Lord Borwick: a “Big Worlder” on the Battle for Brexit
Lord Borwick, fifth baron of Hawkshead, is an exception in the House of Lords. Not only is he a hereditary peer, having won his seat in a 2013 by-election following the death of Lord Reay, former head of the Scottish Clan Mackay, thus becoming one of only 92 hereditary peers (the number determined by Tony Blair’s reforms) out of 809 current members. He is also a Eurosceptic, a rare breed among the Lords.
When we speak last month during a conference in Miami, Lord Borwick, who was a successful executive in the car industry for decades before entering politics three years ago, states that if roughly 60 percent of MP’s would have voted against Brexit in the House of Commons, the Europhile majority in the House of Lords would have been even greater, at least 80 percent according to his calculations.
For Lord Borwick, however, belonging to a Eurosceptic minority is nothing new. In the early days of the New Labour government (1997-2010), when the word “Brexit” didn’t exist and Euroscepticism was as quixotic as causes go, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, cheered on by much of the bien-pensant establishment, wanted Britain to ditch the pound and join the Eurozone. Lord Borwick joined forces with other businessmen and launched Business for Sterling, an organization which, according to journalist Sam Knight, acted as “a single-issue group to fight what was, at the time, a widely expected referendum.”
- Read More: Understanding Brexit: How Other European Nations Caused It and British Politics Made it Inevitable
- Read More: What Comes after Brexit? Not the End of the United Kingdom
Saving the Pound
Knight explains that Business for Sterling recruited grandees and “thousands of students to its cause… It helped keep opinion polls set against joining the Euro and deterred the new Labour government, and its pro-European allies in the City, at their moment of peak of popular influence.” Due to its success in forcing Blair to cancel his plans to kill the pound, moreover, the organization “set the template, and included some of the key personnel, for the 2016 leave campaign.”
Lord Borwick states that he helped to create Business for Sterling because Blair and Brown rashly proclaimed
that the whole of British business was in favor of joining the euro, and some of us formed an organization to say this was wrong. We would not have been involved in that battle if Blair had not told us what we thought. So it was a bad mistake by him to announce it.
There is an obvious parallel with the large number of experts who haughtily advised Britons not to leave the EU in 2016. The problem was that, in the last few decades, the experts themselves had undermined their own advice with their consistently wrong predictions.
“It starts off,” Lord Borwick explains,
with a large number of economists who said that Margaret Thatcher was completely wrong. Then there were people who said we must go into the euro as quickly as possible. They were consistently wrong and we used it against them in the battle for Brexit.
Twilight of the Experts
Writing in the Telegraph, journalist Peter Oborne noted the contrast between Lord Bordwick, “a hard-nosed businessman who for many years served as chief executive of Manganese Bronze, the company that manufactures traditional London taxis,” and “the beardless researchers and political understrappers, devoid of real-world experience, thrown up by our broken system in the Commons.”
For Lord Borwick, however, facial hair is no reliable sign of experience or foresight. He tells me that the Brexiteers prevailed because Britons had become skeptical of
these groupings who scratch their long white beards and come out with their thoughts without actually letting the people choose. They just announce what is wise and what is sensible, and this is the way you ought to go.
In the weeks leading to the June 23rd referendum, the Remain campaign recruited mighty international institutions to lecture voters about the perils of Brexit, among them the IMF, the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan. Even US president Barack Obama flew to London to stand next to then Prime Minister David Cameron, stating in his usual professorial manner that “the UK is going to be in the back of the queue” when it came to signing a free trade agreement with the United States, whose priority was the (since then failed) Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU.
“The Remain campaign was inept in getting Obama to come over to tell us how to vote,” Lord Borwick states.
No American says ‘the back of the queue;’ an American says ‘back of the line.’ And we pointed that the man was using a British phrase because that’s what he’d got from David Cameron and George Osborne, and he was just parroting that line. And he’s not even going to be in charge after the end of the year.
Using the great and the good or the tremendously wise to bully the people is a very stupid way of running an election or referendum campaign, and it was punished.
