Checking in to my hotel room on the 18th floor, for the Conservative party conference here, I opened the door and bumped into a workman on a stepladder. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘They shouldn’t have let you in. All the water came through from the room upstairs.’ He was painting over the damage. Then he looked at me, recognised me and asked, ‘Hard or soft Brexit, then?’ I burbled slightly, not being happy with the distinction, but eventually said I thought ‘hard’ better described what was needed. The painter told me he read the Guardian and the Telegraph every day to ‘get both sides’. He reckoned ‘hard’, too: ‘It’s got to be divorce.’
People attack the whole business of having an EU referendum, but one of its pluses was that it invited millions of people who had never before been asked to form an opinion on the European question to do so. Like the man on the stepladder, they responded thoughtfully — perhaps more thoughtfully than people do in general elections when a sizeable minority vote pretty much automatically for one party or another. We quickly developed a much more educated electorate. The idea, strongly touted immediately after the result, that the voters’ majority view could be set aside by Parliament because they didn’t know what they were talking about has almost completely vanished from political debate, with the noisy exception of interventions by Kenneth Clarke. Theresa May’s strong recognition of this in her speech here on Sunday makes this one of the most extraordinary party conferences I have ever attended. This is not because of any high drama in the conference hall, where the debates have, if that is possible, been even duller than ever. It is because of the complete and almost calm reversal of a policy which the Tories had until now maintained since the end of the 1950s. Without a flaming row in her party, Mrs May has said unambiguously that the orthodoxy of Macmillan, Heath, Major and Cameron, the orthodoxy which vanquished even Mrs Thatcher, has been dethroned. We’re leaving, and the divorce, though intended to be friendly, will be absolute. The effect on those present is oddly reassuring. Even most Remainers seem keen to get on with leaving. The skill of the pro Europeans over more than half a century was to make people believe that the alternative to membership was unthinkable. In the last six months, everything has moved. First it became thinkable; from this week, it becomes doable. At some point — probably at several points — the negotiations will go badly wrong, as they did indeed when we were trying to travel the other way in the 1960s and General de Gaulle was being difficult. Nevertheless, a sincere decision to leave cannot ultimately be prevented. The Tories are all too used to insincere promises about Europe, but this week they decided that Mrs May is sincere.
During the campaign, the thrall of the old orthodoxy was such that Leave campaigners were reluctant to speak openly about leaving the single market. They feared that the prospect would seem too frightening. Now, though Mrs May did not quite state it in those terms, it is overwhelmingly likely that we shall leave the single market. One reason was put to me succinctly here by Alexander Downer, the Australian High Commissioner. If we don’t, he says, we shall, in effect, still be in the EU (though without voting power), so countries like his will not be able to do any trade deal with Britain, and will have to stick with Brussels.
It is only those educated out of their wits who still find it difficult to understand the terms involved. The leader in Monday’s Times, angered by Mrs May’s speech, said she was being ‘irresponsible’ to claim that Britain would now become a ‘sovereign and independent country’: ‘Every treaty obligation that a country enters into involves some dilution of sovereignty. By definition, it means agreeing not to do some things and thereby gaining a collective benefit.’ You might as well say that someone who enters into a contract with somebody else thereby ceases to be an independent individual. Indeed, the word ‘treaty’ does not really make any sense as a term in international relations unless it refers to agreements made between sovereign powers.
Mrs May’s plain style may well come to irritate people in a few months, but just now it is extremely popular. The lack of glamour, soundbites, smart clothes, and ministerial overclaiming is a blessed relief. I can’t pretend that I find Mrs May an endearing figure, but when she said in her speech that Britain should not go round saying ‘We are punching above our weight’ (a phrase beloved of the Foreign Office), I almost wanted to hug her. There isn’t even much party knockabout. In the old days, any speech which made some pathetic jibe against ‘the brothers last week in Blackpool’ could be guaranteed laughter and applause. Now Labour is scarcely mentioned, and Jeremy Corbyn, though undoubtedly the most unintentionally comic figure ever to have led the Labour party, is passed over in silence.
I didn’t see the press pick it up, but Liam Fox made a good point in his platform speech here, about how trade works in the modern world to the advantage of a country like Britain. Francis Fukuyama, he said, would have done better to have written a book called not The End of History, but The End of Geography.
Heywood Hill, the famed bookshop, is 80 this year. To win its celebratory Grand Prize of a new hardback a month for life, you have to nominate the book published in English since 1936 which has ‘meant the most to you’, explaining your reasons in no more than three words, which makes a haiku prolix. Then there is a prize draw of the entries. Along with several other writers, I have been asked to nominate a book. I think I would say The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, and my reasons would lie, slightly cryptically, in Eliot’s own words, ‘Now and England’.
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