Interview: Peter Lilley, Conservative MP and Brexiteer

Akshay Bilolikar discusses George Galloway, Scottish ancestry and the EU referendum with the veteran Tory MP

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When the veteran Conservative MP and former minister, Peter Lilley, matriculated, it was possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. Lilley, though he received an off er at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, chose the rather grander site of Clare College, Cambridge. Though it wasn’t a decision taken on grounds of grandeur or prestige, but rather a simple one based on course, Lilley’s adolescent choice might seem to put him on the opposite side of an ancient divide. After all, in the English Civil War the Tabs’ furious parliamentarianism was only met by the equal support offered to Charles I by Oxford, his wartime capital. Today, however, the two universities appear almost united on the issue that threatens to provoke a civil war in the Conservatives Party: the European Union.

A poll conducted by Cherwell in Hilary showed almost four-fifths of Oxford students support the Remain side in the in-out referendum to be held on June 23rd, whilst the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) recently passed a motion in support of the Remain campaign. It might seem, therefore, rather puzzling that prominent Eurosceptics like Lilley continue to visit and talk to this minority of undergraduate Brexiteers.

“I just have to put the arguments forward by speaking at universities. When I spoke at Hertfordshire, they took a poll beforehand that was 75 per cent in favour of remain, and by the end it was 55 per cent in favour of Leave. We can put the arguments forward and then we’ll have no problem. We need to get through the filter of the BBC and the institutions themselves, like universities. Universities feel they have a vested interested in staying in because of the money they get from the European Commission, but that all comes from British taxpayers. We’d be able to cut out the middle man.”

Lilley continued by noting that the central conceit of the Remain campaign, that a vote to leave would be a vote for instability and a vote for Britain to leap into an uncertain future, has come under ferocious attack from the Brexiteers in recent weeks. Roaming fees in particular, which the European Commission will abolish in 2017, have been attacked not in terms of the direct effect, but on the distributional consequences.

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“We have to talk about how it’s being financed. I was at the European Parliament when roaming fees came up, and some of the MEPs pointed out that reducing roaming fees means cutting costs for people who travel a lot at the expense of constituents who never leave their council estates. Their tariffs would be higher than they would otherwise be; bully for those who travel a lot, but the money isn’t coming out of the air.”

As much as it is possible to read the sincerity in Lilley’s voice, it does seem a rather strange tune to be played by a Tory MP. Distributional concerns have always been the preserve of Labour and Liberal Democrat members; Lilley’s former boss, Lady Thatcher, once complained in the Commons about her perception of Liberal policies as “preferring the poor were poorer, provided the rich were less rich.” The cynical view would be of an ideologue, prepared to back any and all policies and schemes provided the ultimate ends of Brexit were achieved. This line of attack has been equally ruthlessly exploited by the Remain campaign, particularly by juxtaposing NHS-based arguments for Leave with the desire for NHS privatisation expressed by Arron Banks, leader of the Leave the EU group.

That said, Lilley has no problem working with people expressing ‘barmy’ views; even the appearance of George Galloway at the Grassroots Out launch was not shocking. “The campaign to keep the Union together had Farage and Galloway on their side, and Better Together still won the vote. There are just as many extreme groups, like communists and socialists in favour of Remain. I don’t think you should judge a campaign by smearing its reputation.”

No doubt, however, there are some important conceptual problems with a British exit from the European Union. Though the threat of imminent Scottish independence has receded somewhat with the failure of the Scottish Nationalists to win a second majority in the Scottish Parliament, there are still fears that an English vote to leave accompanied by a Scottish vote to remain would lead to a second independence referendum and, ultimately, Scottish independence. Less publicised, but considered more pressing amongst other EU heads of state, is the threat that Brexit would pose to the Northern Irish peace process. Lilley, however, insisted that the idea that Scotland would leave the British union just to be part of a notably more porous European union is somewhat suspect.

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“As a person of Scottish ancestry, it would really upset me emotionally. I don’t believe Scotland will leave, because it’s inconceivable to me, if we leave, that there would be more Scots who would take the real leap in the dark of separating from the UK, having the euro and accepting Schengen and re-erecting Hadrian’s Wall, having no oil money just to re-join the European Union. I don’t believe it will happen.”

Ultimately, as Lilley was aware, many dice have already been cast, in that the ‘firm Remain’ and ‘firm Leave’ vote is already certain; the challenge now for both campaigns is to speak to floating voters. Grand schemes of European integration, and indeed grandiose dreams of British parliamentary sovereignty and an alternative Commonwealth union, will not persuade them in this referendum campaign; perhaps the calm rationale of those like Peter Lilley will.