EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Consequences of Brexit for Britain and Europe
DATE: 1:00 – 2:00 pm, 19 March 2019
VENUE: Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RS
SPEAKER: Vernon Bogdanor, CBE
EVENT CHAIR: Dr. Alan Mendoza
Alan Mendoza: Welcome to the Henry Jackson Society, and our conversation on the consequences of Brexit for Britain and Europe. Now when we put this together we had assumed that we might have a Brexit to talk about but we clearly don’t just yet although we’ve just heard a letter is being written by the Prime Minister to Mr Tusk asking for the extension, don’t know what’s in it of course and what she’ll be asking for, but we’ll see. But of course the consequences when it comes around, if it comes around, will be quite momentous and nobody is better placed to discuss this than Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who has got a copy in front of him of ‘Beyond Brexit’ which you can purchase afterwards. Vernon, of course, is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London. He is also a fellow of the British Academy, an honorary fellow of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences too. Famously at Oxford where David Cameron was one of his students, didn’t take many lessons did he obviously in terms of constitutionalism, and currently writing a multi-volume work on British political history 1895 – 1997 and a regular face on our TV screens. So without further ado, Vernon the podium is yours.
Vernon Bogdanor: Well, thank you for that very generous introduction and congratulations to the Henry Jackson Society for having the prescience to arrange this talk today on such a momentous moment. I won’t talk about the nitty-gritty which may come up in questions, but larger issues.
Perhaps I should begin by saying that Henry Jackson had two major concerns in his political career; the first was the rule of law and civil liberties and from that point of view he can be regarded as on the Left, but his second concern was with foreign policy and defence. I think he was much influenced by his Norwegian background because between the wars Norway built up a very advanced Welfare State, and was rather proud of that, but that proved of no value with Norway being overrun in the war by Nazi Germany and this led Jackson to that the view that however advanced and modern your societies are you need to be able to defend yourself.
Now I want to talk about these two aspects really, first the effects of Brexit on our, if you like, system of rule of law and our constitution. Secondly on the question of, broader question, of the effects on the EU and particularly EU defence. Now the first issue about the effect on Government and constitution are in this book, which Alan kindly mentioned. But the second is the basis of some lectures that I’m giving at Yale in April, which are going to be published by Yale University Press.
Now the first thing to say about Europe, and you won’t be surprised by this, is that it has proved a toxic issue in British politics. We first made an application to join the European Community, as the European Union then was, in 1961 and President de Gaulle’s veto of that in 1963 in effect finished off Harold Macmillan’s government. Edward Heath then led us in to Europe in 1973, but in 1974 he narrowly lost a general election, he had four fewer seats than the Labour party. Now if someone loses a general election narrowly a host of factors can be held responsible. One of them was undoubtedly Europe, because it led to the opposition of Enoch Powell, who left the Conservatives on that issue. Then you move on to Margaret Thatcher’s government and that fell in 1990 on a European issue which led to the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, her deputy, and her resignation. Then you move on to John Major’s government which was riven in two by the Maastricht Treaty and the question of the Eurozone and then you come on to David Cameron, and you don’t need me to remind you what happened to him. Then Teresa May and we don’t know what will happen to her. So you can say that five of the last six Conservative Prime Ministers have been ruined by Europe and the only one who wasn’t was Alec Douglas-Home who was only there for a year.
Europe has also split the Labour party in the 1980s, with the SDP, and it was one of the main motives I think in the defection of some MPs to join the Independent Group – they thought that Corbyn was too much of a Brexiteer. There’s only one Prime Minister who has triumphed over Europe and that was Harold Wilson in his referendum of 1975, which led to a two-to-one majority for Britain staying in Europe and after the referendum Harold Wilson said to his Private Secretary “And people say I have no sense of strategy, that I can’t think strategically.” You may be interested to know that Harold Wilson’s wife actually voted ‘No’ in the referendum. But this is the first influence that Europe has had on our system of government, it has brought in the referendum, because our first national referendum was in 1975 on whether we should remain in Europe, which we joined in 1973. Without Europe it’s possible we would never have had any referendums at all. That referendum was not welcomed by everyone, Monsieur Jean Ray, the ex-President of the European Commission, said in London in 1974 “A referendum on this matter consists of consulting people who don’t know the problems instead of consulting people who know them. I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives, it should be decided instead by trained and informed people.”
Now at a seminar at King’s, where I work, a Professor of European law said that the 2016 referendum was the most important constitutional event in this country since the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. He said this was because, on the issue of Europe, the sovereignty of the people was trumping the sovereignty of Parliament because the vast majority of MPs voted ‘Remain’, the majority of the Cabinet voted ‘Remain’, vast majority of Peers are in favour of ‘Remain’ but Parliament, nevertheless, feels itself obliged to legislate for Brexit. For the first time in British history, Parliament is legislating for something it does not want to legislate for and this is very remarkable, Brexit coming about not because Parliament wants it but because the people want it. The people have become a third chamber of Parliament, in effect, giving instructions to the other two chambers as to what they should do so the sovereignty of Parliament is being constrained not by Brussels but by the people. The referendum showed that the European Union has forfeited the confidence of the people though some members of the elite think it is the other way round, that the people have forfeited the confidence of the European Union and have to work harder to regain that confidence. It reminds me of something the German poet Bertolt Brecht said about the East German rising in 1953 – he wrote a poem about it citing a leaflet by the Secretary of the German Writers Union in East Germany, saying that the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could only win it back by redoubled efforts. Brecht said “Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”.
