On Friday, let’s toast absent friends whose labours helped us achieve Brexit

On Friday, let’s toast absent friends whose labours helped us achieve Brexit

BrexitCentral has played an essential, indeed existential, role in the EU debate since the referendum. Its absence in 2020 will now be felt. But it will not be alone in that regard.

In many a British Army mess, the last of the customary port toasts is made to “absent friends”. The arrival of Brexit Hour, with or without Big Ben’s sonorous acclamations, will give us pause to reflect on many who are no longer around to witness the fruits of our common long labours.

Brexit is only a snapshot of an historic campaign, whose very origins indeed predated the original application to join. The Anti-Common Market League, now Get Britain Out, is the Methuselah. It was founded way back in 1961 in response to Macmillan’s first attempt to join the EEC. Then there are the veterans of the 1975 referendum, those of the Maastricht Debates, the battle over the Pound, the EU Constitution, and other fights all stretching back along the trackway of time. Given such pedigree, the six months of the 2016 referendum campaign was but the last leg of a very long march – the marathon runners entering the stadium for the desperate final sprint to the line.

Along that lingering route over the decades, many have left us. Some we may have known personally, others we may have merely encountered in passing or by reputation.

Dr Helen Szamuely, a rare researcher filling the information void the years before many MPs cared about the EU small print.

Sir Robin Williams, the earnest ‘grassroots baronet’ secretary of CIB, the Campaign for an Independent Britain.

Sir Richard Body, the campaigning trailblazer who became one of the earliest and most ardent Eurosceptics after a Brussels VIP told him “as ‘one of us’ what the EEC is secretly really about”.

Andrew Dodge, the anglophile American libertarian with a side interest in his band Growing Old Disgracefully, which turned out to be remarkably good.

John Wilkinson, the kindly and thoughtful Group of Eight MP who took a stand against giving the EU more taxpayers’ money.

Tony Benn, neo-Leveller and political antimatter to Enoch Powell on all things except oratory and Europe.

Peter Shore, eloquent augur of the drift towards integration, and whose warnings supplied the far-reaching echo of Hugh Gaitskell.

Lionel Bell, whose Anti-Maastricht Alliance threaded disparate campaigns, and whose book on the first accession talks laid bare the compromised foundations.

Sir Teddy Taylor, the jovial, self-deprecating and teetotal Scot driven by a deep passion for democracy.

Nigel Spearing, persistent and consistent Common Market opponent and resilient supporter of British fishermen, even in ill health.

Steve Thoburn, Metric Martyr drawn randomly from the street into the frontline, and by cosmic irony in Sunderland.

Norris McWhirter, who lost his twin to terrorists and poured his energies into The Freedom Association.

Gwyneth Dunwoody – like Eric Forth of the dazzling ties, a no-nonsense old school parliamentarian.

Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, marmite businessman who on the very eve of a thumping majority cornered Blair into a referendum before he could ditch the Pound.

Bob Crow, polarising trade unionist who provided a critical counterweight on the EU within the Labour movement.

George Thomas, former Speaker who, along with Bernard Weatherill, called it straight about how Parliament’s powers were ebbing. 

Rodney Leach, chair of Business for Sterling and founder of Open Europe, who passed away just 11 days before the Brexit vote.

The list, sadly, goes on so much further. Such fleeting chronicler’s glosses tell nothing of their kindnesses, their quirks, their jokes, their passions, or their tribulations. The reader too may well recall friends and colleagues half-veiled now in the alcoves of their memory. 

So when the clock’s minute hand slowly turns to the instant of leaving the EU, let us indeed celebrate the achievement – hard won as it is through so many labours, over so many seasons, and delivered against the odds. But let us also then cast our thoughts back to old comrades, fellow travellers, and dearest relatives who shared our journey, but sadly cannot today bear testimony to this sweet moment.

Let us raise a toast, then, to absent friends.