41 years ago Britain went to the polls to vote on Europe. The result then was a resounding victory for the pro-Europe camp – 67% of British voters chose to remain part of the European Community. How different to today’s results, which show a majority – a small one, admittedly, but a majority nonetheless – of the electorate choosing to leave the European Union. The PM has already announced his resignation, and it seems likely that Article 50 will be triggered within weeks, committing Britain to permanently leave Europe. It’s worth noting now that there will be no coming back, no second chance. Readmission is contingent upon the unanimous consent of all 27 remaining members, and it is virtually impossible that such consent will be obtained. For better or worse, we are out.
This is certainly the most momentous constitutional change of my lifetime, and very likely yours too – as such, I do not propose to consider the full ramifications of it. Without doubt the papers will be doing that ad nauseum over the next few weeks. Therefore, I intend only to offer a few brief thoughts on a variety of aspects of the referendum and its result.
Firstly, this should be the last referendum in a generation. The last few months have decidedly proven that referendums are an absolutely dreadful way of doing government. Both sides, though particularly the Leave campaign, misrepresented the truth in ways which might easily be called lying. In this they were abetted by the tabloid media, which whipped the public into a xenophobic and hysterical frenzy with a constant flow of falsehoods, misrepresentations and exaggerations about Europe. The average voter who cast his/her vote on the 23rd was seriously uninformed about what exactly he was voting for. Britain has no history of direct democracy – referendums are not part of our constitution. They are a new-fangled innovation, and signal weak leadership, as it abdicates the responsibility that we have delegated the government right back to the people. Edmund Burke had it right (as usual) when he wrote that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
People voted Leave because of nostalgia. In the last few days of the referendum the media conducted numerous vox pops with members of the public, and one theme seemed to keep re-emerging; ‘we want the old Britain back.’ This refrain was particularly prevalent amongst the 60+ group, but it could be detected throughout the electorate. To many in Britain, the last fifty years has not been kind. They have seen the Britain they once knew utterly transformed, and they simply don’t understand it. They don’t feel part of it. Hence a Leave vote became far more to them than merely a decision on membership of the EU. It turned into a vote to ‘take Britain back’ – not just from the EU, but from modernity and ‘the elites.’ The EU became a punching bag for liberalism, with people taking out all their anger and bitterness on it. It’s no coincidence that the largest pro-EU demographic group was the over-60s, those who could still remember a Britain independent of international affiliations like the EU. Sadly, they appear to have voted in vain; regardless of our membership of the EU, we simply can’t restore that world. It’s gone.
UKIP are not necessarily stronger as a result of this vote. For the last twenty years or so, UKIP have successfully used Europe as a scapegoat for pretty much everything. This tactic has been pretty handy for them, as it absolves them of the responsibility of actually providing coherent policies beyond leaving Europe. The risk, however, of such a strategy is obvious; once Britain has actually left the EU, UKIP seems to have no raison d’etre left. UKIP flourished in 2015 by uniting elderly, disaffected Tory voters with working-class Labour supporters who received a raw deal because of neo-liberalism; now that the common cause has been accomplished, the two halves have no reason to stay together. In fact, it was a bizarre union to start with; a wealthy ex-banker from Dulwich like Farage has almost nothing in common with a laid-off steelworker from Port Talbot. Now that UKIP has fallen victim to its own success, its supporters will go their separate ways.
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are two of the most disgraceful men to have graced British politics. David Cameron had no obligation to suspend collective cabinet responsibility for this referendum. He’s leading the government, and he had every right to tell his cabinet to unite or leave. Instead he chose to let individual ministers campaign on either side. The result of this was that Michael Gove – one of Cameron’s closest friends – took charge of the Leave campaign, and turned it into a thinly-veiled bid for political power. Aside from his numerous lies and exaggerations, Gove repeatedly attacked Cameron and Osborne in a most ungentlemanly way. Yet this is nothing compared to what Boris ‘Brutus’ Johnson did throughout the campaign. Johnson makes little secret of his desire to get to No. 10, and his decision to support the Leave campaign was almost entirely a political calculation (he allegedly had prepared a pro-Europe statement before polls suggested he’d be better off backing Leave.) In spite of Cameron’s historical support for him as Mayor, he engaged in the worst kind of demagoguery, repeatedly stabbing Cameron in the back. I don’t see a situation in which he won’t have a position in a new Tory government, and it isn’t unlikely that he will be PM by 2020. As a Tory I will find it exceptionally hard to vote for a traitor like Johnson at the General Election.
