‘Britain: A nation of lions led by donkeys’ – Mr. Brexit

In May 2012, Peter Wilding – a former solicitor in EU law, former media director of the UK’s Conservative Party and former advisor to then British prime minister David Cameron – invented a word that would ultimately send shivers down the spine of every farmer in Ireland.

That word, of course, is – ‘Brexit‘.

At the time, Greece, with its struggling economy, was prospectively going to fall out of the eurozone.

The hypothetical scenario compelled the published author – who has a particular interest in agriculture – to consider the UK’s status within the EU family.

Speaking to AgriLand, in the midst of this week’s Brexit storm in Westminster, Wilding, who is one of the foremost experts on the UK’s looming exit from the EU, reflected on the moment he penned the now painfully iconic phrase.

“I wrote an article called ‘Stumbling towards the Brexit‘ in May 2012, so it’s seven years vintage – this grim word.

“It was during the days that Greece was potentially going to withdraw from the euro and the word for that was ‘Grexit’.

“So, I wrote this piece in which I said ‘unless Britain steps up and takes a leadership role in the European Union, at least to complete the single market, then the Greek word for leaving the euro will be followed by another sad word – Brexit’. That was where it came from.

“It wasn’t until the Oxford English Dictionary called me in summer 2016 after the referendum when the use of the word had gone ballistic, that they said ‘look, we’re going to have to put this word into the dictionary; it’s going to be the word of the year, and we’ve traced it back to you. You were the first person to use it – congratulations’,” he said.

The British midlands-based corporate lawyer – who was recently appointed to advise clients on the UK’s withdrawal at top law firm FBC Manby Bowdler – says receiving the accolade of ‘Mr. Brexit’ has been “bitter sweet”.

“If it gives me anything, it gives me first dibs at trying to interpret what it means. And so what I did was I wrote a book called ‘What Next?: Britain’s Future in Europe’.

“In that book I wrote that this thing about Brexit is nobody voted to make themselves poorer, or their country weaker. The one thing that united ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ was their belief that Britain would be stronger and richer because of leaving the European Union.

“I fundamentally disagree. The ‘leavers’, in their own view, were trying to make their country stronger and richer.

“So my view is that Brexit should be a unified word. But, the question that has to be asked is a patriotic one: ‘Does Brexit make Britain anything other than weaker, poorer and smaller as a nation?’

“The answer to that question really is the pathway of where we are right now,” said Wilding, who also founded The Influence Group which advises UK businesses on EU policy.

Wilding is also the former European director of BSkyB and is a political commentator and blogger on business, politics and global trends.

Emotional rollercoaster

Having correctly forecast that last Tuesday’s (January 15) vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s widely-criticised UK/EU withdrawal agreement would be overwhelmingly defeated by MPs at the House of Commons, Wilding says the country is still in the dark.

As for predictions on what will happen tomorrow (Monday, January 21), when Prime Minister Theresa May is due to bring an alternative Brexit plan to parliament, he said: “Everyone will try to amend the ‘Plan B’ statement.

“Then the question is what is the last option standing and then we should know.

But does Brexit make the country stronger on the international stage? The answer to that is also no because it removes Britain’s right to have a vote, veto and voice in Brussels – that plainly makes the country weaker, so that is the first point.

“Does it make the country poorer? Yes. Because even the government’s own analysis makes it clear that in all scenarios British GDP will go down over the medium term and it makes the citizenship of the country smaller.

“I don’t think the prospects of crashing out are real. Certainly by automatic operation of law the UK withdraws at 11:00pm on March 29 this year – however, three things are available.

“One; the court of justice has said that the UK can revoke Article 50 automatically; secondly, we can extend it with the consent of 27 unanimously-voted other countries; and thirdly, we can agree with the EU to change the date of the EU withdrawal,” he said.

Wilding believes it is genuinely agreed that an extension would be sought by the UK government – not least because the legislation on trade and agriculture has not yet been passed.

“I think they will apply for an extension; but, of course, the problem is that the extension has to have unanimous consent and must be for a substantive reason, such as for a general election or a second referendum – not just to buy time.”

But, between now and an option to extend, Wilding is certain that there will be “a hell of a lot” of political change.

Other countries such as Ireland often had second referendums for the obvious reason that you didn’t know what you were getting into and now you do know.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to ask the public to have a say – but practically the problem with all of this is, the situation has made Britain a less pragmatic country.

“A referendum would potentially just be another emotional, divisive rollercoaster which is why members of parliament are very wary of it.

“All members of parliament just look to Jo Cox [Labour MP murdered in 2016] and look at the ferocity of the debate and are very worried about another of their members falling prey to an attack,” he said.

‘Mother Theresa’

One thing that Wilding is absolutely certain of is that there is no solution which is going to heal the country.

“The country is going to have to go through a catharsis and people’s reputations are going to have to be put on the line.

Also Read: UK Prime Minister to face another no confidence motion

“This is the hugest decision that the UK has taken since the second world war; it’s incumbent on members of parliament to stand up for their principles.

He is of the opinion that Prime Minister Theresa May has handled Brexit “disastrously”.

If you think what she could have done; she could have stood up after she became leader and said ‘I am Mother Theresa; my job is to unite the country.

“But she took the divisive approach and then she laid down red lines that were frankly unsustainable. She triggered Article 50 without a plan based on those red lines, without a negotiating strategy and she then did not reach out to other parties and parliament to try to achieve a consensus.

“She failed to achieve a consensus, which was open to her, and her secretive and abstinent manner since is based sadly on ignorance of how the European Union works and frankly, I would say this, contempt – particularly for the Irish Government.

“She has shown unacceptable contempt for a friend and an ally on this matter. She could have done this very differently, she chose not to and she is the author of her own misfortune.

In a nutshell, what has been revealed, I think, is that Britain is a nation of lions led by donkeys.

No matter how the outcome emerges, Wilding says the Brexit journey has been an incredible wake-up call for the British establishment on how the EU works – pointing to the EU’s “commitment and protection” of Ireland every step of the way.

“Britain and Ireland have been together for a thousand years, in good times and bad, and I think a lot of British politicians will see Ireland as having played a blinder.

“The idea that the United Kingdom can dictate to Ireland is now utterly destroyed as a concept,” he said.

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