Home » News/Views » Brexit: self-confidence and renewal

Brexit: self-confidence and renewal

9 October 2018, Brixham, Devon: fishermen once again demonstrate for a future for their industry. Photo Johann Knox/shutterstock.com.

The referendum took a giant step along the road to freedom. But the job is not finished. Achieving independence will require a change in our thinking, a belief in what Britain can be if we have the will to make it so…

We are at a crucial stage in a very long journey to freedom. We began as a people having to fend for ourselves, having to battle nature for a living. From the earliest days we had to be self-sufficient, there never has been a god who has provided for us; it’s always been us who have very generously provided for gods, and their disciples. 

After the development of agriculture enabled us to settle rather than roam, some interesting things happened. In this country, perhaps uniquely, before the Norman Conquest, ploughing began to be done in long single strips, chiefly around Nottinghamshire it appears. This seemingly innocuous development meant that ploughmen could plough while walking along next to each other and talk to each other while they ploughed. This quite possibly gave us the beginnings of what is rather grandly now called our democratic tradition – workers talking.


Through millennia we developed a species of self-sufficiency in politics. After the Black Death more than decimated the population, giving however the possibility to improve peasants’ wages, we had the Peasants Revolt. When a King tried to rule without parliament, we cut off his head, and no monarch has successfully tried it since. Our Revolution took place 150 years before the French, and 250 years before the Russian.

We created another revolution, the Industrial Revolution, leading the world towards the beginnings of a material plenty which could only have seemed fantasy to earlier ages. And to survive that industrial revolution we had to create trade unions, to protect us from the ravages of an employing class which unchecked would have worked us to death.

We prevailed over a fascism heartily supported by pillars of the establishment from within the monarchy to the church, and from the Lords to the Commons. And we created a fine British achievement, the NHS.

In all of this was a self-sufficiency, a self-reliance. If we didn’t do it, no-one would do it for us. But, already a little over a hundred years ago, that self-reliance began to waver. We began to feel that we’d reached the limits of what we could, or perhaps should, achieve by standing on our own feet. We decided to turn our efforts away from our workplaces and instead join the old employers’ talking shop, parliament. 


So we created the Labour Party, and tried to delegate our thinking to it. “You go to parliament and do the fighting for us.” This step into parliament, seen as so positive by a majority of workers, was the greatest imaginable step backwards. It marked a turning away from self-sufficiency towards what in time has become known as social democracy. It’s as if we thought we could get someone else to do the ploughing for us. 

Well, an unploughed field runs to weed, and our collective mind became quickly overgrown. A kind of national lack of confidence followed, especially as the generation that won the war grew older. We seemed to believe that we could not achieve progress by ourselves, or through just one governing class, but that we’d better have six governments instead, by agreeing to join the European Economic Community.

This lack of self-confidence came to a head during the dark days of Thatcher. At least before then workers organised in unions had relied on themselves. If they didn’t achieve what their members needed there was no-one to blame but themselves. Then a bright idea dawned: perhaps we could look to the organisation Britain had joined, by then called the European Community, as a less harsh alternative to Thatcher’s de-industrialisation. 

‘Proud unions born in conspiracy opened offices in a foreign country.’

No one can seriously have thought that Jacques Delors was going to re-open the pits, shipyards and steelworks Thatcher had brutally chopped. Almost overnight proud unions born in conspiracy centuries before opened offices in a foreign country in the belief that progress lay in supplication. Decline of our class political role accelerated for decades.

But then, starkly, on 23 June 2016, there was a reassertion. A referendum result that shocked and frightened the establishment, nearly as much as it frightened and shocked the more timorous within our class. 

Trade unions were spectacularly out of step with their members on the referendum issues, and still are. Many went so far as to accept EU funds to run Remain campaigns among members, often without any kind of mandate to do so. This, in spite of the fact that EU law bans industrial action which obstructs the EU’s founding principles of free movement of goods, services, capital and labour – which just about covers everything that trade unions might ever need to take industrial action over! 


One might think that unions would be concerned about unemployment, or pay – both massively affected by millions of workers arriving from EU countries. Six EU countries have average wage levels less than a third of Britain’s minimum wage, and in another eight it is less than half. Brexit gives us the possibility to control this migration. 

A Bank of England study concluded that a 10 per cent rise in the proportion of migrants is associated with a 2 per cent reduction in pay in the semi- and unskilled services sector. These are facts which Remainer trade union officials ignore, as do those pontificators whose livelihoods are not directly threatened by this migration.

Journalist Robert Peston has said that “immigration has shifted the balance of power between company and worker too far in the direction of the boss” – well if he can see that why on earth can’t trade unions?

