Sir John Major has delivered a withering assessment of Brexit, warning the UK will become reliant on an unpredictable Donald Trump, risks making the poorest “worse off” and could unleash Europe-wide populism marked by “bigotry, prejudice and intolerance”.
In a speech, the former Conservative Prime Minister, making a rare intervention in British politics, calls the vote a “historic mistake”, warns Theresa May of “cheap rhetoric”, and criticises Brexit-ers for “shouting down” those who want to remain in the European Union. Sir John says Remainers should not “keep quiet and toe the line”.
His comments echo those made by fellow ex-PM Tony Blair, who two weeks ago waded back into British politics by urging the public to “rise up” and change their mind on Brexit if Theresa May tries to quit the EU “at any cost”.
Both Sir John and Blair campaigned for Remain ahead of the referendum, and shared a platform to make the case not to quit the EU.
In his Chatham House address, Sir John pulls few punches over his fears for the consequences for the UK once Article 50 is triggered and the UK prepares to quit the bloc.
He says he has been contacted by Remain voters of all political persuasions who are “in dismay, even despair”.
“They do not deserve to be told that …. they must keep quiet and toe the line,” he says, appearing to encourage protest. “A popular triumph at the polls – even in a referendum – does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent.”
The particular fear I have is that those most likely to be hurt will be those least able to protect themselves.” Sir John Major
He says “freedom of speech” is not “undermining the will of the people”, a frequent charge levelled at ‘Remoaners’. “They are the people,” he adds. “Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean – and it is time it stopped.”
Here’s the full passage defending ‘The 48%’:
“This 48% care no less for our country than the 52% who voted to leave. They are every bit as patriotic. But they take a different view of Britain’s future role in the world, and are deeply worried for themselves, for their families, and for our country.
“They do not deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls, even in a referendum, does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent.
“Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It’s not ‘arrogant’ or ‘brazen’ or ‘elitist’, or remotely ‘delusional’ to express concern about our future after Brexit.
“Nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean, and it is time it stopped.”
Sir John goes on to back Parliament having the final say on the Brexit vote: “Our Parliament is not a rubber stamp, and should not be treated as if it were.”
He also fears breaking ties with the EU will mean becoming “far more dependent upon the United States”, and appears to have little confidence in President Trump being the UK’s salvation, arguing the UK is reliant on a “President less predictable, less reliable and less attuned to our free market and socially liberal instincts than any of his predecessors”.
“Behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour. A little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric, would do much to protect the UK’s interests.” Sir John Major
He goes on to suggest Brexit will diminish the ‘special relationship’. “Once we are out of the EU, our relationship with the United States will change. She needs a close ally inside the EU: once outside, that can no longer be us.”
Against a backdrop of right-wing parties in strong positions ahead of elections across Europe this year, Sir John thinks Brexit has “energised the anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalists that are growing in number in France, Germany, Holland – and other European countries”.
He says: “None of these populist groups is sympathetic to the broadly tolerant and liberal instincts of the British. Nonetheless, their pitch is straightforward.
“If Britain – sober, stable, moderate, reliable Britain, with its ancient Parliament and anti-revolutionary history – can break free of a repressive bureaucracy in Brussels, why, then ‘so can anyone’. It is a potent appeal.”
He adds: “I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.”
Sir John fears trade negotiations are “already sour”, and calls for a “little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric”. And he is concerned the people who voted to leave Europe to improve their lives will be disappointed.
“If events go badly, their expectations will not be met, and whole communities will be worse off. The particular fear I have is that those most likely to be hurt will be those least able to protect themselves.”