Richard Ritchie: Why I believe that Enoch Powell would have supported this Brexit trade deal

29 Dec

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

During the twelve days of Christmas, people like to play games in order to pass the time.  One such game this year, for those of a political inclination, might be to guess how the original Brexiteers of the 1970s – especially John Biffen, Richard Body, Ronald Bell, Neil Martin, Enoch Powell and Derek Walker-Smith – would have reacted to Boris Johnson’s deal, were they alive today.

Would they have supported it, or preferred to leave without one?  Since Powell’s writings and speeches on the subject are more extensive than the others, perhaps he is best placed to speak for them all.  But he has no claim to originality or primacy.

Powell was later to the party than some of those listed above, and for a specific economic reason.  As he readily conceded: “I had entered Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet only six months before the veto fell; but I am prepared to confess that in those days I used to argue the case, and answer objections, on purely commercial grounds.”

Indeed, he admitted in 1965 that he was worried by the thought of Britain being “excluded” from “her fastest growing market”.  This was not a fear shared by, for example, Walker-Smith, who identified the political implications of membership far sooner than Powell.  But then, as now, exclusion from the European market was one of the greatest anxieties of those who felt that Britain’s economic future would be bleak outside.  As Alec Douglas-Home put it in 1967: “where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

While Powell was always a fervent free trader (although less so as he grew older and more immersed in Ulster politics) he was slower than the earliest Brexiteers to acknowledge the distinction between a customs union – a Zollverein – and a Free Trade area.  As his understanding of this discrepancy grew, so did his support for entry diminish.

Broadly, his free trading instincts were impeccable, albeit defined in their purest form which seem somewhat remote from the provisions of even the freest trade deal today. He never seemed especially exercised over so-called non-tariff barriers, which are now cited as one of the biggest potential weaknesses of the new arrangements.

Ironically, it is today’s criticisms of the deal which make it more probable that Powell would have welcomed it.  Europe’s move towards a Single Market and the reforms of 1992 ended for Powell any pretence that free trade in his understanding of the term had any similarity with the Customs Union enshrined by the European Community.

As he eventually recognised, “The Community is not about free trade; the Community is about perfect internal competition – which is something essentially different.  It is also about common restriction of external trade. There is no such thing as perfect internal competition and common external trade regulation between free nations.”

For this reason, he would have rejected as false the premise that leaving the Single Market is equivalent to reducing the scope of free trade.  He didn’t think we had it anyway, although how he would have answered specific objections over additional administrative expenses and red-tape provoked by new non-tariff restrictions is unclear from his speeches.

Of one thing, however, we can be confident.  He would not have called for a ‘tit-for-tat’ response against the EU’s invisible barriers to trade.  He distinguished between revenue and protective duties, having no objection to the former but rejecting the need for the latter –  because he believed that “one of the beauties of free trade is that it is a ‘a-political’: you do not have to browbeat or overrule anybody else in order to enjoy its blessings for yourself.  It is a game at which, like Patience, one can play”.

He would have argued that EU barriers against UK businesses would in the end hurt them more than us, provided we didn’t reciprocate. In the end, what some perceive as the greatest dangers of the new arrangements are what would have made them acceptable to Powell and most of his fellow Brexiteers of the past.

But of course, for Powell, these points would have been peripheral to what really matters, encapsulated in his assertion that “a political nation which cannot tax itself or make its own laws is a contradiction in terms.”  What would have made this Agreement acceptable to him is that it has succeeded, for the first time, in recovering powers which some thought had been lost permanently.

That does not mean that Great Britain is free from all international constraints. There was an occasion in 1966 when Powell severely criticised the Labour Government for imposing “illegal” import surcharges “which damaged our EFTA partners and severely shook confidence in Britain’s word and in the seriousness of her desire to enter into closer ties with Europe.”  He did not regard international trade agreements as inconsistent with sovereignty, provided Parliament had the right to scrutinise and reject them – but not to unilaterally renege from them, once signed and ratified.  That was another reason why Powell was so opposed Britain’s entry into the European Union – the longer that one was in and ‘absorbed’, the harder and more impractical it became to consider withdrawal.