Big Worlders and Little Englanders
On the winning side of the Brexit campaign there was what Lord Borwick calls “a coalition between Big Worlders and Little Englanders.” The latter, he explains, “if the expression means anything, are those who want to pull up the drawbridge, build a wall around themselves and survive independently.”
Meanwhile, the Big Worlders, and he includes himself in their ranks, wanted to leave the EU so that Britain could take full advantage of the 21st century’s global market without being shackled to what Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has called a failing EU customs union. As a globalist and a free marketeer, Lord Borwick thinks the Little Englanders are mistaken. In political terms, however,
there was a coalition between people who got the same answer from different directions, and that is not unusual in campaigns. You get your support from wherever you can and you don’t pick out the differences between you. You concentrate on the differences with the other side.
From the Big Worlder perspective, however, Lord Borwick explains that
there is a lot of talk in Brussels about free trade, but they mean free trade within the EU. The ability to trade freely between Malta and Sweden, Portugal and Romania is magnificent, but the world has grown even faster than the EU has (in the past decades). Today, barriers are coming down around the world, and what is important is not, in my opinion, trading only between England and Slovakia, it’s trading between England and everyone else in the world.
The EU’s record of striking free trade deals with other parts of the globe is “pretty lamentable” in Lord Borwick’s view:
The EU has got a trade agreement with South Korea, and they’re getting pretty close to a free trade agreement with Zimbabwe. Major achievements, perhaps, but the really important thing is to get free trade agreements with China, India, all the South American countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Parmesan and Bent Bananas
Once the Brexit negotiations are done, the UK will be able to expand its global trade without worrying about the usual EU saboteurs, member states which frequently shove irritating obstacles in the path of any free trade agreement, the conditions of which all EU countries must ratify. Lord Borwick mentions the case of the TTIP agreement with the United States, which was torpedoed, among others, by Italian parmesan cheese producers. The deal was
stalled over the definition of parmesan, and whether or not Americans are going to give up manufacturing parmesan because it ought to be made in Italy, and therefore their cheese is not really parmesan.
Well, no, I’m sorry, that is an ambition that Italian parmesan owners and manufacturers might reasonably have, but they’re wrong, and they’re not going to win. And there’s no reason why free trade for the rest of us should be held up by the ambition of parmesan manufacturers in Italy.
He also cites the “the old bent banana story” (whether or not bananas sold in Europe “were sufficiently or insufficiently bent to meet European standards”). “This is a cliché,” Lord Borwick admits, but it nevertheless reveals some of the serious problems with EU regulations:
It shouldn’t be a barrier to trade if consumers want to buy bananas bent in whatever way somebody wants to produce them at whatever price the consumers will pay. They should be allowed to trade freely. There shouldn’t be a rule by somebody in Brussels who probably doesn’t open his own banana.
The UK, however, has a different tradition which will shape its global future:
If there is a message for the future it is that Britain doesn’t have this attitude. For all those countries who have in the past had difficulties selling into Europe and have wished they were part of Europe in order to be on the inside of the free trade area, we in Britain will have a role just on the outside of it. And they will be able to trade with Britain, and Britain will be able to trade with Europe.
So we will be a gateway into Europe, and they can put up their boundaries around themselves, and have their concentrated rules and special standards, and we will be much, much more open to trade into Britain, and we can help countries trade into Europe. Let us have the free trade, via Britain if need be, that is the future.
Was Brexit Inevitable?
I ask Lord Borwick if, despite the slim majority of voters who decided to leave the EU, Brexit was in some way inevitable given the large gulf between the British parliamentary system and common law on the one hand and, on the other, the EU’s hyper-bureaucratic structure, which reflects the continental, de haut en bas, civil law tradition. Was the Brexit debate not a rerun of sorts of what Kipling called “the first attack on Right Divine / The curt, uncompromising ‘Sign! / That settled John at Runnymede”?
Lord Borwick refers to the very beginning of the UK’s interaction with what became the EU in the days of Charles De Gaulle. The former French president, he points out,
said that Britain was not a natural European country and vetoed our entry. Now, if you really want an Englishman to do something, tell him that the Frenchman doesn’t want him to do it and he’ll be in there like a shot. And if the remainers really wanted to win, they should have announced that the French want us out.