The principle of the sovereignty of the people shown by the referendum has been attacked by many liberals and they side, in a way, with many reactionaries who are opposed to democracy in the first place. I may quote to you a comment made by the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre, who strongly opposed the French Revolution, he said “The principle of the sovereignty of the people is so dangerous that even if it were true it would be necessary to conceal it” – you may think that about Europe. The second influence of Europe on our system of government, equally radical, is it undermined the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. That is to be distinguished with national sovereignty, with which it is often confused. National sovereignty is undermined whenever we enter into any treaty commitment or obligation, for example the United Nations or NATO, and that is something that is a matter of political judgement, countries do that or not and we can argue about it. National sovereignty is a tradeable asset. Parliamentary sovereignty is quite different, it’s an absolute. Parliament either can enact any law that it chooses or it cannot, it’s an absolute. You can’t be a qualified sovereign in that sense any more than you can be a qualified virgin – you either are or you aren’t, there’s no qualification about it.
Now Europe is very different, or the European Union, from all the other organisations we belong to because it is a superior legal order to that of Westminster, in other words it makes Westminster a subordinate legal body. That is true of course for every member state but it is more crucial for Britain because of our long evolutionary history of Parliamentary sovereignty and our system of government hasn’t changed really since 1660 with the restoration of the Monarchy. It comes out most obviously on the question of immigration from the EU because there are many people, and no doubt many MPs, who would like to restrict EU immigration but we cannot do it, it is not legally allowed while we’re in the EU. It is a clear limitation of the sovereignty of Parliament. In a landmark case, the Factortame Case in 1991, our Supreme Court did something hitherto thought possible – it dis-applied part of an Act of Parliament which went against European Union Law. Now the European Court of Justice had said ‘This goes against European Union Law’, now fair enough, if Parliament is sovereign you say ‘That’s irrelevant, Parliament can do what it likes’ but our Supreme Court said ‘No, it can’t do what it likes, it cannot legislate against European Union Law’, so it dis-applied part of an Act of Parliament. That showed something very important, I think, that our courts were acting as constitutional courts for the European Union. This is something that we never thought possible and it involved a shift in power from Parliament and Government to the courts. So when we are taking back control from Europe we are not just taking back control from Brussels, we are also taking back control from the courts. You may think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but that is what is happening.
Now, this raises the important question I think, if Parliament can abrogate its sovereignty in one direction, the European Union, why not in others? Why not, for example, in relation to human rights or the devolution settlement? Why can’t Parliament do that again, once you’ve abrogated sovereignty there it is its gone, so why not have a constitution which is part of the point of the book. The influence of the EU was strengthened by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which was passed in the Lisbon Treaty, which came in to effect in 2008. You’re probably all familiar with the European Convention of Human Rights which is enacted in Britain through the Human Rights Act, but the Convention of Human Rights is something quite different. It comes from the Council of Europe which is an inter-governmental body and is separate from the European Union and that was enacted in 1950/51. The Charter enacts many more rights and much more valuable rights, perhaps most important a right to non-discrimination on grounds such as, and I quote, “Sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age, or sexual orientation”. That’s a very wide right and these rights apply only when implementing European Union Law. Now it led to a very fundamental case in 2017, but first let me say that Ministers wrongly thought we were exempt from the charter, that we had an opt-out, one of our famous opt-outs. Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Commons “It is absolutely clear that we have an opt-out from the Charter” though nothing could be less clear and then Foreign Secretary David Milliband said “The treaty records existing rights rather than creating new ones” – completely wrong – he said “a new legally binding protocol guarantees that nothing in the Charter extends the ability of any court to strike to down UK law.” Again, completely wrong. Much later, just to show I’m being even-handed, in 2014 Teresa May as Home Secretary said “The Charter was declaratory only and we do not consider that it applies to the United Kingdom”. Well it would be very odd if one country could evade the human rights which other countries had to accept and it would mean that Britain could actually, by ignoring human rights, undercut economically those countries.
