Brexit reflections from Owen Paterson

Brexit reflections from Owen Paterson

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 Owen Paterson, the eurosceptic former Cabinet minister who has sat in the House of Commons since 1997 .

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.

That is a long story! Before entering Parliament in 1997, I travelled the world taking my leather business from a 15% export to a 95% export business. For a time, I was President of COTANCE, the European Confederation of the Leather Industry. I was determined to turn it into a free trade organisation but, even then, it was obvious that the EU winds were blowing in the direction of bureaucratic uniformity towards the ultimate goal of political union, bringing down areas of the leather industry with excessive regulation. In fact, it was in that capacity that I first met a young journalist named Boris Johnson. We were at Prague airport shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he was asking any businessman he could find for first-hand experiences of the damage which EU rules had done to them. I gave him some leads and we have been in contact ever since.

My great political mentors were Nicholas Ridley and John Biffen. Both of them were veteran Eurosceptics. John voted against the European Communities Bill in 1972, voted “No” in the 1975 EEC referendum and voted against the Government on the Maastricht Treaty in the Commons. Nick’s last speech in the House of Lords was to oppose Maastricht and he was writing articles against joining the ERM the week before he died. Soon after I succeeded John as MP for North Shropshire in 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam was signed, continuing the progress of the EU from a customs union to a pan-continental state.

I soon formed a fruitful collaboration with the late Christopher Booker and Dr Richard North, whose co-authored books The Castle of Lies and The Great Deception did much to influence Eurosceptic opinion. We shared frustrations that increasingly damaging European regulations were being compounded by crass implementation due to the ignorance of an urban Labour government doing great harm to the countryside and a variety of businesses across the UK.

Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column was a fantastic platform from which to highlight this. I was able to give him stories from my constituency which demonstrated the damage done by oppressive regulation and remote decision-making. In the days before Twitter, this was a great opportunity for a backbench MP to bring local issues of national consequence to wide attention. Combined with meticulous research from Richard North, we made an effective triumvirate and won some important victories.

One such success was the story of renowned balloonist Per Lindstrand, whose Oswestry firm was the leading manufacturer of “aerostats” – tethered helium balloons that carry 30 passengers up to 500ft. Lindstrand Balloons faced disaster in 2003 when the regulation of air safety was taken away from EU Member States and given to the European Aviation Safety Agency. A bureaucratic nonsense emerged over the certification of a tethering winch, which meant that Lindstrand was suddenly forbidden to sell products in the EU, giving a huge advantage to his main Franco-German competitor’s inferior products.

Christopher highlighted this absurd saga on a number of occasions in his column. I tabled 33 parliamentary questions on Lindstrand’s treatment, but endless obstacles were put in his way. When I finally secured a meeting with EASA in Cologne, the first thing they said was that they would resolve the issue, provided we guaranteed there were no more critical comments about EASA in the British press. Such was the influence of the Booker column in the Sunday Telegraph! Incidents like this convinced me that rule by remote and unaccountable bureaucracies simply had to be replaced.

2005 was a significant year. I happened to come sixteenth in the Private Member’s Bill ballot and, with the help of Bill Cash, introduced the European Communities Act 1972 (Disapplication) Bill, to provide that “notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972… Community treaties, Community instruments and Community obligations shall only be binding in legal proceedings in the United Kingdom insofar as they do not conflict with a subsequent, expressly inconsistent enactment of the Parliament of the United Kingdom”. The Bill, of course, got nowhere, but it was an indication that a legally valid Bill, cleared by the clerks, could be introduced that would begin the process of repatriating powers to Parliament.

More significantly still, as Shadow Fisheries Minister, I wrote a Green Paper on fisheries policy. Travelling round the coastal communities of the UK was a real eye-opener, as I saw first-hand the appalling damage which the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was doing. Fishermen were being forced to throw back 1 million tonnes of edible fish into the sea as pollution every year, which was shameful.

I concluded that the CFP was “a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster” and “beyond reform”. By visiting other maritime nations – Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Canada and the United States – as well as the Falkland Islands, I saw that there was a better way of doing things. The Conservative Party contested the 2005 General Election on a promise to repatriate fisheries policy to the UK, take full control of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and introduce modern, environmentally-friendly fishing techniques which work so well elsewhere in the world.

That was an important move, since no party had advocated any repatriation of powers since Maastricht. At the time, I hoped that it would begin a step-by-step programme of taking back more and policy areas to Parliament. But by the time I got to DEFRA as Secretary of State in 2012, things had become, if anything, worse. Like the CFP, the Common Agricultural Policy prizes bureaucratic uniformity over outcomes to the detriment of both farmers and the environment.

