Dr Martin Parsons: Brexit - it isn't a divorce

During the referendum Brexit was repeatedly portrayed as a divorce. It wasn’t and isn’t for the rather obvious reason that as a country we were never actually married to the EU. One could of course argue that as the EU moved towards ‘ever closer union’, we could perhaps be described as being engaged. But in no sense could the UK be described as having entered into a marital union.


Why does this matter? It matters because the divorce analogy plays straight into the European Commission’s hands. It wants to portray itself as the wronged wife, betrayed by a treacherous husband – and as such believes that she should not only retain the family home and other marital property, but also be paid maintenance by the UK for as many years as possible to compensate for the loss of income caused by her husband walking out and abandoning her. And no she’s not even going to talk about ‘access arrangements’ until this messy and acrimonious divorce bill is settled to her satisfaction.

It all sounds so reasonable and no doubt plausible to the audiences in France, Belgium, Germany and other EU countries that the Commission is playing to.  But it is a narrative that needs to be challenged because it is based on a false analogy.

What the UK is doing when we leave the European Union is: i) we will cease to be governed by the European Commission and our national affairs will solely be decided by the UK government; ii) we will only be subject to laws passed by our own parliament – not those passed by a parliament in another country; iii) our own courts will administer our laws and we will no longer be subject to courts in a foreign country.

‘Divorce’ does not even come close to being an appropriate analogy to describe these changes. In fact, the closest analogy is the independence which the UK granted in the 1950s and 60s to African countries which had been part of the British Empire. Interestingly, before there was any talk of a Brexit referendum this is exactly how Jose Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, described the European Union.

In 1957 Macmillan’s Conservative government granted independence to Ghana, with plans for others in West Africa such as Nigeria to follow. However, there was significant reluctance to consider similar independence for countries in Eastern and Southern Africa such as what is now Zambia, Malawi and Uganda, in part due to the large number of British settlers living there. There was in fact a substantial group of Conservative MPs who wanted the governments in those countries to ‘remain’ subject to control by the UK government and legal system. Even after Macmillan’s February 1960 ‘winds of change’ speech in Cape Town, many of these responded to the Prime Minister’s announcement of the new political reality by urging a lengthy ‘transitional period’. They argued that it would take seven years or more for the necessary administrative, political and legal structures to be in place – and urged that without this lengthy transitional period there was a risk that trade would fall off a cliff edge.

The then Colonial Secretary (1959-61) Iain Macleod profoundly disagreed. Macleod is today perhaps best known for the Iain Macleod memorial lecture in which, two years before becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher set out her vision of the moral basis of Conservativism. Yet Macleod, more than any other minister was responsible for both the successful exit from British control of African countries and our future positive relationship with them through the Commonwealth. He realised that a lengthy transition period would be disastrous and likely to lead to a total breakdown in trust among the black majority whom the British government had assured it was working towards independence. Macleod was clear that despite the enormous work involved the UK government needed to aim at granting independence to countries such as Malawi, Uganda and Zambia within two years. Although Macmillan had appointed Macleod because of his views, it was Macleod more than anyone who not only remained steadfast to this vision, but as a minister drove it through. At one stage he even threatened to resign as Macmillan tried to appease all the different factions in the party. Macleod paid a heavy price for this, pilloried by those such as the Monday Club who urged the Prime Minister to sack him. Yet, ultimately it was Macleod’s vision and steadfastness in delivering independence which secured Macmillan’s own reputation and legacy.

Today we face a similar situation. Brexit is not a divorce. It is a declaration of the independence of our own government, parliament and courts from those of the EU. Yet if we are not to lose the trust of those who supported it, many of whom had never been involved in politics or, in some cases, even voted in an election before, then we need to remain steadfast and deliver what we promised. Brexit must mean Brexit plain and simple. No-one should be in any doubt that voters will rightly hold us to account on this.


Dr Parsons writes for a number of Conservative publications and has just completed a book on Conservatism and National Identity and Values.