But it has happened.  Something which the original Brexiteers warned was virtually impossible before entry, but which they demanded once EU membership was a fait accompli, has been achieved.  We have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – a massive recovery of sovereignty.  We are free of the risks of further political integration in the EU which were ever present so long as we remained a member.

While we may still be affected by the Euro’s vulnerability, we are at least spared the legal obligation to recuse it or those it damages.  We have recovered the right to negotiate our own international trade deals.  We may not have yet fully recovered our ability to deregulate and compete fiscally with Europe, but the fact that financial services fall outside the deal may make it possible for the UK to do just that in what is the most important section of our economy.

Talk of ‘free ports’ and the like suggest an economic direction entirely in accordance with free market principles – but which could equally be reversed should the British people choose a government with different priorities and beliefs.  This safeguard was, too, a fundamental belief in the recovery of sovereignty.

If Powell and his fellow Brexiteers were around now, perhaps they would have preferred leaving without a deal – especially if David Cameron had permitted Whitehall to prepare for Brexit in advance of the referendum, thus avoiding the consequent delay and enabling a new relationship to be formed before a pandemic struck.

But the fact is that Powell once accepted the case for entry on the grounds that exclusion from the European customs union was a danger.  He supported EFTA and other such trade agreements, even though they carried obligations and restraints upon domestic policy.  Given what this deal’ has recovered politically, it is doubtful whether he would have allowed its weaknesses to dissuade him from believing that, finally, the ratchet has been turned back, and Britain is once again a sovereign nation.  He would have supported the deal with a clear conscience.

Cardwell is loyal to May and Brokenshire, but does not tell us much about Johnson’s people

28 Nov

The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell

When Peter Cardwell applied to Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s right-hand woman and in the summer of 2016 suddenly one of the most powerful people in Downing Street, to see if he could become a Special Adviser, he claims he possessed “perhaps the most crucial quality – shamelessness”.

He is wrong about that. Hill took him on, and over the next three and a half years he worked as a SpAd for four different Cabinet ministers, before being summoned to Downing Street in February of this year to be “formally sacked” by the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who told him: “The Prime Minister no long has confidence in your ability to do your job.”

Cardwell reflects that Boris Johnson is probably “only vaguely aware of my existence”. He is amused that Robbie Gibb, Director of Communications during May’s last two years in office, had not many months before denounced a SpAd who had caused grave annoyance in Number Ten:

“Someone who didn’t play the game. Someone who didn’t stick to the grid. Someone who didn’t keep us informed. Someone who will never set foot in this building again: Lee Cain.”

Since this book was written, Cain has once more left the building, and whether he will ever again set foot there cannot be known.

The reason why Cardwell cannot be called shameless is that he remains loyal to the losing side. He is from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom where loyalty is a highly esteemed virtue.

Only on page 188 does he confirm that he is a Unionist, who has usually supported the Ulster Unionist Party, now eclipsed (though he does not mention this) by the Democratic Unionists.

Here is Cardwell after Theresa May has wished him “Happy birthday” during the 2017 general election campaign:

“It was a fun moment with a lovely woman, a true public servant and someone who I believe was an excellent Prime Minister despite very trying circumstances.”

The sentiment is admirably unfashionable, but the tone is almost that of John Major. Cardwell has a gaucheness which prevents him from being a good writer. He is, however, a good friend, and forms a particular bond with James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister for whom he works at the Northern Ireland Office and later at Housing.

Before become a SpAd, Cardwell had spent ten years in broadcast journalism, where at one point Hill offered him Brokenshire as a guest on Newsnight:

“I have a terrible, terrible confession to make… I rejected the offer because I had never heard of him.”

