Brexit reflections from Matt Ridley

Brexit reflections from Matt Ridley

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 peer Viscount Ridley, better known as the author, journalist and businessman Matt Ridley.

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 recall a moment in the very early 2000s when a bunch of people were grumbling over dinner about the EU and I said: I wonder if one day we should be better off leaving? Whereupon one of those who had been grumbling, a very wealthy owner of a premiership football club, turned on me in a fury for even voicing such a thought. However eurosceptic you were, leaving was utterly unthinkable: I found that odd, but was not yet a Leaver. I remember later, around 2015, discussing Brexit with a fellow Tory peer who said: “The trouble is if people like you and me come out for Brexit in the coming referendum, we’ll lose, and that will kill Euroscepticism forever and consign us to irrelevance; we will never be able to slow down European integration”. I said I thought that was too calculating.

I was then for Change, or Go, especially after David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, which seemed to me an excellent manifesto for comprehensive reform. When his renegotiation came back with the square root of minus zilch in early 2016, I decided we should leave: that humiliation was a key moment for me. I was surprised later to find that Cameron did not think of it as a failure because offering a six-month delay on benefit payments to migrants was such a big deal for the EU. If so, that shows how far from us their thinking was.

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

Canvassing a voter in Gateshead on the day itself. He was in his garden in a string vest with tattoos and piercings, plus a Rottweiler straining to get off its chain and kill me. I asked if he had voted. Yes, Leave. May I ask why? There followed a word-perfect, textbook analysis of the democratic deficit in Brussels, which could have been taken from a think-tank pamphlet. So much for the idea that people did not know what they were voting for.

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?

Ronnie Campbell, then the left-wing Labour MP for Blyth Valley, became a good friend during that period. We’d meet on the train from Newcastle to London and compare notes about our parties. I once said: Ronnie, why do you keep forwarding that new newspaper called The New European to me through the parliamentary mail? It’s a Remainer propaganda sheet. Aye, he replied, I thought it might wind you up and I had to get it off my desk somehow. In the Lords, I came to like John Kerr, the author of Article 50, despite fervently disagreeing over Brexit. Once when I had sciatica, I was limping through Westminster tube station. Kerr walked past and said with a grin: “Darn. I told them to shoot you in the arm, not the leg.”

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

At home in Northumberland. I did not want to be in London because I thought we were going to lose. Plus midsummer in the North is unmissable. I went to bed and woke up about 3.30am, switched on the laptop and could not believe my eyes. I felt giddy, vertiginous, thrilled, but slightly scared. I knew the Remainers would fight. Would it really happen? How?

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

No, never. Wars take a shorter time than this. But when the exit poll broke the news of a hung parliament in 2017, I thought: perhaps we’ve just lost Brexit.

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

In the summer of 2019, I thought we would fail. At every turn the way seemed to be blocked. Parliament, the Speaker, the EU and the media seemed to be on the brink of getting their beloved second referendum. I could not see how it would end. When people asked me, I would quote a Teesdale sheep farmer who said to me in February 2019: there are two kinds of people – those who don’t know what’s going to happen and those who don’t know that they don’t know. Even when Boris won the leadership, I thought he would fail. I could not see him getting the Withdrawal Agreement reopened, or the Irish backstop abolished, or getting anything through Parliament and I could not see him getting an election before a second referendum, let alone winning one if he had failed to get us out on 31st October. The achievement of all those things really is a political plot worthy of a James Bond car chase.

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?

Realigning the main parties to be pro-Brexit (Tory) and anti-Brexit (Labour, eventually) was bound to happen and will be the defining feature of politics even after we have left – like the original Whigs and Tories, split over the Hanoverian succession. Other big changes must and will happen. The civil service was found badly wanting, as was the BBC. The Speaker and the Supreme Court behaved abominably. So did the House of Lords, that “gilded, crimson echo chamber of Remain” as I called it in a speech. The institutions that emerged with credit were the monarchy and the people.

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?

We need to become pro-innovation. The EU’s biggest failing in my view is that it places so many obstacles in the way of innovation, the ultimate source of all prosperity. It does so through regulation, through indecision, through centralisation, through harmful precaution. It has done so at the behest of big business, big pressure groups and big government. It has hobbled the digital industry, stifled the genetic revolution in farming (prolonging reliance on pesticides), prevented energy transformations and hindered healthcare innovation. It takes on average four times as long to get approval for a new medical device in the EU compared with the US. Getting out does not mean a race to the regulatory bottom, but to the top.

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

You’ve got me thinking. I might go to Brussels on the Eurostar for the day, if only to prove that we still love Europe.

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, on the campaign trail at Cartmel racecourse, Cumbria, on 30th May 2016.