I’m writing this for those of my friends who would have enjoyed being present the other day in London as a distinguished panel of speakers argued whether we should vote to remain or leave in the EU next week.
The gathering is called The Global Strategy Forum and was founded by Michael Ancram a few years ago. It’s been very successful in attracting influential speakers. They are keen to be there, for when it comes to question-time, you feel as if half the audience comes from Parliament and the other half are ambassadors. We usually meet in the large David Lloyd George Room of the National Liberal Club on the Thames Embankment (to which I belonged for a decade or so in the 90s). Another good thing about the GSF – apart from the delicious lunch it gives us beforehand! – is that television cameras are not allowed in and so the speakers relax and can be more frank. They feel they are among friends.
In this case, what I’m going to tell you is not private, subject to the so-called Chatham House Rules. The speakers have already said all of it in public.
The chair was taken by Sir Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and he managed to remain fair and neutral. It was good to see him again, though I was taken aback by how suddenly aged he looked. Though standing upright like a soldier, he looked extremely grey. Age often descends on us too quickly. Some years ago ‘Mengies’ fought and survived cancer. I’m glad he put up with all that chemotherapy, for our sakes, as well as his own and his family’s.
On the panel were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and the architect of Tony Blair’s liberal immigration policy, Norman Lamont, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer on Black Wednesday, and Michael Ancram, a Tory ‘grandee’ and former Defence minister in the Thatcher government.
The first three’s stance didn’t come as a surprise to me. Rifkind and Straw have in recent years been passionately pro-EU, and Lamont’s turning away from Brussels is equally well known. What surprised me was Michael Ancram’s change of mind. I’ve always thought of him as on the left of the Tory party and could often not distinguish his thinking from that of his many close friends in the Labour and Liberal parties. The explanation must be that he is also the 13th Marques of Lothian. He suffers his share of ‘aristocratic guilt’. He told us that he loved Europe and his grandmother was an Italian. But the EU had become a threat to the stability of the whole of the whole continent and he didn’t want to hand over to his grandchildren the problems that it was now stacking up for Britain.
The first to speak was Lamont and he surprised us by the way he viewed the EU’s single market. He told us that it was really a sham and a hindrance to trade between members, not a help. He said that non-EU members paid a tariff of 4% on the goods and commodities they exported to Europe. Members paid no tariff, but as Britain had to make a net contribution of between 8 and 9 billion pounds for its membership each year, it ended up paying the equivalent of 7% on the things it sold to other EU members. If we left, we would pay 4% only and, in addition, we would be free to strike our own deals with the rest of the world.
Second to speak was Rifkind who paid absolutely no attention to what his former cabinet colleague had just said about the single market. In his powerful Ciceronian oratory, he devoted the whole of his seven minutes to praising it.
Now came Ancram. Beside what I reported of his speech earlier, he said that the did not believe David Cameron for a second when he said that Britain could stop the EU becoming a closer political union until it became a single country, with national parliaments acting only as provincial councils. The process happened, not in formal treaties, so that Parliament and the press noticed, but in stealth, little by little, under your nose, forced on you by officials in Brussels.
The last to speak and equally passionate was Jack Straw who talked of the EU’s peace-keeping role. He said that the long peace we had enjoyed since 1945 was not just due to NATO. NATO protects us from the outside. The EU keeps peace inside. I saw one man shake his head. I thought I knew what he was thinking: The days of the Kaiser and the Fuhrer were long over. Lamont disagreed and ridiculed the head of the European Commission Donald Tusk. He had said a few days earlier that if Britain left the EU, “political civilisation would come to an end”.
We now had 30 minutes left for questions from the floor. Among those I remember speaking was David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations and, perhaps more relevantly, one of the diplomats who had negotiated Britain’s entry into the EU in 1973. He was strongly for Britain remaining, but was attacked by a member of Parliament who used the sentence: It’s no good for Lord Hannay banging on about this point!
