It’s a great pleasure to be speaking after Sara John [of Best for Britain] and indeed before Caroline Pidgeon. Sara draws attention to the money “spent” by the EU in London, without once mentioning that every pound of that money costs the UK taxpayer £1.70. That’s a fact. But let’s move on to another hard fact. There isn’t going to be a second referendum, for the simple reason that not enough MPs want one. There would be no agreement on what the question should be. And the Electoral Commission says it would take six months to organise one. Let’s say five months and you’re still out of time. Their campaign is so hopeless that they are reduced to trying to bully the leader of the Labour Party at his conference into doing something he is clearly opposed to. They haven’t learnt that it is extremely difficult in this country to bully a party leader into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do. You have to be the EU to get away with that.
So no second Brexit referendum. But London knows about referendums. We had one in 1998. 72% of Londoners (I admit I was not one of them, but I was wrong) voted to have a Greater London Authority consisting of a Mayor and Assembly. It has been a huge success. Few in this room would doubt that. Under two charismatic and capable Mayors (all right, two-and-half), the city has been transformed for the better – practically unrecognisable from 20 years ago.
And why did Londoners vote for devolved government? Why have new powers been devolved to the Mayor since then? Why do people continue to call out for yet further powers to be handed down? Because people want decisions made as close to them as possible and under their control.
It is logically absurd and flies in the face of human nature to say that London should have more powers to govern itself but that its air quality standards should be set in Brussels, that the quality of the water in the Thames should be decided not in London but overseas, that it is impossible to insist on lorries that are safer for cyclists until Brussels has approved them and Volvo has agreed to fit them into its multi-year production cycles. You cannot seriously believe that devolution to London is good but that key aspects of its laws, from working time to habitats, should be set so as to be applicable with equal force and relevance to London as to the more pastoral quarters of Transylvania or the snow-encrusted fringes of the Gulf of Bothnia. Londoners – the London Society pre-eminently – are more clear-sighted than that.
Of course we have had to live through a welter of horrendous scare stories, every one of which that is testable has turned out to be false. Remember the instant recession, the emergency budget, the 800,000 job losses, the cuts to pensions? All those were promised to us simply for voting Leave. Not one of them has happened – rather the reverse. But Project Fear continues. Some of the scares, like the one yesterday about roaming charges, barely last for four hours before being proven wrong – not even the lifespan of a mayfly. Be in no doubt: they are not true but they are intended shamelessly to terrorise you.
But things will change with Brexit. So let’s turn to the workforce.
The harsh truth is that we have created an economy with an unhealthy dependency on a constant supply of cheap labour, regardless of the consequences for social services and social cohesion, and it is a habit we need to break, Brexit or not. Brexit merely confronts us with the necessity.
We are told we are going to face a crisis of baristas. Well, for how many years do you think Poland and Estonia are going to send us their young graduates, their nuclear scientists and their trainee surgeons to pull our coffees and beers for us, when incomes and opportunities continue to rise in those countries and jobs start appearing for them at home? This was always a transient phenomenon. It is a crisis we are going to have to face some time and we might as well face it now.
Or consider the construction sector. There was a man on the BBC this week, boss of a construction company, who was bitterly complaining that even before Brexit he was having to pay higher wages for sub-contractors because of a shortage. Well I can tell you that may have sounded to the BBC like another Brexit doom story, but it will have been music to the ears of the 40.1% of Londoners who voted Leave, many from the classes that will benefit from higher wages.
I know from my own experience that a ready supply of cheap labour has in fact held back innovation and automation. Ask yourself why Crossrail – which is still a great project, though worse since Sadiq took me off the board – has produced so few labour-saving innovations. All that money and only one new machine aimed at saving labour. If you want to know what it is, it’s a tracked machine that trundles through the tunnels drilling the millions of screw-holes needed for the brackets that hold the miles of cables. Brilliant. But it is still followed by an army of labourers putting the brackets up and screwing them in. Why would you do otherwise when you don’t need to? Brexit will change that. It will spur innovation and create new world-leading goods and ideas for Britain to export to the world.
I shan’t dwell on the City. It’s enough to know that, in financial services at least, the City is quietly thrilled to be leaving a governing regime that has become increasingly inimical to what our EU friends call Anglo-Saxon capitalism. And by “Anglo-Saxon”, they mean only one thing: London. They are explicitly hostile and yet there are people on the other side who are desperate to see one of our major export industries regulated by them.
But I will say a few words about other big businesses, outside the City of London. And here it’s impossible not to mention the doom-laden CBI, which is still regretting that we didn’t follow its advice fifteen years ago and join the euro. The truth is that CBI members have done well out of the EU. Not because it has made them more competitive, but because it has allowed them to participate in writing their own regulations, quietly, cosily, and with the help of an army of Brussels-based lobbyists – regulation that is always intended first and foremost to create barriers to entry and so limit upstart new competitors from disrupting the incumbents, regulations agreed in rooms from which the consumer is always absent. It is our own form of crony capitalism. It is well funded and has a loud voice – and it is not speaking for you.
In fact the more one dwells on the upsides of Brexit, the opportunities it gives us for beneficial change, the more one regrets the government’s short-sighted policy of seeking to negotiate a deal that will lock us into European law with no say, and deny us those opportunities. All the more so the day after the president of the Commission declared his ambition of a totally sovereign EU, no more pooled sovereignty but a sovereignty fully transferred to a super-state. Let’s be absolutely clear: there is no status quo in Remain. If we go back now, cap-in-hand, humiliated, we would inevitably be sucked into a project that has shown over 40 years that it doesn’t work for us and over which what moderating influence we had exercised in the past would be gone.
London, with eight million people, a hinterland that brings that to fifteen million, an economy so powerful that it contributes over £15 billion a year net to the rest of the country, has withstood real challenges and survived. Brexit is not even a real challenge. It is a change and an opportunity. The other side say London can’t cope with that change. I say, shame on them.
Just as Londoners took a risk in 1998 and voted for devolution, so the British people showed immense courage and confidence in 2016 in voting for change and the return of their democracy. This evening, you have a choice: you can cower in fear with the CBI, the shareholders, the big bosses, whose case has been so eloquently articulated by Sara.
Or you can stand with the ordinary Londoner in all his and her diversity, vitality, entrepreneurialism, creativity and inventiveness. You can stand with the labourer on the building-site actually earning a bit more because of Brexit. You can stand with London. Brexit will be good for us.
Daniel Moylan was deputy chairman of Transport for London under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty and a mayoral adviser in various capacities. His speech was delivered on the night in a slightly shorter and modified form.
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Moylan