In a landmark case which deserves to be known to the same extent as Factortame, in 2017 in the Benkharbouche Case, Benkharbouche vs Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Courts for the first time dis-applied legislation of Parliament on grounds that it went against human rights. Now Miss Benkharbouche was a Moroccan national who was employed by the Sudanese Embassy in London and she claimed against the Embassy unfair dismissal, failure to pay her the National Minimum Wage, unpaid wages and holiday pay as well as breaches of the Working Time Regulations. The Sudanese Embassy claimed it was entitled to immunity on the basis of the 1978 State Immunity Act. The Courts said this was incompatible with the Charter which provides the right to access to a Court and an effective remedy and they said that since this went against European Union Law it had to be dis-applied. There have been two other cases under this, one of them you will be amused to hear, brought by Tom Watson now Deputy of the Labour Party but then a backbencher and another ex-backbencher, David Davis who became Brexit Secretary, on the Data Retention Act. This went to the Courts but before the Courts could decide the Government changed the legislation. You may think it odd that David Davis appealed to the Courts on legislation because it went against European Union principles. The Charter is almost the only bit of EU Law which is not being incorporated into British Law on the grounds that it would go against the sovereignty of Parliament to allow judges to strike down legislation after we leave the European Union. The Government says we will nevertheless preserve the rights, but they are at the mercy of a sovereign Parliament and you may say what use is that, Parliament could alter them at any time. It is fair to say that the other 27 member states of course are keeping the Charter, they are remaining in the EU, so you have to ask yourself the question, which I won’t answer, whether British legislators are so much more sensitive to the protection of human rights than the legislators of the 27 other countries that they should be entrusted with this important function.
The third, and last, area that I want to mention is the Devolution Settlement which includes Northern Ireland because the European Union was oddly enough part of the glue which held that together because it preserved an internal market within the UK. For example, in agriculture it meant there was only one system of agricultural protection within the UK. Agriculture is a devolved matter – can you have four totally different systems of agricultural protection within one country, particularly as agriculture is an important element in any trade negotiation. If we get an agreement with America we have to be able to deliver, can we deliver, if some of it is in the hands of the devolved bodies and the Government has said ‘No, we can’t’ and, therefore, they want to retain some parts of the agriculture and fisheries elements that are coming back from Brussels and not return them to the devolved bodies. That is a tacit amendment of the devolution legislation and raises constitutional issues because Parliament has said it won’t normally legislate, altering it, without the consent of the devolved bodies. They couldn’t achieve the consent of the Scots and it’s fair to say that the SNP, although nationalists, have not been difficult or contumacious in refusing consent but on this issue they do and it led to a case in the Courts which the Supreme Court judged last December that most of what the Scots wanted to do was un-Constitutional. The Welsh, who did agree with the Government, put forward a very interesting proposition – they said that for any alteration in the Devolution Settlement you should need the consent of at least one of the devolved bodies, so that all three acting together would have a veto. The Government rejected that, they said that too goes against the sovereignty of Parliament and this moves Britain, if it were accepted, to a quasi-federal state. But it does lead me to the view that when we leave the European Union we do need clear rules about devolution if we’re going to hold the country together; we need first a Charter, and secondly in my view this should move towards a Constitution which protects our rights. Sometimes people say ‘Well, why should we have a Constitution?’. That’s the wrong question to answer, we’re just one of just three democracies that doesn’t, the others being New Zealand and Israel, though Israel is working towards a Constitution but very slowly because they can’t reach agreement. They have a system of basic laws which they’re developing, including laws protecting human rights, and when that was passed the then President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, said this was “Moving Israel out of isolation into the path of every Constitutional democracy”. Now should Britain also move in that direction? I think that is an important consequence that we have to think about with Brexit.
I want now to talk about the effects on the European Union of what is happening and the effects, in particular, of integration. Europe is, in a way, in a remarkable position because it’s one of four large power centres in the modern world, the others being America, Russia, and China. These other three can all defend themselves, they all pay for their own defence. Europe is the only one of the four powers that does not defend itself. The question then is how is it to be achieved? At present, Europe is defended by American money and expertise and that, you may think, is a bit odd nearly 75 years after the war and President Trump has said that European countries ought to meet the NATO requirement of spending 2% of their GDP on defence. I think there are nine countries in NATO that meet that, out of 29 I think it is. Britain is one of them. It’s not just President Trump, I think any American president would say that, perhaps in softer tones than President Trump. But if you’re an American citizen living in the far-West you might say ‘Well why should we be paying still for European defence so long after the war, so shouldn’t something be done about that?’ Now the European Union, and in particular President Macron but also the Germans, have been talking a great deal about an integrated European defence policy. That, I think, is unlikely to happen and indeed I think the proposals for a common European defence policy could prove dangerous because they involve high-sounding aspirations which mean little when tested. That, for example, was the fate that befell the League of Nations between the wars, a lot of high-sounding declarations about ‘collective security’ but they came to nothing when the Italians invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and aggression triumphed overnight, which really destroyed the league overnight. I think you can see the same happening with the European Union with the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 which led to I think the worse crimes in Europe since the holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The European Union, I think Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister said “This is Europe’s hour” but Europe did nothing and it was left in the end in Kosovo for Britain and America to take firm action when Milosevic then collapsed. We in Britain have always been sceptical of an integrated European defence policy and I think rightly because it would undermine NATO and at the very least would involve a diversion of energy. You cannot require, in an integrated defence policy, a country to go to war against the wishes of its parliament in my view. So any defence policy has to be inter-governmental in nature and not integrated. It is also worth pointing out that Europe has been divided on most foreign policy issues, most obviously on the Iraq War and also on Bosnia and the first Gulf crisis. If Europe is going to defend itself Britain must play a leading role as the only nuclear power with France and one of the few countries, as I say, that meets the two percent criteria. So really European defence depends primarily on Britain and France.