To be serious, it comes, to an extent, from a difference on emphasis that comes from the law. The English common law has such a different background than the French Napoleonic code. The default position under English law is that you can do anything you like provided it isn’t prohibited, whereas in France you can only do it if it is allowed. Those are the default positions which even, in their way, become an interpretation of Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty).
As Raoul Ruparel of Open Europe, a think tank, explains, “Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union allows a member state to notify the EU of its withdrawal and obliges the EU to try to negotiate a ‘withdrawal agreement’ with that state.” Lord Borwick, however, says that the interpretation of Article 50 itself reveals the incompatibility of the UK and the continental system:
A lot of people in Europe read Article 50 and said to Britian, ‘well, where’s your Article 50 notice? It says ‘you must give a notice.’ To an Englishman, it doesn’t say when we have to give a notice. And that’s the sort of tension which has happened over the years in our general relationship with Europe, because such a background of legal analysis is so different between our two systems.
I happen to believe that our system is better than the Napoleonic Code but that’s because I’m biased because I’m English. I can believe they have got on very well with their system over many years, but you don’t get the two systems together by denying the differences. You applaud the differences and you work through the differences, you don’t ignore the differences.
The EU’s Democratic Deficit
While the British prime minister and the members of cabinet are elected MP’s, the EU is built upon a dirigiste model designed by French technocrat Jean Monnet, who considered democracy a mere inconvenience in the way of the fonctionnaires who know how to properly run things.
Lord Borwick notes that, as in the EU, in the British system “there are people, for example Lords, who are not elected by voters. But we make very certain that the Lords are not in charge. In the EU the Presidents are not elected either, but they are in power.” He adds that
The democratic deficit that has meant that there can be no less than five presidents in the EU, (President of the European Commission, President of the European Council, President of the European Parliament, President of the Eurogroup, President of the European Central Bank) none of them elected, and how people can be proud of a system which is so dysfunctional, is just ridiculous to an English mind.
On June 23rd, German journalist Hansjörg Müller pointed out that the Brexit vote was, in itself, a positive “sign of life” since a referendum on EU membership was unthinkable in countries like France or Germany, where history seems to have returned to a state where all things are predetermined. For his part, Lord Borwick believes that Brexit can have a disruptive effect on the EU itself due to
the growth of the Eurosceptic movement, which is Europe-wide and present, but in smaller numbers than in England. I think that all over Europe there are people saying ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’
They now look at the British and think, ‘They’ve gone and done something that wasn’t even on the agenda in so many countries.’ So there are lots of people who are thinking about following us in this respect. Whether they stay or whether they leave is up to them.
What is the Meaning of Brexit?
Other countries’ decision to follow Britain’s example post-Brexit will depend on what Brexit actually looks like once Britain leaves the EU. When asked about the UK’s future relationship with Europe in the weeks following her arrival in 10 Downing Street, new Prime Minister Theresa May often said that “Brexit means Brexit.” Naturally, mockery ensued: “What does ‘Brexit mean Brexit’ mean?” asked the BBC. Lord Borwick mentions “a cartoon of ‘the world’s most useless dictionary,’ which was headed by the entry ‘aardvark means aardvark,’ and then went on via ‘cat means cat’ into ‘Brexit means Brexit.'” He admits that “it is a not a helpful way of explaining the situation.”
He notes that “there are many definitions of ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit,’ and the reality is that nobody at this stage knows quite what the deal will be when we finally get to it.” Part of the problem is the fact that, when Article 50 was drafted,
nobody had any idea at all that it was going to be actually used. There are several things that are unclear as a result of that. The first is when the Article 50 notice is issued. The text says the country will issue it. It doesn’t say ‘promptly,’ it doesn’t say ‘soon,’ it doesn’t even say ‘in this decade.’ I think we’ll do it in January or February of next year.
Another thing that is gloriously silent is what happens if more than one country wants to leave at the same time. Under those circumstances, does each one vote on the other one’s terms? Do we gang up with the other one to see whether we can together negotiate the right deal for us both? And then what happens when a third decides to leave? The formers of that treaty never believed that a single country would exercise Article 50. That more than one could do so, that was utterly inconceivable.
