Sir John Major’s negative and defeatist Brexit speech re-opened wounds he claimed he wanted to be healed

Sir John Major’s negative and defeatist Brexit speech re-opened wounds he claimed he wanted to be healed

Sir John Major’s speech to Chatham House on Monday night, regardless of its motivation, did not advance the debate about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union.

He started by calling the vote to Leave “an historic mistake”, noting that the nation, once asked, had every right to make this decision. This contains an implicit criticism both of the result and of the Referendum in the first place: suggesting that the nation only had the right to make the decision once asked is either a statement of the obvious or a coded way of saying that the voters ought never to have been let loose on the decision about a fundamental part of their constitution.

Sir John continued to regret the Referendum more explicitly, complaining it was “one of the most divisive votes in British history”. This may be true in that there have only been three nationwide referendums, but it is standard fare in a democracy that elections divide opinion with the minority accepting the result in the end.

People took to the streets in protest at David Cameron’s victory in 2015 but that soon faded away; and while the immediate choler in relation to June’s results may remain in the House of Lords, most sensible people are no longer focusing on the divisions but waiting for the Government to get on with the process of leaving. These divisions are healing, contrary to his view, and although he called for them to be healed, by his words he was seeking to re-open them.

Later in the speech Sir John referred to what he learned in government, which would have been useful if he then had indeed learnt. He ought to have learnt that deeper European integration was a failure and that the Treaty of Maastricht, which he approved, creating the euro, has been a catastrophe for the EU.

He might also have learnt that there is a difference between criticising those who want to reverse a democratic vote and stopping freedom of speech. Sir John is of course entitled to his condescension to the voters but they in turn are free to criticise him for his presumption. He suffers a similar confusion over the role of Parliament: its job is to scrutinise the implications of a decision that has already been taken, not the decision itself which belonged to the people.

It was hard to see the point of his quotation from Kipling; “The burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire” came to my mind. Yet his discussion over the negotiating strategy is naive, bordering on deliberately destructive. In any negotiation it is sensible to start from an assumption of strength, whereas Sir John wishes to admit defeat at the beginning by suggesting we owe billions of pounds to the EU and that negotiating trade deals will be very difficult. Criticising Mrs. May for a lack of charm belies Major’s reputation for being a nice man, it was a snide and bitter comment.

After twenty years out of the limelight, people had begun to think of Sir John Major, both a Knight of the Garter and a Companion of Honour, as an elder statesman and this added a rose-coloured tint to his benighted period as Prime Minister.

This deeply negative, anti-American and defeatist speech reminds people why John Major lost so heavily in 1997.

Photocredit: Chatham House