Now Teresa May has often said ‘We’re leaving the EU but we’re not leaving Europe’ and, of course, our safety is bound up with that of Europe and governments both in 1914 and 1939 ignored that. They thought they could remain independent from what happened on the continent, but clearly what happened in Sarajevo, seemingly irrelevant – the murder of an Austrian Archduke, brought Britain in. Frontier conflicts in Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s brought Britain in. Neville Chamberlain made a famous comment about “a far-away country of which we know nothing” but that actually did involve Britain. If European defence must be inter-governmental, and if it involves Britain and France, it must take place outside an EU framework if we leave the EU. But it’s clear that if Europe is going to be a power in the world she has to develop defence arrangements and they must be outside the European Union, otherwise Europe will be very divided and very weak. The French view is to form an alignment with Germany. But Germany, for obvious historical reasons, cannot lead in foreign policy and defence. Someone I know in the Foreign Office said to his German counterpart “Brexit will make you ever more powerful than ever” and the German replied sadly “Yes, but even less willing and less able to use that power” for very obvious historical reasons. Defence must be inter-governmental and not integrated.
I want to conclude with just a couple of comments about the nature of the European Union, which I think is widely misunderstood. The European Union is essentially a peace project and the history of Europe since 1914 falls neatly into two contrasting periods. Between the wars politics on the continent was marked by turbulence and crisis. For nearly 75 years the Western half has known political stability and high rates of economic growth and this is due in large part to the post-war recognition of collective security and interdependence in a continent which has suffered badly from a lack of it in the past. Edward Heath, the Prime Minister who took Britain into the European Community, told the Commons in 1975 that the European Community (as it then was) was founded for a political purpose. It was not a federal, but a political purpose. The political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family and economic means were adopted for that very political purpose. They hoped that that would lead to the unification of Europe because if Germany was firmly integrated into Europe, Russia would have much less to fear. Therefore, the purpose of the European Community was to integrate the whole of Europe and Churchill, speaking at Brussels in 1949, said “The Europe we seek to unite is all Europe” and that dream was not realised until the fall of Communism. Churchill after the war said the fighting has stopped but the dangers have not stopped and that what Europe needed was a “blessed act of oblivion”. In 1949 the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfilment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe – creating between them an organisation putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace”. Last year Frans Timmermans, the Vice-President of the European Commission and a former Dutch Foreign Minister, showed his 12-year-old daughter the anti-tank defences of the frontier with Germany where his grandparents had cheered the Allied bombing of Aachen during the war. He said “This is part of a border” and his daughter looked up at him and said “Daddy, what is a border?”. Of course if the EU were now to break up France and Germany would still remain securely at peace but a secure peace has not been achieved everywhere in Europe by any means, in particular it has not been achieved in the Western Balkans where ancient hatreds threaten the stability of the region. In that part of Europe, most of all, warring neighbours need a common home of the sort the old Austro-Hungarian Empire tried, but failed, to create. Membership of the European Union is the only way in which those age-old conflicts can be overcome.
This struck me with particular force in 2006, I was involved in helping to draw up the Constitution of Kosovo, I had never seen such national hatreds – far worse than Northern Ireland. The only thing stopping people fighting was the hope that they would join the European Union. The conflict when Yugoslavia broke up offers a horrible warning of what could happen in a Europe once more broken up into nation states. Those who helped found the post-war international order had seen it destroyed not just by one, but by two ruinous World Wars and people such as Churchill, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman of France, they were very concerned with trying to avoid all that. Now people have taken peace for granted, underestimating the fragility of the order which sustains it. Just as in 1914 Europe, which had known 100 years of peace between the great powers, people thought could survive a short war against a recalcitrant state, Serbia. In the words of the great diplomatic historian A. J. P. Taylor “All thought that war could be fitted into the existing framework of civilisation. War was expected to interrupt the even tenor of civilian life only while it lasted”. In 1914 the Austrian Socialists told the Foreign Minister that war would provoke revolution in Russia and perhaps even in the Hapsburg Empire, but the Foreign Minister replied “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr Brondstein sitting over there at the Café Central.” Well Mr Brondstein was Leon Trotsky and he did indeed lead a revolution. That was what the founding fathers were reacting against – they realised the fragility of international order and they said the way to avoid war is to transcend Nationalism. Let me conclude with a comment of a remarkable valedictory speech by French President Francois Mitterand in January 1995 to the European Parliament, just over a year before his death. He spoke of his childhood, amid families torn apart by the First World War who were mourning their dead and nursing a hatred against their traditional enemies, the Germans. He spoke of his time in a German prison camp, in the Second World War, but war, he declared, “is not only our past it could be our future and it is up to us to be henceforth the guardians of peace, security, and the future. Nationalism meant war. La nationalism, c’est la guerre”. Thank you.