I had planned, in the interest of enjoying the occasion, not to speak. Furthermore, I sat next to two old friends who had just told me how emotionally attached they were to ‘Europe’ (as in fact am I). They are Raymond Hylton, a lovely man who, as a descendant of prime minister Asquith, has devoted his considerable fortune to getting religious communities to talk to one another. Our friendship began in the 1990s, through my late friend, the Irish peer John Kilbracken. Later, Raymond asked me to travel to Somerset to deliver the main fund-raising speech for a retreat he has set up for people recuperating from mental illness. Until recently, we had an arrangement by which we paid for each other other’s lunch in turns! One month he came to my club, the next I would go to his (the House of Lords). Unfortunately, we’re both going deaf now and lunches are becoming a little hard. The other friend is someone to whom I became close in the course of numerous discussions on television from when Saddam grabbed Kuwait in 1990. Sir Harold Walker – or ‘Hooky’, as we all call him – served as British ambassador in Baghdad, but, I’m glad to say, he was never allowed to meet the Monster in person, as was customary diplomatic conduct.
I must not digress. The discussion drifted inevitably onto the effects of Brexit on immigration into Britain, and, as you all know, large-scale immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, has worried me for years. Fear of the rise of the far right which normally follows large-scale immigration from one culture into another caused me to join the Council of Migration Watch UK as far back as 2008. In addition, MWUK had just brought out a detailed report on the prospects for immigration if we remained in the EU. Our experts had announced that there would be an average of 275,000 new immigrants into Britain over the next 20 years if we remained, including many of the present wave of Syrian and other refugees who are settling in Germany and elsewhere. 275,000 is the equivalent of a city the size of Southampton every year in a country which is already congested in many places and where government services such as health and education are causing popular discontent. By coincidence, as we spoke, I noticed that some in the audience carried copies of The Times (for which I wrote for over 20 years). On a prominent page that same day, the paper was reporting that the EU was now issuing 900,000 European passports to immigrants, of which the majority were from Morocco and other Muslim countries. That figure is bound to rise hugely when the new refugees acquire European citizenship in five years and are then allowed to bring over their dependants.
So I rose to speak, but to shouts of ‘speak up, we cannot hear you’ from the back of the hall. As a result, (and perhaps sensing that I was going to be on his side,) Michael Ancram passed me his microphone! I began by saying that I hoped everyone had read our report. It had been covered by BBC television and the newspapers. Then I asked the following question: “As a writer on the Middle East, all my reading suggests that Islam in large numbers has never lived in peace with any of its host communities. How many members of the panel think that the humanitarian principle of giving permanent residency to large numbers of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, justified the risk of greater political instability through the rise of the far right?” I could have gone on to speak of my fear of the return of fascism to Europe, France first of all, from which I had just returned. But I knew that the chairman would cut me short, as time was running out.
Straw, whose former constituency of Blackburn has a large Muslim presence, was the obvious person to answer first and, as I expected, was in denial. The bulk of EU citizens who came over were not Muslims, he said, and, in any case, we in Britain had successfully integrated our Muslims. There was no problem. I raised my hand to ask that if he were right, why had Britain in recent years quadrupled the number of its spies watching the population for terrorism? Why the waste of all these billions on security? Were the police really worried about white grandmothers in airport queues when they force us to take off our shoes, or the Muslim men with bushy black beards? But Mengies would not allow secondary questions.
However, Lamont interrupted Straw: “All the new refugees and the previous immigrants will have the right to come and settle here”, he shouted. It was Rifkind’s turn to throw up his hands in horror as he growled at Lamont: “That will require 20 years”, he roared. Straw came back, but to his credit: “No, no, six years, six years”.
In the brawl, Mengies forgot who had spoken and who had not. So he didn’t let Ancram have his turn. It would have been interesting, for he would have given a considered reply.
As we rose to leave, a general of the army, whose name I’m not at liberty to mention, came over to say hello and that the panel did not really address my point. An Armenian diplomat came over and asked me whether I was one of his people. I said I wasn’t, but that a former president of his country had authorised me to call myself an honorary Armenian. He could trust me!
A former soldier, who’s now a professor of international relations in London and a fellow of an Oxford college, accompanied me for coffee to the other side of St James’s Park. He said that he had been unsure how to vote next week. Now he was certain that we must leave.