Time and again, I would work with allies to seek reforms at the EU level, only to be inevitably outvoted. We could do nothing to change the policy, and we could do nothing to stop the EU from fining the UK for elements of the UK’s implementation of the CAP that the EU did not like.

It was, at that stage, obvious to me that tinkering reforms from within were never going to be adequate solutions. As soon as I left government, therefore, I began exploring more radical alternatives. In November 2014, I made a speech outlining a vision of the UK joining the EEA while being outside the CAP and the CFP as a preferable alternative to full membership of the EU.

At a time long before the word “Brexit” was in common parlance, this was regarded as a very bold position. However, after the Conservative victory in 2015, we suddenly knew that a genuine In/Out referendum would actually take place. This changed everything. I seized the opportunity to campaign to leave properly and repatriate all powers to our sovereign Parliament. Within days, Bernard Jenkin, Steve Baker and I had taken steps to set up what became Vote Leave, committed to ensuring that the UK could fully “Take Back Control”. As we know, in June 2016 17.4 million people agreed – more people than have ever voted for anything in British history!

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

Late in the afternoon on referendum day, I was outside a busy polling station in Whitchurch, the town in Shropshire where I was born. A group of builders finishing work came up to me. “It’s about Them, isn’t it?” they said. When I asked what they meant, they perfectly summed why so many people voted to leave, rejecting the aloof and undemocratic citadels of EU power in favour of genuine parliamentary democracy: “We can get rid of you if we don’t like you. But we can’t get rid of Them. And what’s more, if they tell you to do something, you in Parliament can’t do anything about Them.”

I am enormously grateful and proud that people like that have been unmoved since. Through torrents of abuse, through being told endlessly that they are stupid, prejudiced or worse, through two general elections and a European Election that should never have been, they have been absolutely determined to see Brexit achieved, spurred on by the simple wish that we in the United Kingdom should govern ourselves. Laws imposed upon us should only be passed with the assent of those whom we elect.

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?

After the Conservative victory in 2015, when it became clear that the referendum would actually happen, the very earliest meetings of what became Vote Leave were held in my office with Bernard Jenkin, Steve Baker, Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings. Those meetings drew in key Labour figures like Kate Hoey – who had been a personal friend for a long time – Brendan Chilton and John Mills.

Campaigning locally in Shropshire, I knew that many rural UKIP people were, in fact, natural conservatives, so it was great to be able to work with them on the same side of the argument.

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

I was in North Shropshire until late, before coming down to London to give an interview for French radio at 7am on the Friday morning. 24th June 2016 was my 60th birthday, so it was the most fantastic present!

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

No! Every week in the latter half of 2018, I would come down to London thinking “it can’t possibly get worse”. And every week, it did!

We should, of course, never have extended the deadline beyond 29th March 2019. The 2017 Conservative manifesto was admirably clear: “As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union.” On page 36, it said: “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Every Conservative MP was elected on that platform, so for some to go so vehemently against that was shocking. I took no pleasure in voting against the Government three times while being vilified as one of the 28 “Spartans”, but I believed that I was simply standing up for the manifesto on which I was elected. The happy result of that is that we are now heading towards leaving on the terms that we promised. Had it not been for the ERG, the Leave vote would now be bitterly divided on the ground following a Brexit In Name Only.

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

Yes. Over the course of the last Parliament, we saw that there were no lengths to which Remainers would not go and no chicanery to which they would not stoop to thwart the result of the referendum. Even during the 2019 General Election campaign, there was a chance that we could have ended up with a hung parliament pushing through a gerrymandered second referendum with Remain v Nearly Remain on the ballot paper. In hindsight, Vote Leave should have kept going beyond the referendum result to combat that, but thankfully the voters were determined to get Brexit done through four separate democratic votes.

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?

A lasting change. The referendum exposed the fact that, for some time, neither main party had been fit for purpose on the central issue of who should run the country. At the establishment level, both were pro-EU, in marked contrast to their grassroots and their voters. Plainly, that situation could not endure forever; the referendum and the 2017 General Election blew this open.

Since Boris became Prime Minister, the Conservative leadership is now fully in tune with its grassroots and – as the election showed – with Leave voters. However, with Labour seemingly determined to continue as a metropolitan Remain party, still preaching catastrophe and still sneering at its traditional voters for having the temerity to want to govern themselves, these new loyalties and alignments could be here to stay.

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?