There is nothing terrible about this admission. Cardwell was right to reject Brokenshire as a guest, because Brokenshire is an astoundingly dull performer.

But once he is Brokenshire’s media SpAd, Cardwell becomes “very prickly” about attacks on his boss:

“The press can be merciless, with one particularly poisonous description of James when he was Northern Ireland Secretary suggesting he had ‘the personality of a motorway service station car park’. Ouch.

“The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter Quentin Letts was especially horrible about James. I will not repeat some of the nasty things he wrote in the Mail, but he tweeted in early 2017, ‘Secretary of State James Brokenshire in Northern Ireland today: not so much a statesman as an ink monitor’.”

By early 2019, “for Mayites such as James and me it was bleak”. In the summer of that year, Brokenshire arrives at a decision about the way ahead:

“James, after a lot of thinking and having consulted his three SpAds, had backed Boris for Conservative leader early in the campaign and wrote an excellent op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, although they published only extracts of it, which annoyed  me greatly. To me, it needed to feel like a ‘moment’ when such a May loyalist backed Boris Johnson, and James’s drafted words, which he had sent me to review, were characteristically sincere.”

On become Prime Minister, Johnson sacked Brokenshire, but told him people did sometimes come back into government. In the reshuffle of February 2020, Brokenshire duly came back as Security Minister at the Home Office, so outside the Cabinet.

There is a faint echo in all this of Ferdinand Mount’s defence, in Cold Cream, of Selwyn Lloyd:

“He was used to being patronised. He didn’t care. He was proud of the things he was patronised for being.

“His loyalty was what he was most praised for, but this too was a form of condescension from those who found loyalty a quality of limited value in their own lives. He was loyal to Anthony Eden and never expressed any resentment that he had been led into a course of deceit by that vain, hysterical, serious-minded prima donna (can you be a serious-minded prima donna? Yes, I think you can and Eden certainly was). A few months before Eden married his second wife, the cool and witty Clarissa Churchill, Selwyn had been a guest at a house party given by John Wyndham at Petworth, which included Clarissa. He had been horrified by the way everyone present had said how ghastly Eden was, while Selwyn stuck up loyally for his boss. When the engagement was announced, the others desperately tried to cover their tracks, but Selwyn had no malicious words to swallow,”

In the Tory leadership contest of 1963, Lloyd campaigned energetically and effectively for the surprise winner, Alec Douglas-Home, for he felt, in Mount’s words, that “Home was the only one of them whose judgement was not fatally poisoned by ambition”.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in some future leadership contest, Brokenshire the patronised and disregarded man of government will play a similar role.

If one were contemplating a career as a special adviser, and did not already know what to expect, it would be worth glancing at this book.

There is plenty here about frenetic dealings with the media: nothing much about policy, which at the Northern Ireland Office was in the hands of the vastly more experienced Jonathan Caine.

To say that this account reveals the “secret life” of special advisers is overdoing it. No great secrets are revealed. Most of what happens is trivial, without being particularly amusing.

One gains a sense of the transitoriness of the role of adviser, for as Cardwell says,

“SpAds are political mayflies, lasting on average less than two years in government… Apparently, at the time of my defenestration in February 2020 there were just ten of us, out of some 105 SpAds, who had more than two years’ experience. This was partly due to the fact that in the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, so many SpAds had left, taking with them much experience and expertise.”

This is an inexperienced government, which cast aside the knowledge of how Westminster and Whitehall work which had been accumulated by its predecessors.

On arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron was surrounded by a group of professionals who had acquired, like him, a mastery of technique in the Conservative Research Department – a point which escapes Cardwell in his brief and not very illuminating history of SpAds.

Johnson had no such group around him, pursued a daringly unconventional course and in December 2019 won a famous election victory. Cardwell hails Dominic Cummings as “a strategic genius”, but does not have much to say about how all this happened.

For Cardwell belongs to the May interlude, a period about which nothing brilliant has yet been published.