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Tim's viewpoint

The Oxbridge orthodoxy, led by Theresa May, is undermining democracy in the UK

Even though a small minority of its peers are democracy’s best advocates

During the debate about whether the UK should join the euro, about 20 years ago, I said that most advocates of the experimental currency were older Oxbridge males, for whom Europeanism, disdainful of democracy, was a type of religion: Heseltine, Howe, Mandelson, Clarke, Blair and many others – plus their counterparts in the CBI, the Financial Times, the media generally and in boardrooms.

The religious aspect was evident from their promotion of the euro – despite the failure of its predecessor, the disastrous exchange rate mechanism (ERM).

The ERM had tried to join European currencies together in a tight band, by adjusting interest rates.

To keep up with the German Deutsche Mark, UK interest rates rose all the way to 15% by September 1992, at which point the ERM fell apart, but, in the meantime, the cost of mortgages and business loans had doubled, causing economic mayhem, recession, negative equity, unemployment and widespread bankruptcies.


Surely, no one could be daft enough to want to join the euro, the successor to the failed ERM, losing democratic control of interest rates and government budgets in the process?

Oh yes they could! It was at that point that many people understood that Europeanism involved a type of religious conviction, rather than pragmatic politics or economics.

Luckily for the UK, the public, following a long and bitter debate, rejected the euro out of hand – and the UK economy has subsequently greatly outperformed the eurozone, which has been beset by high unemployment, low growth rates and, consequently, radicalised politics.

I thought of the history of the ERM and the euro when I appeared on BBC Politics Live, in December 2018, with Vicky Ford, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford, Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and Sonia Sodha, chief leader writer at the Observer.

In response to a question from Jo Coburn, the interviewer, I said that the EU was a protectionist system which charged import taxes (tariffs) on over 12,000 goods, including rice, oranges, coffee, New World wine and children’s clothes.

I added that MPs have the power to end these tariffs, reducing prices for constituents, without loss to the government, since tariff income is today remitted to Brussels – provided that parliament’s rights are not signed away in a ‘deal’.

The interviewer said:

“Everyone [in the studio] is saying that’s not true.”

Sonia Sodha, a disciple of Brussels religiosity, said: “It’s just wrong to say the EU is protectionist… the EU is not protectionist. It’s ridiculous to argue that [it is].”

The MPs, Ms Ford and Ms Ali strongly supported this view.

Yet the undisguised protectionist nature of the EU is crystal clear (see Reuters article on rice tariffs, on the opposite page, and Dan Lewis’s article on orange tariffs, on page 64 of the Wetherspoon News) and it is not possible to articulate a coherent view as to our future trading relationship with the EU, unless the existing system, which keeps shop prices artificially high, is understood.

How could a senior journalist, and MPs representing their parties on national television, not understand basic facts about the customs union?

The answer, I’m afraid, is the same as it was 20 years ago.

For many people, and all three panellists are graduates of Oxford University, Europeanism is a secular religion which blinds adherents to reality.


Just as the failure of the ERM was not seen by Blair and others as a reason to avoid its successor, the euro, for these panellists today, the existence of a vast number of protective tariffs doesn’t mean the EU is protectionist.

The worry is that pro-Remain ideologues are in charge of our proposed exit from the EU – and they don’t believe in it and fully intend to thwart it.

Just look at Theresa May’s closest team. Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell, Chief Brexit Negotiator Olly Robbins, ‘deputy prime minister’ David Lidington, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, Chancellor Philip Hammond and so on – all Remainers… and all Oxbridge.


Personally, I was baffled in October last when the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said that he had, from the beginning, offered a free-trade deal – a ‘Canada plus plus plus’ – to the UK (see opposite page).

Surely, this was a solution in the best interests of all parties?

So, why had Theresa May turned it down and tried, instead, to railroad through her wretched Chequers deal, which would keep us indefinitely in the customs union – and, therefore, in effect, in the EU?

The answer, my friends, was blowing in the wind, but only became clear to me when I read a great article by Charles Moore of The Daily Telegraph (see extract on page 71).

As Moore says, Mrs May and her main advisers simply don’t want to leave the EU.

And her chosen tactic is to keep us indefinitely in the customs union and as near as dammit in the EU, by using the Irish backstop as superglue.

This may have been obvious to some, but when Mrs May promised to implement the referendum result, many of us mistakenly took her at her word.

Some may say that I’m exaggerating the Oxbridge influence, since many of the most articulate advocates for independence from the EU attended those universities.

That is true, up to a point, but Oxbridge Brexiteers are a nonconformist minority, as rare among their peers as rocking horse manure.


In my opinion, Europeanism has become a Moonie-like cult at those universities, oblivious to increasing democratic shortfalls in the EU and consequently the greatest threat to our democracy today.

So, the battle, as the revered Dan Maskell used to say, is well and truly joined (two all, Wimbledon final, McEnroe v Borg).

On one side, we have Theresa May, her Oxbridge acolytes and two-thirds of parliament; on the other, one-third of parliament and the people.

Who will win? In the end, it has to be the people.

For the EU is heading in the wrong direction, since, without greater democracy, in the world, as well as in the UK, the future of humanity is surely in doubt.

Tim Martin