Alan Mendoza: Thank you very much Vernon. That was an extraordinarily wide-ranging look at the subject. I’m sure it has provoked many questions but I suppose I have to bring it back fairly narrowly to start with. I was surprised you didn’t mention the Northern Ireland question in relation to the immediacy of the Brexit problem we’re facing.
What I think would be useful to understand is assuming somehow a Meaningful Vote 3 came and it was passed, would there not be a Constitutional implication of passing the Prime Ministers deal for Northern Ireland and the Union here?
Vernon Bogdanor: You raise a very important point and the only reason I didn’t discuss it was pure time, you told me to shut up after half an hour which I’ve done, but you’re absolutely right and this illustrates what I’m saying because the Belfast Agreement made it less important as to whether you were a Unionist or Nationalist. The border became less important and would gradually fade away as I said Frans Timmermans said the border with Germany faded away. Brexit resurrects that question, it makes it important, are you a Unionist or Nationalist. The debate about the backstop in a way is purely factitious for this reason – most people do not believe there should be a hard border on the island of Ireland. This means that if Britain chooses to have different regulations or laws from the European Union, Northern Ireland cannot go along with that because if it does the EU has to impose the Common External Tariff against Northern Ireland and also check regulations. The question of technology is irrelevant because whether these regulations are checked in Belfast or Timbuktu, they’re still regulations. So either Northern Ireland may have different regulations and laws from the rest of the country, or alternatively we as a whole keep to the laws and regulations of the European Union, which makes Brexit pointless. What’s the point of leaving if you’re going to have the same laws, so it’s a logical dilemma which there is no way round, which evolved because of a land border with the Irish Republic. Unless you want a hard border, which most people don’t.
Alan Mendoza: Thank you, let me open up to the floor.
Question: You mentioned Russia – if you look at the map of Europe most of Europe is Russia, and you mentioned Winston Churchill’s quote about Europe needing to come together at some point for peace. How is it possible to imagine that in the future?
Vernon Bogdanor: Russia is like Britain, a part-European power. This is our problem, it’s not a wholly-European power. A stronger EU and a stronger Europe would deter any Russian threat to Europe which, as I was saying before the meeting began, I don’t think Russia personally is a threat to us in Europe, I think it’s a threat to us in the Middle East. A stronger European Union would be an effective deterrent to Russia and a stronger European defence policy.
Question: I’m not being patronising about the public and the decision they’ve made, because I’m going to say the same thing about me. I’m 76, I’ve lived in this country all my life, I was the Managing Director of M&S, and I’m a Peer of the Realm. I only knew about 15% of all you just spoke about and yet I was asked to vote on the decision to leave Europe or not. I didn’t know any of that stuff so how did a man or woman in the street in Peckham know? So we’re in this mess and I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it but you, as a great constitutionalist, how can we have a system of referendums where actually people are informed and not lied to and there’s some sort of system, because if we do this again we’ll get into worse and worse…The actual issue of Brexit, it’s messy, how can we stop this happening again on another huge issue?
Vernon Bogdanor: In a way this argument goes too far because in a referendum we’re asked to decide one issue, in a General Election we’re asked to decide a host of issues; what we think about the health service, the economy, foreign policy, education, and so on and so on. If people aren’t equipped to vote in referendums, they aren’t equipped to vote in elections either and that was the argument used by Conservatives in the 19th Century to deny Universal Suffrage. You may say it’s a good argument logically but it has been lost. Clearly we do live in a democracy and obviously a democracy asks a lot of people, a great deal – they need to be educated and informed. It’s fair to say that some of the comments about the referendum are rather ahistorical because people assume that in the past, somehow, elections were like academic seminars. They weren’t. In 1945 Churchill famously said the Labour Government could only implement its programme through a Gestapo, in 1992 Stephen Kinnock said the Conservatives would abolish the NHS if they were elected. Elections and referendums aren’t academic seminars, there is a lot of nonsense talked and we rely on the people to sift it out. Although I voted ‘remain’ myself, I take the view that the people who voted against did so on logical grounds because they wanted to limit EU immigration and they wanted Britain to be responsible for its own laws. I don’t agree with that view but it seems perfectly legitimate and if that’s the peoples’ decision then we ought to go along with it.
Question: One of the German diplomats said at the time, or a little while ago, ‘I wish we had spent some of the effort that we did on Greece to keep them in on keeping the Brits in’. I wonder what your view is, why did Merkel give Cameron so little in February 2016 when the polls were tight and a little bit of generosity would’ve prevented a lot of pain?
