Brexit reflections from David Jones

Brexit reflections from David Jones

Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from Conservative MP David Jones, who was a leading light in the Vote Leave campaign in Wales and later served as minister at the Department for Exiting the EU.

BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.

I have never supported UK membership of the European Economic Community, the European Community or the European Union; indeed, one of my earliest youthful acts of participation in the democratic process was when I voted “No” to EEC membership in the 1975 referendum.

I have always been a free-trader and a firm supporter of international institutions. However, the EU has never struck me as either an exercise in free trade or a truly international project; rather, it has been an exercise in constructing a cartel called the Customs Union, to the detriment of trade with the rest of the world, and pursuing the goal of a federal political entity: a country called Europe.

David Cameron learned the hard way, through his failed negotiation, that the EU was incapable of being reformed. As a minister at DExEU, I was also left in no doubt that neither the Commission nor the most important Member States were disposed to contemplate reform. For them, the European project was sacrosanct and inviolable. Their repeated references to “the sanctity of the four freedoms” had an almost religious quality. They were zealots, and my dealings with them simply served to confirm that the British people had exercised typically sound judgment in voting Leave in June 2016.

BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?

Undoubtedly 3rd June 2016, when Iain Duncan Smith visited North Wales, where I was leading the Leave campaign. It was a glorious early summer’s day. We had a great reception in the walled town of Conwy, where we followed a typical campaign routine: sipping a pint in a quayside pub, eating an ice cream (bizarrely, with a group of leather-clad bikers), and so on.

But it was in the neighbouring seaside town of Llandudno that I first fully realised the enormous level of public support for Brexit. We walked for about 500 yards along the Victorian pier, which was thronged with day-trippers. The walk took the best part of an hour and a half. People jostled to shake our hands, to wish us and the campaign well, and to tell us to make sure the Government “got on with it”.

And as we pulled away in the bus, everyone cheered. They weren’t cheering us, of course. They were cheering for Brexit.

BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?

Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, both former Labour MPs and heroines of the referendum campaign. Kate, in particular, has become a good friend, and we spoke together at a rally in Gateshead.

BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?

I was at the all-Wales count at a leisure centre in Queensferry, Flintshire, with a group of fellow Leave campaigners. It was extraordinarily tense as the results started trickling in. Then there was immense elation when the Sunderland result was announced, followed by declarations of other big Leave votes from across the country. It was not until around 4am that we could be confident that we had won.

Daybreak the following morning, as we left the count, was unforgettably beautiful: still and calm, and a cloudless sky. I have rarely felt happier.

BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?

I fully expected the process to last a full two years; you can’t extricate yourself from a relationship of 40-odd years overnight. However, if I had been told on the morning after the referendum that it would be four and a half years before we finally left, I’d have been astounded.

BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?

There were several moments, most notably the passing of the Benn Act. The last Parliament degenerated into a succession of crises, several of which could have cheated the electorate of what they voted for in 2016. Many colleagues behaved very badly, and almost all who did paid the political price at the 2019 General Election.

BC: Do you think the British electoral landscape will return to type once Brexit has been delivered? Or will Brexit have caused a lasting change to the political map of Britain?

Brexit has undoubtedly produced a significant change in the British political landscape. The last general election was clear evidence of that. In my home area of North Wales, for example, seven of the nine regional seats are now in Conservative hands, including former mining constituencies, such as Wrexham and Clwyd South. Labour, which was once the dominant political force in Wales, is now largely confined to an area roughly corresponding with the boundaries of the old county of Glamorgan.

This pattern has been repeated across the country. Large swathes of northern England are now represented by Conservatives. The Conservatives are no longer primarily the party of the shires and the affluent South. The One Nation vision is a step closer to realisation.

The change has been, in part, psychological. The 2016 referendum saw people rejecting old orthodoxies and received wisdoms. Once that had happened, it became easier to break with political allegiances that had persisted for generations. Brexit was disruptive in many more ways than one.

Whether this is a permanent change remains to be seen. Clearly, we Conservatives have to be seen to deliver the benefits of Brexit for our new constituencies, and that means pursuing policies that will spread prosperity across the whole of our country. I believe that Boris Johnson sincerely intends to do that; if he succeeds, then the change will outlast the Brexit effect.

BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?

Brexit is pointless unless it results in real change for the United Kingdom. Our focus must shift away from the European continent. “Global Britain” must be a reality, and not simply a strapline. That means, in the first instance, ensuring that our future relationship with the EU is founded not upon slavish adherence to European standards, but rather upon equivalence and mutual respect. The EU should not demand of us anything that it does not seek from other third countries with which it does business, and we must not allow it to do so.

Furthermore, we must be a force for good in the world. I sometimes think that we have forgotten how influential a country we are, such has been the stultifying effect of EU membership. Across the globe, people appreciate the cultural and diplomatic importance of the United Kingdom. It is time we did, too.

Domestically, we must pursue policies that increase prosperity, and spread it across all parts of our country. Our public services must be world-class, as must our transport and communications structures. We must attract and welcome people with talent and a desire to invest in our country.

Brexit is a superb opportunity for us to rediscover our nationhood and to build on it. We are about to embark on a tremendously exciting period in our long national history.

BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?

It is likely to be a relatively quiet day, after the celebrations of the night before. I think a long walk may be called for, to clear the mind and contemplate the exciting challenges ahead.

BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.

As above, showing Welsh Brexit campaigners at the moment the news was received that the Leave vote had been secured. It was taken at an ungodly hour on the morning of 24th June 2016 in the Deeside Leisure Centre in Queensferry. We all, I think, look reasonably happy.