As a former Secretary of State for DEFRA, agriculture and the environment are key priorities. Brexit presents a unique opportunity to reassess both our trade policy – running the economy for consumers rather than producers – and to reform our approach to regulation – prioritising outcomes over bureaucratic uniformity. Once we leave, we can instead focus on achieving the best, most efficient and healthiest outcomes above all.

Agriculture and management of the countryside ought to be at the forefront of our environmental efforts. I want to see us use cultivated land more efficiently, giving us exciting opportunities to free up more space for biodiversity and wildlife; the adoption of innovative technology is key to meeting the challenge. Outside the EU, the UK will be free to set its own agricultural policy, tailored to our own environment and designed to reward farmers for the environmental good that they do, from improving habitats and soils to supplying clean water and flood defences.

We must be alive to the benefits that embracing technology can bring to the natural environment. Sadly, the EU has been consumed by an overarching desire for bureaucratic uniformity, consigning it to become the Museum of World Farming. Its hostility to new technology, driven by powerful but misguided campaign groups, is causing European research to stagnate, to the detriment of both agricultural yields and the environment.

France, for example, is missing out on over 4.5 tonnes per hectare in its maize yield compared to the US, amounting to a total loss of over 6 million tonnes. That crop could be worth an extra £600 million, or France could free up half a million hectares for wildlife, recreation, or forestry.

Brexit should, therefore, represent a wonderful opportunity to boost productivity outside this failing model. We should embrace the opportunities of innovation, offering farmers the greatest freedom to grow their businesses and consumers the greatest choice of products, while improving the natural environment. We should balance the precautionary principle – currently interpreted in the most severely prescriptive manner by the EU – with a requirement to uphold the innovation principle, catalysing UK productivity and making it a world leader in agricultural research.

Fisheries are another priority for me. In a hotly contested field, the UK’s subordination to the Common Fisheries Policy must rank as one of the most catastrophic consequences of our membership of the EU.

In 1995, 9,200 British vessels landed 912,000 tonnes of fish. By the time of the referendum in 2016, there were only 6,191 vessels landing 701,000 tonnes. Once a net exporter, UK fish imports reached 730,000 tonnes by 2016, worth over £3 billion.

Much of the blame for this shocking decline rests with the EU policies of “Equal Access to a Common Resource” and “Relative Stability Shares”, opening our waters to common grazing and producing Total Allowable Catch (TAC) allocations biased against British fishermen. The UK provides 50% of the EU’s waters in the North-East Atlantic but receives only a 25% share of the internationally-agreed TAC. For 40 years, British fishermen have seen EU fishermen catching 60% of the fish in British waters.

Brexit represents a wonderful opportunity to reverse this appalling damage. Regaining and exercising complete, sovereign control over all waters and living marine resources within our Exclusive Economic Zone is the vital first step. Outside the CFP, we can become a normal independent coastal state, co-operating internationally, taking our independent seat on the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and negotiating annual reciprocal deals with our neighbours.

With control over our stocks, British fishermen will be free to exploit new and emerging markets around the world in addition to EU markets already dependent on UK seafood. Crab producers in the South West have already opened up new opportunities on WTO terms for high-quality crab in Asia, and prices have nearly doubled. This process can be galvanised further once we are outside the Customs Union – and without the “single customs territory” proposed by the defunct Withdrawal Agreement – as the Government agrees new Free Trade Agreements with key markets around the world.

Markets in Asia represent a potentially spectacular opportunity for seafood. Domestic species remain an important staple in these areas, but demand for more expensive species is rapidly increasing. Seafood imports in South Korea amounted to $4.98 billion in 2017, up 10.7% from $4.5 billion in 2016. Chinese seafood imports were worth $11.9 billion last year, a 44% increase on 2017. A recent UN study has highlighted the recovery in consumer demand in Brazil and Russia as symptomatic of a global trend for continuing development of a diverse array of markets for exporters.

Our future trade policy will be key to exploiting the opportunities which Brexit presents. From seafood to Scotch Whisky, there is enormous potential to boost exports by reigniting old alliances and forming new ones. At the same time, by taking our own, independent seat on global bodies like the WTO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Codex Alimentarius Commission, we can be a much stronger voice for free trade and sane regulation around the world.

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

That weekend I will be celebrating with the Wem branch of my Conservative Association at their Freedom Lunch in Hadnall.

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 when, at long last, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed Second Reading on 20th December 2019. I went into Parliament Square with Andrea Jenkyns and Jack Lopresti to break the news to some stalwart Brexit campaigners. They had braved all weathers for months and withstood appalling abuse to ensure that Brexit was delivered, so it was great to share that moment with them.