Brexit reflections from Simon Richards

Brexit reflections from Simon Richards

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 Simon Richards, the Chief Executive of the Freedom Association who co-founded its Better Off Out campaign.

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.

It was Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech in 1988 that first caused me to question British membership of what was then still called the European Economic Community. After it rebranded as the European Union and grabbed more powers in the Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003) treaties, it was apparent that the only way of preserving any semblance of independence would be to leave the EU. The tipping point for me was the beginning of June 2005, when massive referendum rejections of the proposed EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands were ignored by their governments and by the EU. That autumn, the Freedom Association started to use the question: ‘Would we be Better Off Out of the European Union?’ The following year, in April 2006, I was one of those involved in launching the association’s Better Off Out campaign.

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

I approached a Brexit debate at a business breakfast meeting in Rugby with some trepidation, because my opponent was a successful businessman whose job was facilitating trade with Germany and other EU countries. He was asked by a fellow businessman in the audience what would happen if the country voted to Leave. To his credit, he said that he and other businesses would learn to live with it and would cope, in the same way as they adjusted to other events. I often found similar honesty, on both sides, when debating Brexit in the Midlands and the West of England, where issues were addressed far more intelligently than they were in the national campaign, which was dominated by George Osborne’s counter-productive Project Fear.

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?

I only shared platforms with Conservative Party and UKIP speakers who were known Leavers, but I found most of my Remainer opponents to be courteous and fair-minded. In particular, I was impressed that Martin Horwood, although a convinced Lib Dem Remainer, was almost as dismissive of Osborne’s Project Fear as I was.

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

I spent the night at the office of the Freedom Association we then occupied just off Trafalgar Square. Along with Rory Broomfield and other Brexiteers, I consumed large quantities of gin (the spirit of England!) from the moment that the Sunderland result was announced. Unlike most other Leavers, I had always been confident of victory, despite being a convinced pessimist, but the enormity of the stakes involved did make me nervous for a while. After over ten years of campaigning to leave the EU, I was nothing short of ecstatic as the results came in and it was great to share such an historic moment with fellow Leavers.

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

No – and it ought not to have taken so long. Things started to go wrong from the moment that Michael Gove stabbed Boris in the back in the Conservative Party leadership contest. That handed the keys of No. 10 to Theresa May – and the rest is history.

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, after the Benn Act was passed it seemed that Boris was trapped in a devilish Catch 22. Nothing that I have witnessed in a lifetime of politics has so shocked and disgusted me as the Remainer attempts to prevent the referendum decision being honoured.

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?

It has changed things for good – and for the good. Above all, it has accelerated a change that began with Margaret Thatcher winning over patriotic working-class voters in the South and Midlands in 1979. Now those in the North have finally started to lose patience with Labour’s metropolitan Remainer leadership. It is similar in scale to the dramatic shift that happened long ago in the USA – a shift that saw the Democratic and Republican parties gradually swap places in terms of both policy and geographical support.

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?

I want Parliament to become, once again, an institution of which we can be proud, not ashamed. Thanks to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, that process is already underway. I would like to see the United Kingdom leading the world in defence of freedom, free trade, fairness and democracy, as I believe Boris has started to do. We should return to the centuries-old position that served us so well – namely an outward-looking country with a global outlook, but also with an eye to the European continent and its people.

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

At present, I simply plan to be in London to enjoy the day, but something tells me I shall end up having a drink or three somewhere with other Leavers before the day is done.

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.

We had produced a special ‘Vote to Leave the EU’ Union Jack and, early on June 24th we walked across Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall in triumph. What happened next moved me to tears: all the cab drivers and van drivers started honking their horns, cheering us and waving their support (the limo drivers ignored us!), with the Westminster City Council binmen more enthusiastic than anyone. I was moved because those drivers were a microcosm of the extraordinary, ordinary British people who had held their nerve against Project Fear to vote to regain their freedom and independence.

When we reached the gates of Downing Street, the world’s press wanted to photograph Rory Broomfield and me with our Brexit Union Jack and the photo, as above, went worldwide, including the BBC and The Guardian! I had promised to deliver an ‘Up Yours Delors’ V for Victory sign in the direction of Downing Street in the event of our winning the referendum. We were there when David Cameron resigned. At that moment I thought I could die happy – and given the events of the next three years, I almost wish I had done!