Vernon Bogdanor: A good question. I can’t judge Angela Merkel’s motives but I think the EU needs to look again at the theology of freedom of movement, which has become one of those principles that needs to be qualified. Just as a lot of other EU principles have been qualified, for example no bailouts in the Eurozone that has been qualified, that the Eurozone is irreversible, people were trying to get Greece to leave and failing to do so. I think the difficulty is, part of the difficulty is the countries of Central Eastern Europe couldn’t say in public that they didn’t like freedom of movement because of the impact of Communism. But in practice it removes from many of those countries the ablest and best educated people and therefore deprives them of people of great value for themselves. I think the EU needs to look at that and that would’ve kept Britain in, I think, and if even after the referendum the EU had made a move in that direction I think people would’ve stayed in. But the EU, for its part it’s fair to say, thought it wasn’t worth wasting political capital on this because Teresa May simply said ‘well look we’re leaving, full stop’.
Alan Mendoza: Just to come back on that point, all the commentary now because of the speaker’s decision suggests that if you have a long extension period the end result will be a softer Brexit along the lines of Norway, which would mean freedom of movement and the EU would’ve got what it wanted. So how do you square that?
Vernon Bogdanor: I think the Conservatives will never vote for any arrangement which involves freedom of movement. You’re right that the majority do believe that Bercow’s judgement is more likely to lead to a soft Brexit, or to Remain, though it’s fair to say that some of the Brexiteers think it is good for them because they think it makes it more likely that we leave without a deal at all. The problem is that the Conservative Party is, as it were, harder if one put it that way than Teresa May. 50% of Conservative constituency members favour a no-deal Brexit and fewer than 10% favour remain or a referendum. Although the majority of MPs have ruled out or voted against, said they don’t want a no-deal Brexit, the majority of Conservative MPs voted against taking it off the table. One of the problems, I think, since the referendum vote is that contrary to Cameron’s hope that it would resolve the issue both sides have polarised. The Remainers are now much keener on another referendum than they were, the Brexiteers are much keener on leaving without a deal than they were. So far from bringing the country together it has moved the country apart.
Question: You mentioned Churchill before – wasn’t he against us joining the EU? He wanted Europe to become one but he wanted us to be apart from it – first question. Very quickly, second, question isn’t the disconnect between the populous and the EU, or Brussels, creating the anti-peace that it was supposed to create?
Vernon Bogdanor: These are both very good questions. The second point, you’re absolutely right, the EU needs to reconnect with the public. It was created, as it were, in isolation from the people because the founding fathers whom I mentioned; Schuman, Adenauer, Jean Monnet and the rest they didn’t trust the people because of the experience of Nazism and Nationalism and so they said let’s do it by stealth, let’s do it economically by moving coal and steel together so that people won’t actually notice. That’s no longer tenable, I think, and it has got to reconnect. Donald Tusk I think made a very good comment after Brexit, he said “this should be a wake-up call for Europe, what Europe needs it not ‘more’ Europe but ‘better’ Europe”. Practical measures that show people the benefits of Europe, for example lower airfares, digital market, energy market and so on. I think that’s very important and you’re right.
Your first question about Churchill is very fascinating and equally important. There’s no doubt that Churchill supported a united Europe, he thought Europe should unite, he said that endlessly, and he said that since 1930. The question on which he was ambivalent about was whether Britain should be part of it and he did nothing to bring Britain closer to that united Europe. In opposition he did make some speeches saying that Britain herself should be part of it. Edward Heath, who knew Churchill very well, said Churchill’s opposition was one of circumstance and not of principle because he thought the Empire Commonwealth could be a power in the world and when he realised it wouldn’t be he would’ve supported united Europe and Britain being it. There is some evidence to support that – he supported Harold Macmillan’s application in 1961 and when it was vetoed he wrote a letter, though he never sent it, to the Belgian Prime Minister saying Europe without Britain would be weak indeed. So we don’t quite know but my own view, Andrew Roberts in his recent biography disagrees with me, but my own view is that Churchill would have thought that Britain should join a united Europe.
QUESTION: Are we moving towards what the (inaudible) think tank proposed immediately in the aftermath of the referendum? I.e. a tightly integrated EU core with an outer ring where the UK would be an associate member, so rather than being ‘in with opt-outs’ we end up being ‘out with opt-ins’?
Vernon Bogdanor: A very interesting point. This is what President Macron said in his Sorbonne speech in 2017, he said that some states will wish to go further and some will never wish to go further, so this is a permanent two-tier Europe. He said that within such an arrangement he hoped the British would find a place. The trouble with the French position is that in the Fifth Republic throughout they’ve been marginalising Britain. They treat Brexit as merely a trade arrangement whereas it has geopolitical implications for matters such as defence and their position on that is self-defeating in my view. It may be a few countries like France, Germany, Finland, perhaps one or two others, might want to move forward in the Eurozone, that’s right.
Question: Towards the end of your speech you indicated your own position, to remain, you didn’t specify how you thought the European Union would eventually evolve? Jean Monnet hated nation states, he wanted to create a federal state in which all nation state would become member states, and as a consequence of that we have at the moment a confederation where there is an encroachment on national sovereignty of a sort. But I understand that normally confederations proceed to a federal state or they collapse. I’ve hear at least two foreign secretaries confidentially exchanging this sort of opinion. So my question to you is, where do you stand in terms of voting to help to ensure Britain remains in what might become a federal state and is that a peace project? Because I think Monnet was wrong – the wars were not caused by nation states, they were caused by empires in 1914 and in 1939, and it was the nation state that actually sought to constrain those empires.
