decline, the signs are that the trade is once again increasing. According to Dr Nick Palmer of Compassion In World Farming, there were 20,000 live sheep exported from the UK in 2017, and 5,500 pre-weaned calves - to be fattened for beef or veal.
As Dr Palmer points out, Brexit should now make it possible – in theory – for the UK to control or ban this trade; but under the present disastrous Withdrawal Agreement we have signed this freedom away, along with so much else. On page 312 the Treaty says: “quantitative restrictions on exports and imports shall be prohibited between the EU and Northern Ireland”. That means you can’t stop exports from the UK, not unless you are willing to split Northern Ireland from Great Britain – and no PM could agree to that.
It is important to understand the limits of the animal welfare campaigners’ demands. They don’t want to stop trade between Scotland and Northern Ireland, or from the Scottish islands to the mainland. But they are surely right to think that it should be up to us, in this country, to decide whether it is right to allow live animals to make very long journeys to the south of Spain, and then on to Libya, where their welfare is far from guaranteed. Under this Withdrawal Agreement we do not have that power.
And yet it is far, far worse than that. Far from gaining the power to ban live exports (as the people were promised before the referendum) we in fact lose all right to set the rules ourselves, just as we lose the right to control our own trade policy, industrial standards, and much else besides. We leave the EU, but remain run by the EU. We are not gaining the ability to be more compassionate. We are throwing it away! It is quite unbelievable.
That is why the backstop arrangements are so utterly pernicious. The Prime Minister must be unflinching. We need a deadline, by the end of 2021, by which the backstop must simply end – and we need it in the Treaty. There is nothing extremist, or zealous, or Right-wing, in sticking up for the democratic freedoms of this country, and opposing the suffering of animals. Quite the reverse.