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Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Why Vote Leave.
When I was 19, I swore what the old storybooks call “a terrible oath” to restore Britain’s independence. It was late 1990, and Margaret Thatcher, who had been standing in the path of the European project, had just been brutally clawed out of the way. Her successor, John Major, was on his way to Maastricht to initial the draft of the treaty that turned the European Economic Community into the European Union, extending its jurisdiction into the fields of foreign affairs, criminal justice, immigration, monetary policy and citizenship rights.
It was no longer possible to pretend that this was a club of nations or an economic association. I remember the first foreign minister of a sovereign Latvia remarking, almost en passant, that his country was now more independent than the United Kingdom. I decided, then and there, that the recovery of self-government was the chief issue in British politics. Along with Mark Reckless, who went on to become a Conservative MP and is now a UKIP Assemblyman in Wales, I founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain.
I have spent the past 26 years fighting a slow retreat against European integration, 17 of those years as an MEP. In 2011, together with Marc Glendenning, Stuart Coster and that most amiable and gentlemanly of businessmen, Daniel Hodson, I set up the People’s Pledge, dedicated to making an In/Out referendum the policy of at least one of the main parties. In January 2013, when David Cameron adopted our policy, we switched to preparing to fight and win that referendum.
Twenty-six years of my life culminate in today’s poll. So you might find what I am about to write surprising. Still, here goes. Today’s vote, although momentous and historic, won’t lead to anything very dramatic.
I have no idea which side will win. But one thing that seems clear is that it will be close. The losing side will represent a minority, but a large minority. In a democracy, large minorities can’t be ignored.
Think of the recent Scottish referendum. When 55 per cent of people voted for the status quo and 45 per cent voted for complete separation, all sides quickly recognised that the only way to build a consensus was with something in between those two positions. A new devolution package was put together, based on fiscal autonomy. It may go further than some unionists wanted; it may not go far enough for some separatists; but everyone can live with it.
If today’s vote should result in a similarly even split, the same logic will apply. If, as I hope, we vote to leave, we won’t be able simply to ignore the concerns of those who wanted to stay. A narrow leave vote is not a mandate for anything precipitate or radical. It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power, with the agreement, wherever possible, of our European allies. Many of our existing arrangements will remain in place; and those which we want to disapply won’t be scrapped overnight. Brexit, in other words, will be a process rather than an event. It will be the moment when Britain starts to pursue a different trajectory, away from political union with the EU and toward a looser arrangement based on trade and co-operation.
Of course, the same logic ought to apply if there is a narrow remain vote. Just as Leavers need to acknowledge Remainers’ concerns about keeping our economic ties to the EU, so Remainers need acknowledge Leavers’ desire for more sovereignty. A narrow vote to stay would not be a vote to carry on as now; it would be a vote for a looser deal. British Europhiles, sensing how close things are, are falling over each other to promise further reforms in the event of a remain vote. William Hague, Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and, most prominently and most recently, David Cameron – all assure us that it won’t stop here. Vote to stay, they say, and then we’ll continue to take powers back.
The question is whether Brussels will – or can – behave as Westminster did after the Scottish vote and devolve power. My guess is that a remain vote, however narrow, will be taken by Eurocrats as the end of 40 years of British stand-offishness. They’ll want to push ahead with full political merger, vindicated in their belief that, as the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz puts it, “Britain belongs to the European Union”.
In another unhelpful (from Remain’s point of view) intervention, Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday that there was no prospect of further reform if Britain voted to stay. We can’t claim we haven’t been warned.
Things could have been very different had the renegotiation resulted in a new settlement, one which allowed Britain to step away from the EU’s political institutions while remaining in the market. That deal was on offer, even from the most hardline Euro-federalists. Jacques Delors called it a “privileged partnership” for Britain; Guy Verhofstadt “associate membership”.
Early in the process, I urged the Prime Minister to aim for such an outcome. He was, as he usually is, both honest and charming. That wasn’t the kind of deal he wanted, he told me. If it was what I wanted, I should ensure the election of a Conservative Government, thus getting the referendum, and then vote to leave.
Fair enough. That’s what I’ll be doing today. Please join me. Polls are open until 10.00pm.