Vernon Bogdanor: I don’t quite agree with your final point – I think the imperial conflicts could be resolved, it was the nationalist conflicts in Europe which couldn’t be resolved. But your basic question is very important one, and you’re right that the founding fathers did seek a federation. I think that is now not possible nor is it desired and indeed I don’t believe that many national leaders want it. I think Europe will develop on the lines you suggested, what de Gaulle called a “Europe des etats”, apparently he never used the phrase “Europe des Patries”, and I think that is right and I think de Gaulle’s vision for Europe he did in his more sensible moments think the British and French should collaborate together on defence matters, he proposed that more than once to Britain to have an independent defence policy from the United States. I think de Gaulle was a prophet of both the Fifth Republic in France and of Europe and the great French writer Andre Malraux once said that de Gaulle “was the man of the day before yesterday and of the day after tomorrow” and I think that is true.
Question: I have an instinct, which may be entirely unintellectual and wrong, but I think there is much more to the whole business than has been revealed and I think a lot of it is to do with strategic matters. The plans, that maybe under the Official Secrets Act, Mr Putin has or others have for bringing Europe together maybe in a different way to what we’ve seen. I just wonder maybe whether this whole Brexit business is less to do with economics and more to do with strategics and what people seem to know might be the way that Europe evolves and the future evolves in this part of the world?
Vernon Bogdanor: Well obviously I’m not privy to Mr Putin’s mind and I don’t know what’s hidden by the Official Secrets Act. I think the main motivations of Brexit were as I suggested earlier; a desire to control immigration and for Britain to be responsible for its own laws.
Question: You can’t just say it’s about immigration, because it wasn’t about that. I’m a politics student, worked in Parliament, I work for the Bruges group – it was not about immigration, it was about sovereignty. You can’t just keep saying because you think it is about immigration that that is true. It was partially about immigration but it was largely about sovereignty.
Vernon Bogdanor: Well, the British public have been sceptical about Europe for many years that’s true, if you look at opinion polls. But it has never been a salient issue, it was never an important issue for people switching their votes and when, for example, in the 2001 Election William Hague said ‘you have 24 hours to save the pound’ people didn’t know what he was talking about, it was too abstract it didn’t impinge on people’s lives. Immigration did, it made it a salient issue, and I hold the view that without the massive EU immigration from Central Eastern Europe, and the migration from Syria which people confuse with immigration, I think Brexit would not have won. So I think although there has always been a kind of low-level scepticism, without immigration the referendum would not have been won by the Brexiteers.
Question: George Kennan, who was American ambassador to the Soviet Union and formed the doctrine of containment, was opposed to the joining of NATO by the East European states. He thought after the Soviet Union collapsed actually NATO could’ve been wound up as it could be very provocative. Do you have any views on that?
Vernon Bogdanor: I don’t really know enough about the history. I can see that the Russians might think it’s provocative but I don’t think NATO should be wound up. I can understand, I just don’t know enough about that particularly point whether it was right or wrong to extend to Eastern Europe.
Question (continued): You did say in your talk that you endorsed Churchill’s view that for security reasons there should be European integration right up to…
Vernon Bogdanor: He didn’t say for security reasons…
Question (continued): No, you did…
Vernon Bogdanor: With all due respect I don’t think I did. Churchill’s point was that Europe as a whole should be united to prevent future wars, I don’t think he ever said that, the issue never arose that NATO should be extended into Eastern Europe. What he said was, if you can integrate Germany firmly into Western Europe, with a divided Europe, that will help the Eastern Central European countries become liberated because Russia won’t then be so frightened of a resurgent Germany. That was his argument, that Germany firmly integrated, and this was the view of Adenauer and others indeed more recently German Chancellors such as Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, they begged British Governments to integrate Germany firmly into Europe before German nationalism reared its ugly head again. They said ‘it won’t happen now but it might in 50 or 100 years’. We are seeing a bit of it now and I think that was what Churchill was talking about, he wasn’t talking about the question you’ve mentioned – maybe it didn’t occur to him.
Question: When you mentioned that Churchill had this vision of three circles – didn’t he oppose Macmilland at the end because he had told Beaverbrook, and he said he supported Beaverbrook press? Secondly, wasn’t the confederation of Europe a great success actually and wasn’t Maastricht and the Euro the beginning of a downfall more than anything else? And if the politicians were so certain of how popular it was, why wouldn’t they have a referendum for 40 years?