At the time, an awful lot of people said ‘there’s no point in adding this Article,’ and others said, ‘well, put it in because it will keep the small minority of people who don’t understand us quiet.’ At the end, in Britain, it wasn’t a small minority who wanted to get out. It was a small majority.
The British press has made much of supposed tensions between the ministers directly in charge of Brexit: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, and David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (a new department). Lord Borwick, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that there are any serious feuds between the “Three Brexiteers:”
They are truly united. In all cases with a senior secretary of state, they have their special advisors and senior civil servants, and there can be some jockeying for position between that lower level which is then allocated to the senior people. They’ve known each other for a very, very long time. They’re all working extremely hard at making a success out of it, and the whole new department that has been created for Brexit has a reputation in British government as being the sexiest department to work in. There’s meant to be only three people over the age of forty who are working in that department and one of them is David Davis, and he’s leading it.
They have to get an enormous task done because we’ve been part of the EU for thirty years, so throughout our legislation there are examples of things which originate in directives. If those directives no longer apply, what is the status of those pieces of legislation? It essentially means that we have to go through all our legislation for the last thirty years wondering what are the implications of deleting that bit.
Actually, it’s a jolly good idea for the government to go through all the legislation and think about deleting it, and we can start with our taxation legislation. Some of the legislation is useful, some of it is absolutely useless and most of it is in the middle. The difficulty will be working out in the next few years exactly which bit isn’t needed by the British people.
From the point of view of the House of Lords, the circumstances are unique:
We know what the people’s views on Brexit are because we just asked them a couple of months ago. We in the House of Lords are not elected. We are, in the main, appointed, and people who are appointed should bear in mind the views of the people.
We always defer to the Commons. If the Commons want something, we can use those peculiarly valuable words rarely used in politics, which is ‘think again.’ We can say to the Commons, ‘just think again about this.’ If they think again and still want it, they get it. They are elected, we’re not. They can be fired by the people, we cannot. So they have the responsibility and the power that goes with it. So in this case, the people’s position was clear. It is our job to do the very best to achieve what the people wanted.
The United Kingdom after Brexit
Could Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, carry out a second independence referendum as a result of Brexit and potentially break up the United Kingdom? Even though recent polls suggest that between 53 and 54 percent of Scottish voters oppose independence, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has warned that a second referendum is “highly likely” before 2020.
Lord Borwick lived in Scotland for a decade and says, that, at the time (30 years ago), “there was no bias against the English at all. Everybody worked well together. Things have changed now to the point that my English accent is a disadvantage in Scotland, and this has been created by Scottish politicians who want to generate their own fame within their own place.” He believes that Scottish independence wouldn’t necessarily be desirable from the EU’s perspective:
Brexit was a British referendum. But the Scots believe they have cause (for independence) because they voted for Remain and England and Wales voted for Brexit. Well, from the point of view of Brussels, if they accept the dismemberment of the UK— and they may be so fed up with Britain as a result of this that they may think that this is a good idea— but they also then have to address the position in Spain, where some people think that the Basques or the Catalans should separate, or certain French areas might want to do the same, so there’s an awful lot of implications for the rest of Europe of flirting with Scottish independence.
As for the effort to maintain the United Kingdom together, Lord Borwick says that he’s
sufficient of a scientist to never want to change two different things at the same time, because you never can work out what the implications of that is.
So the first phase is the Brexit negotiation, then we should address the position of Scotland. At that point, Scotland, from the outside wanting to join the EU, would have to take on the euro and would have to take on the solvency tests that go with the euro. And at USD $30 dollars a barrel of crude oil it’s a lot different than doing it at USD $100 a barrel.
So it’s a lot harder for Scotland in reality than in the great romance of the swirl of the bagpipes. Covering yourself in woad is not a way to run a country.
For all the hysteria in the international press about the June 23rd referendum and its aftermath— “The United Kingdom and Brexit: Chaos and Disaster,” read a July headline in Spanish daily El Mundo— a conversation with Lord Borwick offers a sobering, optimistic perspective. He also proves that an upper house of appointed peers, including the hereditary element, can play a crucial role in a modern democracy as long they are in tune with the views of the people. Will Eurocrats on their high horses take note?