David Cameron’s reputation has been (unfairly) ruined. Within hours of the result the Prime Minister had stood down. Realistically speaking there was little else he could do; a vote of no confidence would otherwise have been inevitable, and after watching Iain Duncan Smith’s humiliating fall from power in 2003 Cameron would hardly have had the appetite to endure such an ordeal. Henceforth he will be remembered by Eurosceptics as a coward who was on ‘the wrong side of history’ by campaigning to remain, and by Europhiles as a weak leader who should never have allowed a referendum and who then failed to mobilise his party to vote to Remain. He staked his reputation on Europe and lost. This is a tragedy, as Cameron is surely one of the greatest Conservative leaders since Churchill. Not only did he make a clean break from the uninspiring, reactionary party of Hague and IDS, he successfully rebuilt the economy from the ruins it had been left in by the Labour government. All this, and he also presided over one of the greatest electoral victories in modern history in 2015, one which literally nobody had expected. David Cameron is a good man and did not deserve to leave in these circumstances.
Labour have a long period of introspection ahead of them. This referendum wasn’t lost because of conservative Euroscepticism. It was lost because the working classes plumped for Brexit. Areas like South Wales, Tyneside or the Black Country are solidly Labour, yet they voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. Why? Because Labour failed to do their part in this referendum. In no small part due to the fact that their new leader is an ideological Eurosceptic himself, there was almost no serious campaigning by the Labour Party until the last week. What little left-wing pro-EU campaigning took place was mainly low-level, at the initiative of individuals. Corbyn himself barely made any serious speeches in favour of the European Union. The Labour Party simply (and rather arrogantly) assumed that their loyalists would turn out dutifully to remain in the EU; as it turned out, many of them simply weren’t convinced enough. The responsibility for this catastrophe lies, to be perfectly honest, with Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for the EU. With a leadership contest apparently imminent, Labour is going to have to consider what direction it wants to take, and how to recover those core working-class votes.
The next Conservative leader (and PM) should be a unifier. At present, the front-runners for the leadership election are Gove and Johnson, and it seems likely that the two men will work out a deal which will enable a joint premiership (Johnson as PM and Gove as Chancellor, for instance.) For the reasons outlined above, I would be deeply disappointed if either were to win, as I regard their conduct as ungentlemanly and disgraceful; the 30-40% of Tories who voted to Remain will likely agree with me. On the other hand, the triumphalist Eurosceptic wing of the party are unlikely to compromise on ‘their’ candidates. But at this critical juncture, the party does not need any more division. The Eurosceptics must not be permitted to take revenge on the moderates if they want the party to unite.
…and Cameron may well be instrumental in deciding his successor. Tory leaders have a habit of not going quietly. Thatcher’s final revenge against the ‘wets’ who engineered her downfall was to carefully scotch their chances of taking the government. She used her near-deified status amongst the Tory right in order to convince them to not vote for Heseltine; instead, she selected her protégé John Major as an heir presumptive, hoping that he would carry on her legacy in a way that Heseltine patently wouldn’t (he didn’t, but nobody expected that in 1990.) Also worth noting is Michael Howard’s manoeuvring after he resigned the leadership in 2005. Howard had long taken an interest in the careers of David Cameron and George Osborne; after he lost the 2005 election, his last act as leader was to promote the two to his cabinet, giving them a position from which to pursue higher office. It would be surprising if Cameron doesn’t try and stymie Gove/Johnson somehow.
We’ll survive. Britain has a wonderful propensity to survive. It takes a lot to shake us, and more still to break us. Let’s not delude ourselves – Brexit is going to be seriously detrimental to our economy, both in the long term and in the short. We’ve already seen the pound collapse as speculators try and offload as much of the currency as they can; the stock markets look similarly grim. The eventual impact upon our economy is yet to be even considered. But Britain has weathered worse. We will be able to muddle through, to cobble together a new settlement defining our relations with the world. It will, frankly, not be as good as what we had – that much is clear from the statement of prominent EU politicians. But hopeless nostalgia is what got us into this mess in the first place. The past is past; we must move forward confidently into the future, and try and figure out what the heck we’re going to do now.