My whole adult life has been a preparation for next week’s vote on leaving the European Union. It’s not just the biggest event in Britain; it’s the biggest event on the planet. But big doesn’t mean sudden or jarring. The effects will be cumulative and, at first, slight.
It was at the end of 1990 that I decided that getting out of the EU was the chief cause in British politics. Margaret Thatcher had just been deposed by a coalition of European leaders and pro-Brussels Conservative MPs. The Maastricht Treaty was being negotiated, turning the European Community into the European Union, and extending the jurisdiction of Brussels into foreign affairs, criminal justice, immigration, monetary policy and citizenship.
That was the moment at which it became impossible to pretend that the EU was simply a club of nations or a free trade area. Plainly it had aspirations to statehood.
The USSR had recently broken apart, and I remember a throwaway remark by the first Latvian foreign minister: “Latvia is now more independent than Britain.”
He wasn’t trying to be dramatic. He was simply drawing what seemed to him a natural contrast between the autonomy of the former Soviet states and the relative lack of sovereignty among EU countries, which had to accept the superior jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
I was 18 years old, and I couldn’t understand why Britain, which had twice fought for the cause of all European nations against tyranny, should throw away the right to govern itself. I formed a university society, the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain. I then spent the following 26 years promoting the idea that we could flourish outside the EU, 17 of those years as a Euroskeptic Member of the European Parliament.
For many of those years, the idea was regarded as so fringe as to be barely worth rebutting. But, bit by bit, I and others set about changing minds. A political party, the U.K. Independence Party, came into existence to push for the same thing.
In 2011, I co-founded a lobby group, the People’s Pledge, aimed at getting individual MPs to commit to vote for a referendum on EU membership, and holding unofficial ballots in their constituencies to encourage them. In January 2013, David Cameron, having previously ruled the idea out, was forced to announce that a referendum was Conservative policy.
He was, of course, convinced that he’d win and, until last week, the opinion polls showed a steady lead for the pro-EU side. Human beings are change-averse and, although few would join the EU today, the status quo exerts a powerful pull.
As I write, though, a Brexit looks plausible. Opinion polls now give the edge to Leave, though the betting still favors Remain. Either outcome is feasible.
Now this may seem an odd thing to say, given what I have just written, but if Britain does, as I hope, vote to leave on Thursday, you won’t notice much change. Referendums in the U.K. are advisory: an instruction to the government to begin a process. That process won’t be precipitate
We will need to recognize that nearly half the country voted to stay, and we will want to act with the agreement of our European allies. My guess is that Brexit wouldn’t come into effect formally until July 2019, to coincide with the appointment of a new European Parliament and Commission.
Whatever day it comes, that day will look just like the previous day. All our trading arrangements will remain in place until one side or the other chooses to change them. All the technical standards we had to adopt during nearly half a century of EU membership will still be on the statute books – Brexit will be the day we can start to disapply them.
Leaving the EU, in other words, will be an evolution rather than an event. Britain will begin to follow a different trajectory, away from an enervated and declining eurozone and toward our older allies across the oceans. We will remain interested and involved in the affairs of every continent, including Europe. We’ll still be full members of NATO, the Council of Europe and the rest. Our markets will still be open.
So why does it matter so much? Well, by a delicious coincidence, posters have just sprung up all over Britain, announcing the premier of a new movie on 23 June, the day of the ballot. Its name? “Independence Day 2: The Resurgence.” Americans, at least, should get the point.