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Sunday, 25 November 2018

We’ll all pay for the EU obsession of the right (Times)

Times title: We’ll all pay for the EU obsession of the right

Times subtitle: As the nation wakes up to the Brexit deceptions by Tory fringe figures the door will open for a Corbyn government

"Three years ago any thoughtful citizen could identify the principal problems facing Britain: productivity; Londonification; the flagging education system; a society financially skewed in favour of the old and against the young; Islamist extremism; funding of the NHS and welfare; stagnation of real earnings; job losses to technology.

None had anything to do with the European Union yet a faction of fanatics not only believed, but was successful in convincing millions of voters, that if we could only escape the thraldom of Brussels, a Heineken transformation would overtake the country, miraculously refreshing everything else.

Almost all the principal standard-bearers for Brexit adhere to the Conservative right or Ukip, its bastard offspring. The only constant in my own political life, as a Tory wet save in 1997 and 2001 when I voted Labour, has been a repugnance towards both political extremes. I am old enough to remember MPs of the Conservative Monday Club, lamenting the retreat from Empire and Eden’s failure to follow through at Suez in 1956.

When I became editor of The Daily Telegraph in 1986, some of its principal ideologists remained supporters of the apartheid government in South Africa, as they had earlier been of good old Smithy, white Rhodesia’s rebel leader Ian Smith, a crusader for “civilized values”. Among many reasons that the paper’s veterans deplored the new regime was my insistence that no further leading articles or columns should enthuse about hanging, the Pretoria government or the Ulster Unionists. I strove to make the case for the European Community, even after Boris Johnson became our correspondent in Brussels. I was hostile to EC centralisation, but equally so to Euroscepticism.

In those days the zealots of the right did not provoke fear because, for all their noise, they had no power. The notion that such people as Iain Duncan Smith and Bill Cash (Jacob Rees-Mogg was still in Chilprufe underwear) might one day dictate the agenda not only of their party, but of the country, would have seemed fantastic. Although Margaret Thatcher is today viewed as a right-wing prime minister, her conduct was often more cautious than her rhetoric. Most thinking Conservatives took it for granted that any modern political party must contest power in the centre ground, or disenfranchise itself.

As an editor, I made a big mistake about Europe to which more important people also succumbed. During the 1991 Maastricht debate, John Major, Douglas Hurd, and the Foreign Office’s mandarins convinced us that our EU partners were not serious about pursuing political integration. Their insouciance about the Jacques Delors, Jean-Claude Juncker school of Europeanism was grievously mistaken, as was Britain’s brief adherence to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which some of us were also foolish enough to support.

The rest is history. The right-wingers who cried from the rooftops about the threat of sacrificing political authority to Brussels gained credibility as significantly as our side lost it, and has never won it back. Yet the principled issue of sovereignty would never have sufficed to enable the right to seize the reins: immigration, and immigration alone, could do that. The indulgence displayed by the liberal elite towards a vast influx of newcomers licensed by Tony Blair transformed a manic faction into a mass movement.

Amid the maelstrom into which we are now plunged nobody is talking about migrants. Yet this issue seems certain to resume its place near the top of old white Britain’s agenda. I wrote here two months ago that a significant portion of the electorate faces bitter disillusionment when it discovers that Brexit will not, and cannot, deliver the restrictions upon non-EU migration that many people — including me — believe critical to our political and social stability.

If grim projections about 21st-century unemployment in Africa and about the impact of climate change on the southern hemisphere are even partially fulfilled, we are today witnessing the beginnings of a huge movement of people towards the north, which no European government has articulated a credible policy to address.

As long as such paralysis persists, so too will the dark influence of the right upon the fortunes of us all. It will remain impossible for the British Conservative Party to become again what it must be: a movement of the very slightly right-of-centre. While non-EU migration remains stable — almost a quarter of a million net arrivals in the year to March — natural Tory supporters who can agree about nothing else will back those elected representatives who profess themselves eager to “take back control of our borders”.

This country cannot again have an effective and creative government until we restore a consensus that politics is rightfully about many things, on most of which compromise is indispensable, rather than about one thing, deemed by true believers to be an absolute.

Some of Brexit’s principal supporters in and out of parliament are intoxicated by the manner in which, after decades on the margin, they and their ideas have secured centre stage. In the 1990s the “bastards” as John Major dubbed his party’s right-wing MPs, were viewed as ridiculous figures, who secured notice only because of the bother that they caused the whips in close votes. Yet now Iain Duncan Smith, despite failing in every attempt he has made at running anything, is sometimes described as an elder statesman, alongside the likes of Norman Lamont and David Davis.

Play the ball, not the man is often a sound precept. Yet it seems essential to focus attention on the fact that the people leading the movement that is driving Britain to the cliff edge are failures in office, adventurers, oddballs, or all three.

If this story ends in a tragedy which blights the lives of our children, as seems not unlikely, the career nostalgics of the Tory right will bear much of the responsibility. A plausible consequence of their 40-year Eurobsession, at the expense of all the issues which should really matter to 21st-century Britain, is a Corbyn government. This would be elected by a nation rebounding from revelations of Brexit’s stupendous deceits, costs and irrelevance, of which the Conservative Party has insisted upon acquiring sole ownership."

Writer: "Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings FRSL FRHistS (/ˈheɪstɪŋz/; born 28 December 1945) is a British journalist, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, and editor of the Evening Standard. He is also the author of numerous books, chiefly on defence matters, which have won several major awards."

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