Today, at 11pm, the UK will formally leave the European Union and regain its status as an independent nation.
The struggle to secure British independence has been a generational one, secured in the teeth of political, business, academic and civil society establishment that was institutionally committed to Europe and that sought to deligitimise any who thought differently – from Cameron’s ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ to the endless claims of ‘stupid’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘uneducated’ thrown at Leavers since 2016.
Yet the struggle to leave the EU was more than a battle for the heart and soul of the nation; it was a fight for the very existence of that nation; of whether Britain, would, in 100 years time, still exist as a sovereign and independent entity. Though thankfully an entirely peaceful struggle, the years 2016 – 2019 will prove to be no less decisive in the history of our nation than 878, 1588 or 1805.
I hope that as a nation we will now move forward, setting aside old divisions of Leaver and Remainer. But on the day we leave the EU, I feel it is important to recognise some of those who were pivotal in achieving it.
The list below is a personal list, informed by no inside knowledge other than that which can be gained by reading Tim Shipman’s excellent book, All Out War. Not all of those on the list below are people I admire; some are flawed characters; as, indeed, were many others in the history of our country (and others) who strove for freedom. But all were pivotal in securing Brexit, and all deserve to be recognised for that.
1. Boris Johnson. The man who was the charismatic lead of the Leave campaign, he was a politician who reached people who others could not reach. He’d deserve to be on the list for that alone, but he has now come back and saved Brexit when its very existence looked in doubt, averted Brexit in Name Only and then won another election to do so – making him indisputably the head of this list.
2. Dominic Cummings. The strategic mastermind behind both the Leave campaign and the plan to save Brexit last autumn; the author of ‘Take Back Control’. Cummings, more than anyone else, understood that Leave needed to broaden its appeal and get out of its old ruts if it was to actually win more than 50% in a referendum – as well the importance of bypassing the bubble and speaking directly to the people.
3. Nigel Farage. I wouldn’t want the man to be in government and have never voted for a party he led, but he undoubtedly played a huge role in delivering Brexit. UKIP’s electoral success led to the pledge of a referendum, he helped to mobilise a good chunk of people in the referendum, his roaring return with the Brexit Party delivered the death knell to May with its European election victory and, at the crucial hour, he put country before party and personal ego by standing down the Brexit Party in half the seats of the general election.
4. Michael Gove. If Boris was the charismatic lead and Cummings the campaigning genius, Gove supplied the intellectual rigour of Vote Leave. A conviction sovereignty Brexiteer, it also appears he may also have played a decisive role in convincing Boris to declare for Leave.
5. Gisela Stuart. The Labour MP and Chair of Vote Leave, her name has not been heard as much since she stepped down from front-line politics in 2017. Stuart was the leading voice of the left in the campaign – an absolutely critical component – and represented Leave well in numerous TV debates and other media appearances, while helping to ensure others on the left were able to declare for Leave.
6. Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is a Marxist and an enabler of antisemitism; but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A lifelong Eurosceptic who’s never changed his mind about anything, Tim Shipman displays compelling evidence that his actions deliberately sabotaged the Remain campaign, both by making unhelpful speeches and repeatedly messing up their communications grid. My own impression is that he then did all he could, compatible with remaining leader of his party, to frustrate the formation of a genuine Remain alliance or Parliamentary vote for a second referendum. Corbyn is a good campaigner; had he been campaigning at full capacity for Remain it might have won. On the other hand, had he truly stood with his convictions and campaigned for Leave, maybe the result would have been much less close, which is why he’s not higher.
7. Steven Baker. Chair of Conservatives for Britain and later the ERG, Baker led the successful campaign to ensure the referendum was fought fairly, defeating repeated attempts by Cameron to rig it by, for example, suspending the usual purdah rules (which would have allowed the government to use the full civil service machine to campaign for Remain during the short campaign).
8. David Frost. Boris’s lead negotiator, he did the nitty-gritty of securing a revised deal with no backstop when all the commentators were saying it was impossible. I believe this was critical in the election: to Brexiteers, it helped to demonstrate that Boris kept his promises; more importantly, for Conservative Remainers it removed the threat of no deal, making them consider Corbyn a clearly worse economic outcome than Brexit, and ultimately causing them to stick with the Conservatives in very large numbers, in seats that could otherwise have gone Lib Dem.
9. Paul Dacre. For decades politicians of all parties wished the public would just stop banging on about Europe, while they continued to surrender ever more sovereignty to Brussels and actively suppressed those who sought to preserve British culture and traditions (remember the ‘metric martyrs’, anyone). At a time when Parliament largely failed in its duty of representation and scrutiny, it was Dacre and his fellow editors who took up the baton, repeatedly pointing out the Emperor’s New Clothes. Yes, there was the odd bendy banana story, but that doesn’t take away from their steadfast reporting of the overall trend of increasing European dominance. His Daily Mail was hated and despised by those who saw themselves as superior, but it’s worth reflecting that the true value of a free press is one that doesn’t kowtow to the Establishment and tells the stories that those in power don’t want to be told.
10. Frank Field and Kate Hoey. Socialists and patriots, who kept the faith during Labour’s darkest hour. It’s impossible to know how much difference their stubborn Parliamentary stand made, but morally I felt it was incredibly important to have that visible symbol in every vote that around 1/3 of those who had voted Leave were on the left, despite their near total abandonment by those who claimed to represent them.
There are so many others I could have chosen. I’ve deliberately omitted any who never wanted to Leave but whose actions enabled it (such as Cameron) but there are still countless to choose from: the many other MPs, from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Priti Patel; Munira Mirza and Rachel Wolf who wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto; those who kept the flame alive during the wilderness years, such as Philip Davies; the Maastricht ‘bastards’; the staffers who worked 16 hour days at Vote Leave. At the end of this day this is a personal list, but let those names above stand as symbols for all those not named, and all those who cast their vote, either once or twice, that Britain would continue to be an independent nation.
More than happy to receive comments on the list, but this is not a place to refight the argument over whether or not Brexit was a good idea. We’ve had that debate; it’s time to move forward. And if you didn’t like what you read, I submit that a blogpost called Heroes of Brexit by a known Brexiteer on Brexit day wasn’t exactly hiding what it was going to be about!