Brexit became such a polarised debate that almost from the start, it was impossible to find a Remainer who would admit that there could possibly be a single argument for Brexit, or a Brexiteer who could see any value in the EU. Yet the reality is that the truth of the decision was always much more nuanced than that. The Covid years illustrate both its importance and its flaws.
I have strong ties to France and, like many others familiar with European politics and life, I was worried by the drive for ever-increasing EU integration, since the Code Napoleon and other key elements of the French political system were part of its bedrock, along with Italian standards of financial probity and German ambitions for European unification. Yet there was much that was wonderful about the EU, such as the borderless ability to see my family in France and work or buy property almost as easily as a French citizen could.
Ultimately, my decision was that Britain had to leave the EU to remain a free and democratic nation, with the people of the U.K. deciding the future of the U.K. However, Brexit did not and could not guarantee that our Government would defend our democratic rights and liberties, or that it would run the country well, or even that in ‘taking back control’ from one supranational institution it would not hand it to others.
So, while this article marks the seventh anniversary of Brexit, it’s not celebratory. We have missed many of its opportunities, failed to cut away much of the baggage of EU membership, and become bogged down in parliamentary skirmishes, with the majorities who backed Remain in both the Lords and the Commons clinging doggedly to their underlying beliefs about the benefits of European integration despite the popular mandate for Leave in both 2016 and the 2019 election.
It’s now clear that Brexit was not a clean break, but the start of a slow, long-term process that will be fought every step of the way. Its importance, however, is paramount. In our response to Covid and the way it contrasted with that of other EU nations, we can see why.
It’s now obvious that Sweden did far better than any other European nation on every measure in its response to Covid, even if the lockdown zealots who dominate the one-sided Covid Inquiry seem determined to stick their fingers in their ears rather than review the evidence.
Study after study now shows that the total number of all-cause excess deaths in Sweden is far lower than in most countries which locked down and the recovery has been swifter. The U.K. has a generation of children who have suffered unprecedented harm from the restrictions of 2020-22; Sweden, which largely kept its schools open, doesn’t. On measure after the measure, the comparative performance of our two countries shows just what a bad decision lockdown was.
Sweden was, of course, part of the EU. So here we have an EU member state able to set its own course and make far better decisions than the post-Brexit U.K., which actually followed the EU consensus in enforcing tough restrictions. We had greater freedom to act and a Government with a clear mandate to forge its own path – yet it took an EU member state to defy the repressive consensus approach.
How, then, is it possible to argue that the lessons of Covid give us a compelling argument for Brexit – one that becomes more urgent, not less, as events continue to unfold?
Brexit does not and cannot guarantee that our Government will make good decisions. It means only that it will have the opportunity to do so, and that in ‘taking back control’, the U.K. people will be able to hold it to account for its performance.
Remainers often talk as if every failure of the U.K. Government is a failure of Brexit – particularly where the EU appears to perform better. That misunderstands what Brexit was supposed to achieve. Brexit simply returned democratic control over a vast array of decisions affecting the U.K. to its people (or should have done, had it been delivered properly).
The European Commission is not answerable to the European people for its decisions in any meaningful way. While the lack of accountability in institutions like this has obvious attractions for politicians who must otherwise win elections, spend time with the public and battle the media, it’s at odds with the values on which the U.K. was built.
By contrast, the U.K. Government is held to account at least once every five years. In a properly functioning democratic system, this has important benefits. The democratic process holds corruption in check, allows new political ideas to be debated, ensure that tired administrations are refreshed, forces politicians to connect with ordinary people and rewards good decision-making.
Brexit was above all a vote for this democratic system. However, the Covid pandemic highlighted that the EU is only one of the threats it faces.
2020-22 saw the wholesale removal of rights and liberties which are essential to a properly functioning democracy, such as freedom of speech. Where Government decisions cannot be debated freely, accountability withers. The lockdown years shocked many by revealing just how fragile these cornerstones of our democracy have become.
If Brexit means ‘taking back control’, then it stands for more than simply exiting the EU with a somewhat fudged deal.
It means preserving freedom of speech, ensuring that the U.K. retains control over its response to a pandemic, and saying no to global treaties that limit our ability to govern ourselves by, for example, dictating minimum tax levels. In short, it means ensuring that the democratically elected U.K. Government retains the power to decide the key policies for this country.
In this sense, Brexit is far from complete. Indeed, the lockdown years revealed just how much territory must still be fought.
Regardless of Brexit, when I cast my vote in an election today, I am voting for a party that, in Government, has far less control over almost every area of my life and future than it did when I was 18.
In many areas, the real control has been passed to so-called ‘independent’ bodies (‘independent’ being one of those elevating terms which today are so often used to graft morality and superiority onto processes and bodies which damage our rights and institutions; here it means ‘not subject to political influence’ which means ‘not democratically accountable’). These may be global, like the WHO, regional, like the EU, or national, like Ofcom.
They all in their different ways mean that the MPs whom you and I elect are increasingly constrained in their ability to deliver on the promises they make. This in turn leads to distrust, cynicism, apathy and a general erosion of faith in the ability of our democratic system to deliver what people expect when they vote. It’s the frustration that Leave campaigners tapped into with the promise to ‘take back control’.
As ‘independent’ bodies, they wield power but sit loftily above those who might otherwise demand that they answer for the actions. It’s a safe bet that our ‘independent’ Covid Inquiry will not criticise them, though they have much for which they should be held to account.
It was Ofcom, not the EU, which wrote to broadcasters in March 2020 threatening them with statutory sanction (which could mean removal of their licence to broadcast) if they dared to allow critical scrutiny of the extreme and unprecedented onslaught on the rights and liberties of U.K. people. That killed the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the measures, ensuring that the U.K. followed a hideously destructive path without properly considering the alternatives.
