Brexit reflections from Tom Bewick

Brexit reflections from Tom Bewick

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 Tom Bewick, who ran Vote Leave’s campaign in Brighton while he was a Labour councillor there, although later quit the party and stood as a Brexit Party candidate at the 2019 General Election.

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 first became sceptical of the EU project when studying, in the early 1990s, at Bath University, for a Masters degree in European Public Policy Analysis. I also worked in Brussels for a short period in the mid-1990s and witnessed the march towards federalism up close. It was clear to me, even then, that most Britons would never sign up to being a part of a European superstate. That said, like a lot of moderate eurosceptics, I harboured some inner beliefs that the EU could be reformed as a family of nation states co-operating rather than moving towards “ever closer union”.

The crunch decision came during David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation. It became clear that EU leaders were never going to accept fundamental reform and that the “four pillars” of free movement of goods, people, capital and services were sacrosanct to them. What Cameron came away with was an embarrassment for a British Prime Minister to have negotiated; and all the inadequacies, of course, were roundly exposed during the referendum campaign.

As a Labour councillor with a senior position in the local administration in Brighton and Hove, it was not easy to ‘come out’ for Leave. When I decided to chair the local official Vote Leave campaign, this put me offside with many of my colleagues who were fervently for Remain, including my good friend, Peter Kyle MP.

I didn’t perhaps fully appreciate this at the time, but my passion for getting Britain out of the EU was to set in train the process of me eventually feeling forced out of the Labour Party. By the time we got to Labour completely reneging on its previous commitments to respect the referendum result, I felt no other option than to resign my membership in May 2019.

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

It was being contacted by the local police to tell me that one of my rather over-enthusiastic volunteers (a 75-year-old man) had been caught at 4am in the morning trying to paint ‘Vote Leave’ across a dual carriageway bridge.

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?

It was really good of Chris Grayling, a Conservative Cabinet Minister at the time, to come to our official campaign launch event in Brighton. The whole experience of the referendum campaign, and indeed my subsequent involvement in the Brexit Party, was that it brought together a “coalition of patriots” — people for whom the normal boundaries of Left and Right divisions were suspended in order to focus on our common goal of upholding a centuries-old, radical tradition of popular national sovereignty.

Going out campaigning with people from all political traditions and none was something very special. It was one of those life-affirming experiences, not least of the wonderful power of collective human endeavour, that will probably live with me for the rest of my days.

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

I was at the regional count in Brighton. It took place in the grand surroundings of the Royal Pavilion’s arts centre, the “Dome” — which was once King George IV’s riding stables. Ironically, it was also where, in 1974, Abba had won the Eurovision Song Contest — about a year after the UK formally entered the EEC.

Because Brighton was such a strong Remain area, the mood was not quite as celebratory as it was in places like Sunderland. Lots of Remain-campaigning colleagues came up to me and said some rather churlish things once they could see the national result was not going their way. I wrote an article about it for BrexitCentral here.

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

After Mrs May gave her Lancaster House speech and had formally triggered Article 50, I really felt Brexit was going to happen — not only on time, but in a way that was consistent with what people had voted for. However, following the disastrous 2017 General Election result and subsequent hung Parliament, combined with Labour’s unfolding betrayal, I seriously started to have doubts that Brexit would ever happen. The actual thought of 17.4 million votes being cancelled made me feel sick in the pit of my stomach.

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

After the passing of the Benn (Surrender) Act, including the unpatriotic connivance by some MPs with the European Commission, I really thought Parliament would succeed in blocking Brexit altogether. And if the Lib Dems and SNP had been prepared to put aside their party political squabbles with Labour, it is possible that a so-called unity or Remain Alliance government could well have been formed with the singular objective of creating a second (rigged) EU referendum. And l think we all know where that would have ended.

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?

There is no doubt that the new dividing line in British politics is between the Anywheres and Somewheres (to echo David Goodhart). In other words, between those who believe in popular national sovereignty because they can see how a world in which democratic, sovereign nation states working together, through multi-lateral institutions like NATO and the UN, is far more preferable to a globalist vision of essentially supranational trading blocs, where ordinary people are disconnected from holding unelected power to account.

Taking back control is far more than a campaign slogan: it is a rallying call to true democrats everywhere that Britain will cease to be the collective master of its own destiny if we continue to allow power to be corrupted by unelected, unaccountable elites. With or without the Brexit Party, the idea of “changing politics for good”, will continue to resonate with the electorate for many years to come.

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 promote a dynamic market economy underpinned by sustainable public services, including making genuinely affordable housing available to young people and families — to buy and rent. We have to shift the debate on from immigration to integration, ensuring that British values are taught and celebrated across all parts of society. Taxes should be shifted from income to consumption, with better financial incentives to help households and businesses adapt to the challenges of climate change.

We need massive democratic reform. Over time we should create a more federal UK. Local government and community participation in decision-making requires a revolution on a scale not seen since the Great Reform Acts of the nineteenth century. We should give local government the kind of powers enjoyed by Swiss Cantons, including giving them the option of calling local referendums on key issues. Free from EU state aid rules, we should allow local authorities in depressed areas to implement economically interventionist strategies, including offering preferential procurement terms for local employers.

Brexit requires the abolition of the unelected House of Lords, including the 92 remaining hereditary peers. In their place we should erect a second revising chamber capped at 250 legislative members, perhaps called: the United Kingdom Senate of the Nations and Regions. People would be elected on a proportional list basis from all parts of the Union. To prevent a clash with the supremacy of the House of Commons, we should set up an independent commission to appoint up to 50 senators, appointed primarily for their expertise and non-party affiliation track records. MPs and Senators should have their terms of office capped at three terms or 15 years, whichever is sooner. We should explore the idea of the House of Commons having days set aside to sit formally as an English parliament. This would ensure all English-only domestic law Bills are agreed and voted on by English-only constituency MPs.

The UK Parliament should pass a Sovereignty Act. This would prevent MPs from ever again outsourcing the UK’s sovereign powers and/or law-making functions to foreign bodies without the explicit consent of the British people in a legally binding referendum.

We should scrap the current Barnett Formula and come up with a new formula that redistributes higher levels of public spending per head to the most deprived parts of the UK, including the most deprived wards and coastal communities in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. The new formula could be popularly known as the “Brexit Dividend”.

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

I’m planning to be in Parliament Square on the night of 31st January/1st February. I will be taking my teenage son with me. I will be pointing out to him the three statues that stand on the north side of the square: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Millicent Fawcett. These iconoclastic human beings fought for freedom, democracy and a country’s right to self-determination. Of course, the political elites of their time did everything to try and stop them. For the ordinary people who supported their different causes, however, they would not allow themselves to be brow-beaten, give up, or be defeated in the end.

It seems to me this is very much the story of Brexit over the past three years and why 31st January is genuinely such a revolutionary moment in our island’s long and remarkable story. We did it!

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, with the veteran Tory, Sir Andrew Bowden, the former MP for Brighton Kemptown, with whom I worked closely during the referendum. He was an experienced eurosceptic who had written a book about the EU in 2005 called Dare we trust them? A new vision for Europe. I can still recall, on referendum day, Sir Andrew putting on his Vote Leave rosette and jokingly remarking that this was the first and perhaps the only time in his life that he would countenance the wearing of a red rosette!