And reflect on this – any EU country can make anyone in the world a citizen, and then every other EU country has to accept that person as a citizen of theirs if he or she wishes to move there. At a stroke this makes it impossible for any country to control who comes into its sovereign territory.

Ruled from abroad

When Britain joined the forerunner of the EU it meant workers were voting to be ruled from abroad again. In so doing they reversed a decision made 462 years ago in 1511 when Dean Colet preached in St Paul’s Cathedral in favour of the statute of praemunire and against rule by papal jurisdiction. Arguably it was this sermon – rather than Luther’s writings in 1517 in Germany – which started the Reformation and the great overthrowing of outside control from Rome. 

During our membership of the EU, and rule from Brussels, Britain has grown more slowly, seen more unemployment, and invested less than at any other time in our history. Calls to get out of the EU straitjacket grew as the malign effects of membership became more evident.

Eventually there was no way in which the establishment, and in particular its oldest political party, could prevent the tearing of its very fabric, and it called a referendum to drive a stake through the heart of anti-EU sentiment. For make no mistake, the referendum on membership was only called because Cameron and his crew thought they’d win it. It never crossed their arrogant little minds that the British people were not yet entirely cowed. 

‘You should never take the British people for granted.’

Well, just like Churchill in ’45, you should never take the British people for granted. Some pro-EU types said that 40 years of anti-EU propaganda swung the referendum. No – it was the 40 years’ experience of being in the EU that swung it! 

So we started with working people talking to each other at the plough, and it was workers talking to each other that brought the referendum result when it finally came in 2016. The campaign was heavily loaded in favour of those arguing to remain in the EU. They spent just over £16 million; the Leave campaign £11 million. The media, and in particular, shamefully, the BBC was heavily biased in its coverage.

It should be a source of pride that more people than many had thought possible dared to do the unthinkable and vote against the advice and threats of their “betters”.  More voted for this one single thing, independence, than had ever voted for anything before. And special mention should be made of those brave young people in London who voted for independence in the face of varying degrees of intellectual intimidation.

In the end, 17,410,742 people voted to leave the EU; more than ever voted for Thatcher, Blair, or any other Prime Minister in history. So if the referendum result is somehow illegitimate, or the majority too small, then no government we’ve ever had has ever had a mandate to do anything!

Some call Brexit a “right-wing project”, whatever that might be. The key issue in the referendum was democracy. In a poll taken on the day, the biggest single reason for voting leave was “the principle that decisions about Britain should be taken in Britain”. 

But anyone who thought that the vote in itself would lead to our leaving the EU straightforwardly has been proved to be naive. We can now see what should have been clear all along, that we have at least a two-stage process. The first stage is to declare independence – in the referendum. 

But the second stage is to impose that decision, to actually make it happen. We now have to ensure that the view of the majority is accepted, and not subverted, by an unholy alliance of newspapers, politicians, employers and trade unions. 


Whenever independence has been achieved in the world, whether it was the Netherlands wrenching themselves away from Spain in a bitter struggle over sixty years, or the majority of Ireland becoming independent of Britain, it was not achieved by voting, but by a long and hard struggle. 

The majority, those who voted to leave, together with a growing number of those who voted to remain but respect the decision of the people, have to ensure that if we’re not out in five months’ time, Britain becomes ungovernable. 

So the saboteurs must be warned – stop undermining the express wish of the British people, and accept with as much grace as you can, that our future lies outside the EU. And saboteurs, real saboteurs, do exist. Just as Lords Halifax and Rothermere egged on Hitler, there are those who egg on Brussels. 

“Historians will see the largest popular revolt…as the nearest Britain has come in centuries to a revolution.”

Gordon Brown, not usually given to overstatement, wrote this about the decision: “Historians will see the largest popular revolt against political, business and financial elites as the nearest Britain has come in centuries to a revolution.”

When a ruling class cannot rule in the old way,  you’ve got half of a revolutionary situation, according to Lenin’s formula. The other half of it is when the working class will no longer be governed in the same way. 

Well, let’s not overstate matters, but let’s not be blind to the writing on the wall either. If parliament blocks Brexit, if prevarication and procrastination become the precursor to our being locked in to a customs union preventing our independence, then parliament, not the EU, becomes the enemy because it will not carry out our will. 

That is the significance of the place in history we find ourselves in. 

We have to replace the thinking that created the mess we’ve endured – that left the solving of our problems to others, to parliament first and eventually to the EU. We need a more self-confident thinking that will lead us to rebuild our nation, alongside all other nations who will work with us to build a better world.

• This article is an edited version of a speech given at a CPBML meeting in London on 17 October. The original speech is available here.