Yet it is the EU, not Ofcom, which is now working with the World Health Organisation to systematise ways of enforcing controls on movement and behaviour throughout Europe and enforce them globally so that, for example, travellers will be tracked and a full set of all the vaccinations that the WHO decides are needed will be required for travel.
The EU is also enthusiastically committed to the Pandemic Treaty, which as currently drafted will hand unprecedented powers to control the lives, freedoms and future well-being of the citizens of signatory states to the World Health Organisation when it chooses to declare a health crisis. There is a real risk here of a hostile country or even a private individual gaining sufficient influence with the WHO to impose hugely damaging policies with a view to their own advantage or to pursue their preferred ideology.
You may wonder why the EU has chosen to ignore the shining example of its own maverick state and instead is ratcheting towards harsher measures next time. Perhaps it is the modern media-driven mindset which always wants to be seen to be doing something – even the wrong thing. Perhaps it is simply that those who like unaccountable power will always take the opportunity to seize more of it.
Whatever the reason, the direction is clear. And the people of the EU, who suffered terribly and unnecessarily from the harsh restrictions of 2020-22 face the prospect of more with little opportunity to make their feelings known.
If there is another pandemic, the steps that the EU and the WHO are taking together likely mean that Sweden will not again be free to act independently in the way that it did. In 2020, we locked down, but we can now see from the example of Sweden that there was a better way which would have seen fewer excess deaths and far less economic damage.
In the U.K., we got it largely wrong. Yet if we keep our independence of action and our freedom of speech, we can, if we choose, learn and progress so that we do better next time.
By contrast, Sweden, which got it right, may well be forced to take the wrong path in future because it is constrained by EU-wide pandemic policy.
Indeed, the U.K. did arguably derive some benefit from Brexit in areas where Sweden was constrained. Boris Johnson would undoubtedly point to his vaccination programme as the prime example. He moved swiftly ahead while the EU was mired in internal processes.
So the U.K. had the ability to act with great freedom and decision in the crisis. It could and should have been as bold in facing down the calls for lockdown.
Brexit can’t change a bad Government decision. It’s about whether we want our own elected representatives in charge. Even a poor democratic U.K. Government is better than unaccountable supranational control because a functioning democracy allows for learning and change, which offer the opportunity to do better next time.
Our own Government has also backed the Pandemic Treaty. You may question why we went through all the pain of leaving only to follow the EU blindly down the same destructive path. However, campaigners here are opening it up to scrutiny. Mass petitions have already seen debates in Westminster Hall. More MPs are beginning to ask questions; concerns are taking root. There’s a chance to change the Government’s approach. That’s democratic accountability in action post-Brexit and it is making a difference.
Meanwhile, the European Commission continues down its path untroubled by the concerns of EU citizens, who have no equivalent mechanisms to allow their voices to be heard.
All human progress rests on the ability to debate freely, to make the case for differing solutions and see how they fare in real life.
The essence of the scientific method is to keep developing, debating and testing rival ideas and hypotheses to discover those which work best in a quest for continual learning and improvement.
These concepts are central to the success of Western civilisation; they underpin our economic success, our health, happiness, security and well-being.
When Covid hit, we were told that our liberties and the values on which our country was built, for which so many died in previous generations, are luxuries, fripperies to be discarded as useless baggage whenever a serious issue comes along. Free speech – too dangerous. Freedom of movement – too dangerous. Freedom to trade – too dangerous. Freedom to think for ourselves – too dangerous.
In place of the scientific method, we are now being told that there is ‘settled science’ in many fields and the stakes are too high to allow it to be challenged.
The opposite is true. Our values and liberties are essential to our wellbeing and even more so in a crisis. The more serious a threat is, the more vital it is that we strive to find the best answers. Nothing is too important for free speech, no science so ‘settled’ that scientific method can no longer be applied. Removing free speech also ensures a growing distrust of the media and, with it, the growth of resistance to the very ideas which were deemed so important that they could not be challenged.
During the pandemic, we were told that the official position was the only acceptable position. The experts who disagreed included some of the U.K.’s preeminent health experts and most respected doctors – people like Professor Sunetra Gupta, Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Karol Sikora. Shamefully, they were denigrated and belittled by crass, uninformed interviewers obeying their orders from Ofcom on the BBC, Sky and elsewhere, or simply denied the chance to speak at all. Many others were intimidated into staying silent. Some who feared for their jobs and livelihoods instead quietly lent their expertise behind the scenes to campaigns like Recovery.
Yet campaigns like Recovery were able to make headway. Our voices were heard at the highest level. We talked to MPs and Cabinet ministers. Ultimately, we came out of restrictions faster because of that.
It’s not much to celebrate, but it’s more than we would have had if the WHO had been in charge, as it may be next time.
So on its seventh anniversary, the importance of Brexit is greater than ever. Not because it gave us a better outcome during 2020-22, but because of all it can give back to us, as long as we value and understand the importance of our freedom to think and act as a sovereign nation.
Our democracy and the liberties that underpin it were the great gifts we all received at birth, forged from the experience of millennia of human progress, bought for us by previous generations at incalculable cost. They are our birthright and our hope of a better future.
The Covid years show that Brexit is not the only battle we will have to fight to keep them. However, without the vote in 2016, they would likely already be lost.
Jon Dobinson co-founded and led the Recovery campaign against Covid restrictions and lockdowns from its launch in 2020. He is a former Secretary-General of the International Society of Human Rights (U.K.) and Chair of judges at the International Business Awards.