Brexit’s humble beginnings in the Queen’s Lane Coffee House

“Brains of Brexit” Daniel Hannan tells Akshay Bilolikar how radical Tory students took over the UK

Few things seem to cause as much ire and irritation as hacks who take themselves too seriously for their own good. A cup of coffee and some meagre patronage for a vote and a position in a student society. You might even get invited to a leaders’ event by a top management consultancy firm. But you’re not important – not really, anyway – unless you somehow combine the intricacies of student politics with the seeds of radical political change.

Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP since 1999, did not invent Euroscepticism, and was in no way the sole architect of Brexit. But if Britain’s political class really are still bred at this university, the founding of the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain at Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1990 seems a seminal moment. Three years before the European Union was officially born, the campaign to take Britain out had begun in infancy.

But the idea was never, until the referendum last year, taken entirely seriously. It was a fringe position, for shire Tories, outcast libertarians, and old-school socialists. But like many political positions with- out a home on the national stage, it found a space in Oxford’s student community – and not just amongst student Tories. Last year, over 70% of students voted Remain, but if you favoured radical change from the status quo in the early 1990s, you opposed Britain’s membership of the European Union.

“In my day, being Eurosceptic was a sort of anti-systemic view”, Hannan tells me. “It went with being against big corporations and big government, and the establishment. It was for the people, against the elites. The shift in the last five years is one of the most extraordinary changes between then and now it’s such a shift to see people lining up on the same side as Goldman Sachs, arguing for the existing racket.

“I don’t think that reflects any changes in the EU. I don’t think you could plausibly argue the EU has become any more democratic, progressive, or whatever – just look at Greece. Frankly, Ukip rose to a position of public prominence at the end of 2014, and a loud and negative argument started being made against the European project. A lot of this student enthusiasm wasn’t really people thinking the EU was a fantastic democratic project, but that they didn’t like the people they perceived as being against it.”

When, a week before the referendum, Nigel Farage declared “the EU has failed us all” alongside a poster showing a queue of mostly non-white migrants, perceptions of the xenophobic nature of the Leave campaign seemed all but confirmed. But from its outset, Hannan’s brand of Euroscepticism eschewed nativist arguments in favour of a more liberal case. However much the accusation of xenophobia is repeated, it’s the argument from free trade and democracy that swung the poll in Hannan’s mind.

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“I think that if Euroscepticism really had been the nativist and anti-immigration phenomenon that some Remainers believed, it would never have come close to winning the referendum. Most people were voting for democratic and constitutional reasons.”

But, as ever in politics, narrative may have trumped reality. And it’s the nativist narrative that has gained momentum a year and a general election later. “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market,” Hannan said during the referendum campaign. It’s clear that Vote Leave always intended to prioritise trade over immigration. But the contradiction between Single Market membership and the perceived political need to end the free movement of labour remains, and at present it seems like the former will be sacrificed for the latter. For Hannan, however, this demonstrates the success of the liberal case for Leave – it’s not about immigration, but about a renewal of our democracy.

“Three-quarters of the cabinet and two-thirds of Conservative MPs campaigned to stay in the EU, so the idea that this is a kind of extreme government bent on ideological separation for the sake of it is quite difficult to sustain. When you look at the official documents that have been published, it’s clear we will have a relationship with the EU going forward that is much closer than just a friendly third country relationship.”

“We’re looking at remaining in a number of EU programmes, of keeping some institutional links. I’m sure that part of that will mean that going forward, at least in the short run, future immigrants from the EU will continue to have a privileged position over those from the rest of the world.”

On immigration in particular, Hannan is at odds with the government. In September, a leaked Home Office policy paper revealed plans to impose new bureaucratic hurdles and stricter time limits for new migrants, with overall numbers – including for students – arbitrarily remaining in the “tens of thousands.” For Hannan, though, the question is not about numbers but about the fairness of the system – EU citizens, through freedom of movement, are jumping the queue. If you don’t see yourself as part of a broader European nation, the argument is compelling.

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“I think it’s quite odd that arguing for treating EU migrants just like everybody else is now somehow a xenophobic position, seen on Twitter as akin to mass deportations. I think you could at the very least make the case that ceasing to give EU nationals an automatic queue-jumping privilege over people from India, the Caribbean, South America or wherever is the less xenophobic view.”

Hannan became Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) president in 1992, and swiftly moved onwards and upwards through the ranks of Conservative youth politics until he became thoroughly enmeshed in the Tory libertarian wing. After the Conservatives went into opposition, Hannan was given a place on the European Parliament list and – at the same time as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were considering joining the euro – Hannan was elected for the first time.

But, despite Hannan’s seemingly effortless entry into Conservative politics, he is far from the typical career politician. Dubbed the “brains of Brexit”, Hannan has championed ideas for reform all centred around decentralisation and local democracy. Brexit was always in part about bringing power back to the people, but in many respects attempts at localisation have faltered. Police and Crime Commissioner elections, originally proposed by Hannan with fellow Eurosceptic Douglas Carswell, saw turnout as low as 15%. Hannan, however, insists on the essential merit of the idea.

“It’s always easier to argue for these things in opposition than deliver on them in office. It’s one of the hard truths of politics – although people are intellectually convinced of localism, once they get into power they suddenly become a lot more relaxed about it. The really big objective for me is a proper link between taxation and representation at the local level. If we could move towards a higher degree of fiscal autonomy at local level, I think that would really revive local democracy and revive political engagement.”

More than anything, however, it’s the sense of mission which makes Hannan’s politics distinct. Hannan isn’t a revolutionary, but his reformist instincts bring him into conflict with almost every aspect of the establishment. And yet, after the referendum result, he is something of an establishment figure himself.

Removed as he is from the corridors of power, Hannan nevertheless bears a heavy responsibility for Britain’s immediate future. There’s more to Brexit than just leaving the European institutions – for Hannan, Brexit is about bringing power back to the people.

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