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Coffee House

A conversation about Brexit

20 December 2016

9:00 AM

20 December 2016

9:00 AM

Now that almost six months have passed since the EU referendum, might it be time for old enemies to find common ground? Matthew Parris and Matt Ridley, two of the most eloquent voices on either side of the campaign, meet in the offices of The Spectator to find out.

MATTHEW PARRIS: Catastrophe has not engulfed us yet, it’s true. But I feel worse since the result, rather than better. I thought that, as in all hard-fought campaigns, you get terribly wound up and depressed when you lose. Then you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again. But my animosities — not just towards the Brexit argument, but towards a lot of the people who advanced it — haven’t softened, I’m afraid.

MATT RIDLEY: I noticed that. It does somewhat dismay me that my chums on the Remain side are clearly not going to forgive. But I have felt absolutely vindicated in the stance I took, which was a knife-edge thing. Had David Cameron come back with a better renegotiation, I would have been happy to support it.

PARRIS: Really?

RIDLEY: Oh yes. I mean, it was pretty obvious he was asking for too little — so perhaps I should go back a little further. There was a time when a two-speed Europe, in which we could liberate ourselves much more on trade, was on the table. It was Cameron’s decision to focus on benefits and immigration.

PARRIS: I do think that you’re being a little disingenuous, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I remember your side of the argument. What you all did was to say: ‘Oh, good luck to David Cameron. We really hope he succeeds in his negotiations. He must, incidentally, bring back A, B, C and D.’ And one read A, B, C and D, and one saw at once that he couldn’t bring those things back.

RIDLEY: I disagree. Yes, he did end up negotiating benefit caps for migrants and some pretty trivial things. But go back three years, to his so-called Bloomberg speech — which I thought was tremendous — he said Europe had to reform fundamentally. That was his aim.

PARRIS: But you never believed that Europe was going to reform, did you?

RIDLEY: I thought that it was going to be tough. But there were a number of people going around last year — David Owen wrote a book making this point, Jacques Delors endorsed this kind of thing, Guy Verhofstadt was talking about it — saying, ‘Yes, maybe we should now think of a two-tier Europe in which there’s a free-trading penumbra around a much more “ever-closer-union” core.’ That was on offer.

PARRIS: Why don’t we go for that now, then?

RIDLEY: I think we will end up with a free-trade agreement with Europe, but it won’t involve the various forms of supremacy of EU law over our own law. It will give us some control over our laws, our borders and our money.

PARRIS: But then we get back to ‘why?’ It was never on the cards that Cameron was going to come back from his negotiations with this sort of deal that would have satisfied most of the Leavers, most of the anti-Europeans. You just wanted us out.

RIDLEY: By the beginning of this year, yes I did. I’d seen how incredibly intransigent the EU was, even on the pathetically short list of reforms that was being asked for. And Cameron, let’s not forget, rushed this referendum. He had a whole further year to negotiate more serious reform, more in keeping with his original plan. But instead, he tried to get the whole thing out the way with a Potemkin renegotiation. I’m afraid he wasn’t really serious.

PARRIS: I’m sure you believe what you’re saying now, but I think the underlying psychological forces that have driven the Leave people are the same ones that always drove them. You have always been looking for reasons to go.

RIDLEY: Let me put a different point to you: I didn’t hear a positive argument about the European Union in the campaign. I heard lots of reasons why it would be painful if we left — and by the way, as we know, it’s been nothing like as painful…

PARRIS: But we haven’t left!

RIDLEY: Sorry, but there was apparently going to be a profound and immediate economic shock if we voted to leave. Those are the words that George Osborne used, that’s the sentiment of the IMF, the OECD, Barack Obama, everybody.

PARRIS: Look at the pound.

RIDLEY: The pound has had an excellent correction! Which is good for the British economy, as it was in 1992. I’m a great believer in devaluations, as long as they don’t produce runaway inflation.

PARRIS: Well they do.

RIDLEY: Not always. In a deflationary environment they can be very beneficial and I think the pound has been overvalued for a long time. Nonetheless, we were supposedly going to have a plague of frogs and a third world war. You must admit that ‘Project Fear’ was tremendously overdone.

PARRIS: The frogs have been slightly delayed, but the frogs are on their way. Have no doubt. If I didn’t believe that this wasn’t going to end in disaster, I wouldn’t be arguing as I am now, with the passion that I did before the campaign. I still believe this is going to end in disaster.

RIDLEY: Indeed, but we’re back to a negative argument — that Europe may be inadequate but we can’t leave it without paying…

PARRIS: Yes.