Vernon Bogdanor: There are a number of questions here. Churchill cautiously approved Harold Macmillan’s application to Europe. There is a very interesting letter to his constituency chair, in a book by his private secretary Anthony Montague-Browne called Last Sunset, and Anthony Montague-Browne it now turns out was the father of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, but his main role was as Churchill’s private secretary. Maastricht, you’re right, that carried things further and particularly with the Euro you may argue it was a step too soon and you may say that in a sense Britain was in the vanguard of all this because of our long evolutionary history we were the first to appreciate what the sacrifice of sovereignty means in practice. Many other countries could say that rhetorically; the Spaniards could say that because they were leaving dictatorship, some of the East European countries were happy to sacrifice sovereignty, but you find that when it comes to the Euro Germany isn’t so willing to sacrifice sovereignty by a transfer union. The Poles are not so happy to sacrifice sovereignty on the use of abortion as a strongly Catholic country. So countries do meet concrete points when the question of sovereignty really arises. I think there was another part to your question, what you said at the beginning which I can’t remember?
Question (continued): I said about the three circles…
Vernon Bogdanor: You’re absolutely right, Churchill thought that Britain’s power lay at the intersection of three circles; the special relationship, the Commonwealth, and Europe and that we shouldn’t veer to any direction. But my question is what would he have thought when he realised that the Commonwealth, whatever its value, is not a power grouping? I think he would’ve become a strong European. He was strongly in favour of Europe uniting, that can’t be questioned I think.
Question: Isn’t one of the problems that you raised that we don’t have a written constitution and that when various legislation is enacted in Europe, Britain always felt we’d do it to the dotting the I’s, crossing the t’s, and other nations would say ‘it is incompatible with our written constitution’ and would find a way of not enacting. That has been one of the main issues of the moment, the fact that we don’t have that written constitution?
Vernon Bogdanor: You’re absolutely right, we don’t have any rules and the Speaker decides what our constitution is really. That’s the nub of my book. Someone said over a hundred years ago that ‘we live under a system of tacit understandings but the understandings are not always understood’ and I think that’s what is happening with the Speaker.
Question: I thought that we derived our rights from the Magna Carta in 1215, when we separated power from the Monarch and gave it to well-positioned individuals. We have almost the longest standing code of rights and then we’ve added to that through various Parliamentary laws subsequently.
Vernon Bogdanor: I think there are only four articles of Magna Carta still left and what we did, we transferred power from the Monarch to Parliament and the complete power, the absolute power the Monarch had, then went to Parliament which in practice normally means the Government when it has a majority. Now is that enough in the modern world? Most countries, America being a prime example, have restrictions on what governments can do in terms of human rights and the European Charter gave us that – shouldn’t we have something similar?
Question: Why in this room is there such a reverence for what Winston Churchill said, when I was at school and studying he got so much wrong?
Vernon Bogdanor: What did he get wrong?
Question (continued): Well gold standard, for a start…Tonypandy
Vernon Bogdanor: No, that’s misunderstood – he got that right. He stopped the military intervening there, there’s a myth on the Left about Tonypandy, he actually stopped action by the military against the trade unions.
Question (continued): The three circle thing..?
Vernon Bogdanor: Well that was plausible at the time. I gave a lecture on Churchill which you can get on the Gresham College website, on the 50th anniversary of his death, and I concluded that even if you leave out the war he was ever greater than people thought. He was one of the founders of the Welfare State, for example, before 1914. He introduced the first minimum wage in sweated industries, unemployment insurance the first in the world – he didn’t get full credit for that, Lloyd George got most of the credit. Perhaps worth a comment about him, from I think one of the best books on Churchill, written by Lord Alanbrooke his wartime diaries. He had lots of arguments with Churchill, was really rough with him, and one of Churchill’s cronies said to Alanbrooke ‘the Prime Minister thinks you hate him’, and Alanbrooke said, what every special advisor should say, “I don’t hate him, but if ever I say he’s right when I think he’s wrong he should sack me immediately because I a no longer of any use to him”. At the end of the book he says the book may give a false impression that I was often at odds with Churchill, that I often argued with him, but I want to put down on paper that I think he is one of those genius’ who come around every few hundred years. I think that is remarkable.
Question: I wonder what the vision is that this country has for itself, because I feel that in the Brexit debate we’re running away from something – it’s a bit like an employee running away from a much hated job, without knowing what job to go to. What is it that this country actually wants?
Vernon Bogdanor: Well if anyone can answer that question, what vision the Brexiteers have, could they let me know because I’m not sure. The idea of global Britain with these easy trade agreements with hundreds of countries seems to have gone down the drain. I’m not wholly clear what the vision is but perhaps you don’t have to have a vision if you vote – Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, said that “when politicians have visions I tell them to see a Doctor”.
Question: Just a quick shout out for our negatively defined constitution. I think separation of power, legislative supremacy of Parliament – our Parliament sometimes looks like a Parliament of fools but no-one knows quite how it works, but it does seem to work. I think the checks and balances that you’ve described so well contribute to that – God help us if we ever tried to write a constitution, can you imagine what that would look like?
Vernon Bogdanor: Every other democracy has done it why shouldn’t we be able to do it? I’m not sure, frankly, that if you look at Parliament over the past year or so you would say how well Parliament has worked. Most people think it doesn’t work that well!