Rachel Sylvester looks back in The Times today at five Tory MPs who in 2012, launched a pamphlet, little noticed at the time, promoting a rightwards shift in the Conservative Party. The Infamous Five (four of whom are now in the Cabinet) who wrote “Britannia Unchained” are, of course, all Brexiteers. Brexit was never really driven by the xenophobes but by the libertarians like the five. But they have little in common with the Farage tendency that is viscerally anti foreigner. Brexit for the Five was always about restoring and deepening the free market ideology of Margaret Thatcher. A means, therefore, to an end rather than an end in itself.
Most western countries, especially in Europe, are balanced mixed economies. That balance underpins and defines the European Union. Whilst there are differences of detail among the EU27 they all have a pragmatic mix between public ownership and private enterprise. This, way back, made Michael Foot and Enoch Powell improbable bedfellows on Europe. Foot and the Socialist Left saw a uniting Europe inhibiting extending state ownership. Powell and the Conservative Right saw it as restricting private enterprise and privatisation. They were both right.
What the state should do and what independent businesses should do has always been a febrile discussion area. Only Thatcher in modern times shifted the balance significantly. But her economic reforms were entirely left in place and untouched by the Blair/Brown governments. The return of the Conservatives in 2010 saw a bit more privatisation – Royal Mail for example. But the essential post Thatcher balance remained.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was predicated on a commitment to changing the state ownership balance dramatically. The accidental push for Labour to return to its socialist roots emanated from Corbyn and, incidentally, led to Brexit. The Hard Left, unlike the Socially Democratic Left, saw membership of the EU inhibiting the extension of socialism.
Whilst Labour was flying the red flag the Conservatives were flirting with neo-Thatcherism. “Britannia Unchained” was part of this. But for it to become more than a neoliberal pipe dream it needed to move towards becoming the Tory mainstream. Support from the new MPs from the Right, like Rishi Sunak, helped this happen. David Cameron, insofar as one could discern his personal politics at all, sympathised – but the One Nation Tories around him looked secure in their positions in Cabinet and in the Party in the country.
The key to unlocking the ideological logjam was Brexit. The most fervent Thatcherites were the likes of Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and John Redwood who knew that they would likely stay on the fringes of of influence – that without a strong argument they would be rebels without a cause. Europe was that cause. Suddenly the ground was shifted, Cameron’s position was strengthened by the 2015 election which saw the end of the Coalition (Anathema to the Right). But it was also weakened because the Right began to demand its pound of flesh – a referendum on membership of the European Union.
The referendum campaign was a proxy fight. The Brexiteers had both Leave.EU and Boris Johnson and co. to push the populist and “patriotic” (essentially xenophobic) message. The official campaign talked about “sovereignty” and lots of Union flags were waved. But under the surface the driver was not antipathy to Europe as such but to the perceived restraints on Britain’s economic freedom to act. The latter is complex and cerebral so hardly a campaign winner. Immigration is populist and simple – or could be, and was, presented as such.
Well the rest is history. Britain is out of the EU. Cameron went and the One Nation Tories were finally killed off by Boris Johnson in 2019. The strongly augmented “Britannia Unchained” group are the masters now. Dissent has been ruthlessly removed. Brexit was the means to the end of achieving the goal of an economic revolution = low tax, low regulation, fiercely nationalist and independent. The big battle was not Brexit but what lies ahead.