RIDLEY: Whereas I would have liked to have heard somebody say, ‘Actually, I think it’s brilliant. I think “ever closer union” is wonderful! I think we should have supremacy over our laws by unelected commissioners!’ Why did no one on the Remain side want to make a positive case?

PARRIS: Because, on our side of the argument, we didn’t want to join the euro. We retain a healthy scepticism about the workings of the EU; we don’t take a particularly optimistic view of the direction in which it’s going. But we still think — absolutely passionately — that it will be a disaster for the United Kingdom to leave.

RIDLEY: You see! Still a negative argument.

PARRIS: It is a negative argument. You know, as one lemming said to the other, as they went over the cliff, ‘What do you mean we’re going to go over a cliff? That’s a negative argument.’ Yes!


◊◊◊◊◊◊

PARRIS: One of the things that depressed me about the referendum was the idea, so seductively put forward by the Brexiteers, that we were in a vague sort of way going to ‘take back control’. It plays very potently to a strand of resentment and fear that has always run through the populations of large economies like our own, which is that life is no longer in our own hands. And they then try to transfer that on to their government — that it has lost autonomy in this globalised world or this European Union, that there are immigrants coming in and so on. My worry is that this is a very difficult argument to resist, because it plays so strongly to people’s psyches. But a medium–sized country like ours can’t just ‘take back control’. Nobody can in this world.

RIDLEYy: It’s true that people often look back to some golden age when you could completely control your life. It never existed. I mean, ever since the Stone Age we’ve been trading and have had other people’s ideas forced on us. If we did actually become autarkic and pull up the drawbridge, that would not be a good thing. But I do think something changed ten years ago when Tony Blair said there would be only 5,000 to 13,000 new immigrants a year, as a result of the accession of the eastern European countries. He decided against the temporary — whatever the word is — action.

PARRIS: A sort of emergency brake.

RIDLEY: Exactly. Which we decided not to do. So we had nearly 500,000 over three years. Did a lot of people feel this pushed down their wages? Or that the immigration pushed up the waiting lists for doctors’ surgeries, school places and housing? Yes, they did.

PARRIS: A lot of people? Really?

RIDLEY: It did motivate them in the referendum. But there is a tendency among Remainers to assume that this debate was all about immigration, that this was the most important issue. The polling evidence suggests otherwise.

PARRIS: It doesn’t.

RIDLEY: No, it does! Lord Ashcroft’s poll showed that the top issue was sovereignty. Immigration was the second.

PARRIS: But sovereignty was a lot of people’s way of saying immigration.

RIDLEY: I don’t agree!

PARRIS: I have no doubt at all that immigration was a terrifically important part of the Leave campaign and you know it, Matt. You wouldn’t have won without it.

RIDLEY: Had the Leave campaign been all about immigration, we’d have got about four million votes. That’s the number of people who voted for Ukip in the last election. The whole Vote Leave strategy — and what Dominic Cummings, the campaign director, kept saying — was, ‘Those people are going to vote for our side anyway, we’ve got to win the economic argument.’ That’s why only one or maybe two weeks of the campaign was focused on immigration. That got a surprising amount of attention.

PARRIS: It got a lot of attention because it was what people were interested in.

RIDLEY: No, we talked about trade. And people were interested.

PARRIS: Immigration was the coiled spring within your argument. Whether or not you chose to acknowledge that publicly, I think privately you all knew that that was what was going to win it for you. And it did. I don’t mean you personally because I’ve never heard a racist or unpleasant word from you. But a good many people on your side played on it in a way that I thought was quite disgraceful. I wrote in The Spectator that it made me ashamed to be British, the way the immigration argument was being played. It still does.

RIDLEY: Hang on a minute — that is a bit unfair. Everybody was trying to make the best case they could. It does bother me that now that overcompensating Remainers like Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, seem to be living in this echo chamber where they think it was all about immigration, and so they think that what they’ve got to do now is to crack down on immigration, to have lists of foreign workers or something. It is clearly not what people wanted. The opinion polls show clear support for skilled immigration — for scientists, for students, for doctors, for engineers, for entrepreneurs.

PARRIS: And for plumbers?

RIDLEY: They’re probably halfway in between. But when you get down to unskilled immigration there is considerable antipathy to it in the general population.

PARRIS: These are the care workers, aren’t they? And the hospital porters?

RIDLEY: Well, and fruit pickers and so on.

PARRIS: We can put a few fruit-picking businesses in East Anglia out of business by requiring that they hire native labour that just isn’t available at the rates they could pay. Maybe we should. And then we can put care homes all over the United Kingdom out of business by saying that they can’t get their carers any longer from the EU.

RIDLEY: This isn’t about stopping immigration. It’s about controlling unskilled migration.

