As a white, straight male, it’s not often that I get to feel in a minority but at the Spectator Brexit debate – as a Leave voter in favour of Theresa May’s deal – it was apparent that I’m an endangered species on a par with the white rhino. But I also found that I have an eloquent champion: Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, who gave the best case that I have heard for the deal
He was on stage with Dominic Raab, on the opposite end of the pragmatism spectrum. Raab, in effect, argued for a no-deal Brexit, while Stewart mounted a most robust defence of the May deal, vigorously taking on all-comers to modest effect. As the evening wore on, I found myself increasingly sympathising with Stewart’s plea for compromise and far less persuaded by Raab’s (to me) naive optimism. Having been an ardent Brexiteer, I found it hard to express why that should be. But on reflection, I think I have it.
Despite it being 28 years since Margaret Thatcher was forced from office and five years since her death, she is still a hate figure across much of the country. No other British political figure casts such a long shadow. People who weren’t born when she was Prime Minister have been brought up to despise her and the wider Conservative Party. We are approaching a moment which chimes with Thatcher’s last days; a female Prime Minister brought down by her party over Europe. But the comparisons go deeper.
Thatcher is reviled because she was responsible for the sudden and harsh economic change which affected millions. There is no doubt in my mind that the country overall benefited from her actions. The economic medicine that she prescribed was effective – when she departed Britain was no longer a basket case economy. But where is the lasting gratitude that mirrors the enduring hatred?
In places that have boomed, there may be appreciation among older voters but there is seldom love. People who grew up in post-Thatcher Britain have little understanding of how the country became the dynamic service economy that it is now. On the other hand, in places that were economically destroyed and then left to stagnate, there is hatred, undiminished by the years.
I grew up in post-industrial Lanarkshire where people who would openly confess to being Tories were fools or masochists. I dimly remember that my friend’s father, a chemist for British Steel, was made redundant in the 90s.
I had no concept of what redundancy meant then. I do now – I was made redundant from a well-paid job two years ago. I know how it feels to have the solid ground beneath your feet melt away. Fortunately, I wasn’t living in a place where mine was the only employer but in the 80s, millions of people were. As a whole, the country prospered. But in certain corners of the country, there was only despondency and visceral hatred.
The fact is that forcing massive economic dislocation on an economy results in individual tragedies. It may well be strong medicine for the country, but many will find it bitter indeed. So, I want to ask Conservative MPs to think carefully before discarding Theresa May’s deal. There are those who, like Raab, will argue that the disruption will be only minor and can be mitigated; those who argue, above all, that the gains will be worth the uncertainty.
But put yourself in the shoes of the mother who goes to the pharmacy and discovers there’s no insulin for her diabetic child. That may well only be the case for a week while alternatives are sourced, but imagine that week for that mother.
Consider the workers at a car plant that closes for even just three months while components are sourced elsewhere. The uncertainty, the insufficient savings to pay unexpected bills, the lack of prospective alternative employment in their town utilising their skills and their experience.
Think of those who have elderly parents in Spain who are no longer sure of their rights and are panicking. Think even of the victims of a minor terrorist atrocity that may – just may – have been averted if we were still on proper speaking terms with our EU partners.
Loss aversion is one of the fundamental characteristics of human psychology. You can be sure that every single catastrophe that befalls an individual in the post-Brexit period will be blamed on the Tory government that let it happen – or indeed argued in its favour. The gains will be small and will accrue gradually across a dispersed group of people, the losses will be immediate, personal and deeply felt.
Now imagine looking a close friend in the eye when they have lost their job. Maybe they voted to remain, wanting only to get on with their lives. Will you tell them that it’s worth it? Or will you have the common decency to feel ashamed?
Mrs May’s deal deserves to be backed because it achieves the aim of leaving the EU while minimising the risk of sudden economic shocks. The Tory Party still hasn’t recovered from its first Thatcher moment. It cannot afford another.