Philip Davies: Better Off Out – the campaign that shattered Westminster’s taboo about leaving the EU
Philip Davies is MP for Shipley.
Watching newly-elected MPs make their maiden speeches in the House of Commons always makes me think back to the one I made in the House of Commons shortly after I was first elected at the 2005 General Election.
Maiden speeches give new MPs the chance to set their stall out regarding what they wish to achieve in their time in Parliament and I was determined to do just that. In my maiden speech, in June 2005, I said “I want…..a country that has a sovereign Parliament, not one run by a corrupt and inefficient institution called the European Union, which we subsidise to the tune of billions of pounds a year”.
Despite the then Chief Whip, David Maclean, making it clear to me that I must not persist in speaking publicly to leave the EU, I accepted an invitation from The Freedom Association to speak at their fringe meeting at the 2005 Conservative Party conference on why we should leave.
The fact that the Yorkshire Post reported me at that meeting as the first MP to publicly say explicitly that we should leave the EU shows how out of touch the House of Commons had become on the issue. There were many MPs who would say we needed to get powers back from the EU, but none were prepared to say we should leave altogether. As with so many issues, the voters were way ahead of the politicians.
Following the success of the fringe meeting, and determined to keep the momentum going, The Freedom Association – superbly led by Simon Richards and Mark Wallace (now of this parish) – and I decided to launch the Better Off Out campaign in April 2006.
In the meantime, David Cameron had become Leader of the Conservative Party. I had supported David Davis, but during the contest I had asked David Cameron if he would allow MPs from the back benches to campaign to leave the EU. He had agreed, and in doing so gave the green light for (albeit unambitious) MPs to come out of the woodwork on this issue. This was more significant than has hitherto been reported.
Better Off Out was therefore officially launched in a House of Commons Committee Room in April 2006. MPs had been invited, as had the media. I chaired the meeting, and fully expected to be the only MP there. I feared the campaign would be instantly ridiculed, but we had to start somewhere.
To my amazement and delight, eight other MPs actually attended the launch, namely Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton, Philip Hollobone, Douglas Carswell, David TC Davies, Bob Spink, Christopher Chope, and the much missed Eric Forth (it was in fact the last time I saw Eric before he tragically died).
It was a watershed moment. The DUP MPs joined Better Off Out shortly afterwards. The fact that MPs were now openly speaking about leaving the EU meant that this was now a mainstream opinion to hold. We had made leaving the EU a respectable opinion to hold in political circles.
The name ‘Better Off Out’ was also extremely important and meaningful. The traditional reasons for leaving the EU were to regain sovereignty, restore democratic accountability and – ever increasingly – to control immigration. I agreed with all of these arguments, but even back then it was clear to me that those arguments would never be enough alone to ensure we left.
We had to win the economic argument. Even if people agreed with the arguments on sovereignty, democracy and immigration, it was always my view that people would still support remaining in the EU if they felt their job and their standard of living depended on it.
Hence Better Off Out. Indeed, I never felt that the economic argument was our weakest, I always felt it was our strongest card, and one that we needed to play over and over again.
The argument I never failed to give wherever I went, which still applies today, was that the EU is a declining part of the world’s economy. Every year it becomes a smaller proportion of the global economy and yet we were paying more and more to be members of it. The growth in the world’s economy is going to come from areas like Asia, Africa and South America. That is therefore where we need to focus our trade agreements and we can only do that outside of the EU. We built our wealth in this country by being global traders and I always made the point that we should be ashamed of ourselves that we were paying around £10 billion a year (net) to prop up an inward-facing, backward-looking protection racket designed to prop up inefficient European businesses and French farmers.
I also repeated over and over again that we had a huge trade deficit (currently around £90 billion a year) and that we didn’t need to pay £10 billion a year for a huge trade deficit, you could have that for nothing. I believe these simple to understand, common sense economic messages were crucial to ensuring we won the referendum.
To be honest, if someone had said to me when we launched Better Off Out that within 10 years we would hold and win an In/Out EU referendum and that within 14 years we would be out of the EU, I would have said they were mad. But it has happened and nobody is more delighted than me.
It is for others to decide the importance of Better Off Out in achieving this great success – and clearly people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage (as well as others) have played a much more crucial role in bringing it about – but I am immensely proud of the small part I have played in this long running and successful campaign to leave the EU.
When I made that maiden speech I never believed I would still be in Parliament to vote for it to come to fruition.
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