PARRIS: What does that mean?

RIDLEY: Well, for example, you can’t come here unless you’ve got a job offer: the way it used to be. Bar the odd racist, the vast majority of people who were worried about the immigration issue would be satisfied with that.

PARRIS: I would be perfectly happy with a change that meant you had to have a job offer before you could come here. But I think in the end it would make only a very little dent on our figures. I think that British hospitals and care homes would start recruiting abroad. And if you think the British population as a whole is going to be happy with that — fine, let’s go for that.

RIDLEY: In the UK, you must admit that the enormous increase in net immigration — a third of a million people coming a year net — did make a lot of people unhappy. Not because they’re racists, but because they saw far more competition for public services.

PARRIS: No, I don’t admit that. Immigration made a lot of people unhappy, I agree. The argument they then alighted on was that there was a lot more competition and queues in doctors’ surgeries — and the rest. I don’t accept that that actually was their own experience. I think they were looking for a respectable argument behind which to mount the real argument: that there were just too many foreigners around.

RIDLEY: Matthew, you’re not saying that 17 million people are, deep down, racists?

PARRIS: Yes.

RIDLEY: OK.

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PARRIS: I find myself genuinely concerned about people like yourself, and to some extent Michael Gove, for a good reason. There has been a revolution. After the revolution, it’s always the intellectuals who are shot first.

RIDLEY: Well, Michael’s been shot already!

PARRIS: Yes, he has! You see, he — and others — gave the veneer of intellectual respectability to a case which was actually much uglier. They might quite quickly find that Brexit isn’t happening as they thought it would, and they’ll be disposed of one way or another. Do you not worry that the Brexit we’ll get turns out to be very different to the one that you argued for?

RIDLEY: Yes I do fear that, but it’s not very likely. Our arguments weren’t a veneer. The leaders of this campaign — Daniel Hannan, Boris Johnson, etc — were all saying very clearly that it would be a huge betrayal if the country did not become a beacon of free trade in the world.

PARRIS: A huge betrayal? We’ll have to see how the hardliners in the Brexit camp respond to the direction in which, I hope, Theresa May wants to take this.

RIDLEY: But who are these hardliners? Forget Ukip because it’s disintegrating fast. Who inside the Tory party is pushing for this much more nationalistic version?

PARRIS: The ‘hard’ Brexit.

RIDLEY: This phrase ‘hard Brexit’ is quite a naughty way of making something sound nastier than it is.

PARRIS: You want to call it a ‘clean’ Brexit, don’t you?

RIDLEY: A ‘liberal’ Brexit. Yes, or a ‘clean’ Brexit.

PARRIS: Good luck with that!

RIDLEY: Well, vocabulary, as we all know, is terribly important. I always try and use the word ‘commerce’, not ‘capitalism’, because it’s a rude word now.

PARRIS: OK, I won’t use the word ‘hard’ Brexit or ‘hardliners’. I think there is an element in the Conservative party on its right…

RIDLEY: ‘Headbanger’ is a word you often seem to use…

PARRIS: Yes, ‘headbanger’ is one word I might use. I would say that they’re motivated as much by distrust of and dislike for Europe and the European Union as they are by any sort of vision of a free-trading Britain. When they see Theresa May co-operating with Europe as much she can and should, I think she will lose them. They may turn out to be quite a powerful force.

RIDLEY: Since you’re on a couch, can I turn into a psychiatrist for a minute or two? We all know that this is a 52-48 conversation. Nobody knows for sure whether we have done the right or wrong thing. Why, then, would it be so hard to forgive?

PARRIS: The reason I feel as bitterly as I do is because I feel that, in some ways, this was a conflict between good forces in society and bad forces. I feel that the bad forces on 23 June won a very significant victory.

RIDLEY: I wonder, Matthew, what it would take to convince you that your fears about Brexit were misplaced?

PARRIS: If I were completely wrong about all this, then within seven years or so our economy would be growing faster than the economies of our European partners. I would want to see a friendly and co-operative relationship between us. I would want that not to have hurt our relationship with the United States or the rest of the world, and I’d want to see Britain bounding ahead in the way that you and others have described. And then, if I’m still alive, I will write a piece for The Spectator saying I was wrong. And what about you?

RIDLEY: If in five years’ time we are lagging behind the rest of the EU economically — by the way, we may have a recession that has nothing to do with Brexit — but if we have bad relations with our EU allies that are preventing co-operation on standing up to Putin and so on, and if Theresa May has been replaced by a protectionist, then yes indeed, I will have made a mistake in voting the way I did.

PARRIS: And I won’t forgive you.

RIDLEY: I thought you might not!

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