I’ve not noticed much rejoicing on the winning side of the EU debate, such as you might expect on an ‘Independence Day’. Are they having second thoughts? Waking up thinking, ‘Fuck, what have we done?’ as the pound plummets, Cameron falls on his sword, a clown is set to take over, Corbyn (the only one who put a rational case for the EU, if only the press had bothered reporting it) is stabbed by the Brutuses in his own party, the UK breaks up, region turns against region and generation against generation (I’m embarrassed meeting young people now; I must get a badge: ‘I may be an old fart, but I voted Remain’), Trump and Putin start rubbing their hands in glee, other foreigners laugh at us (see the cover of the current New Yorker: http://nyer.cm/OSpSXcg), racists and neo-fascists are encouraged all over Europe, and the rest of the EU looks about to disintegrate? (That’s why it won’t give an ‘independent’ UK an easy ride in trade talks with it – pour décourager les autres.) Brexit leaders are now back-pedalling on their most persuasive arguments during the referendum campaign: no, immigration won’t fall, we’ll just be able to (theoretically) ‘control’ it; no, the money we save won’t go to the NHS – we never said it would. (Oh yes they did; it was on the side of their battle bus.) None of the leading Brexiters had the least idea what they wanted to succeed Britain-in-Europe, apart from some woolly abstractions – ‘control’, ‘freedom’, ‘greatness’, ‘the good old days’ – and some totally inappropriate models elsewhere – Canada, Norway, Switzerland. Apparently no thought at all had been put into this. As you would have expected there to have been if they’d really believed they could win.
Perhaps they never really wanted to win. Is that the answer? Like utopian socialists and fundamentalist Christians they never expected to prevail, and rather liked this position, for the freedom it gave them to criticise others on socialist or fundamentalist grounds. Europhobia in particular was a terrific cause, so long as it remained just that: a one-size-fits-all scapegoat for everything that went wrong, a way to bond people together, giving them a warm feeling of collective injustice, and a means of getting at the toffs and ‘experts’, at the top – without any danger that their wild alternative might be tested. For Boris it gave him the opportunity to win over the Right of his party to his succession to Cameron – but not yet, for God’s sake! And think of all the fun conspiracy theories its defeat might have spawned – indeed, was already starting to: MI5 doctoring the polling returns (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/eu-referendum-brexit-how-to-vote-own-pens-polling-station-polls-live-latest-mi5-conspiracy-fears-a7097011.html), murdering a young Remain woman MP to get sympathy (http://alternative-right.blogspot.com/2016/06/conspiracy-corner-killing-of-jo-cox.html.), and running the ridiculous Nigel Farage in order to discredit his side. (Actually that last one’s mine. But I’m sure they would have thought of it.) Now the cause is about to be tested. And within twenty-four hours it has come to look far more complicated and difficult than they had assumed – or had fooled their followers that it would be.
And really, no-one anticipated it. Who would have thought that such a very little stone flung into the water by a saloon-bar bore like Nigel Farage could cause such ripples – a tsunami, almost? The reason, of course, is that the water, however smooth it had seemed on the surface, was seething underneath. British society was a reactionary, deeply undemocratic, divisive mess. It had been that for some time, but recent ‘Tory cuts’ hugely exacerbated the problem. The scale of distrust of and hostility to the ‘establishment’ was – is – unprecedented since the time of the Chartists. Of course the smooth, superficial Cameron, privileged, sheltered, and trained in deception (‘public relations’), couldn’t see that. Hence his richly-deserved nemesis: one of the great historic ‘failures’ among British prime ministers (following Chamberlain and Eden). And hence also the appalling, scary mess we’re in now: Britain certainly, Europe probably, and possibly the wider world. As Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’ had predicted all along. Even for the winners, this is hardly a time to rejoice.
I’ve never before heard of a popular referendum, especially one as close and as confused as this, deciding the fate of a country and a continent without some further consideration. (Scotland, perhaps.) Doesn’t the ultimate power to withdraw from the EU rest with Parliament? Couldn’t the elected government override the ‘will of the people’ – at least until another referendum could be held, once Farage’s ‘decent people’ have been faced – as they are now – with the reality of an ‘out’ vote? It’s been all too willing to disregard the popular will in the case of ‘austerity’. I suppose Cameron doesn’t want to appear a ‘bad loser’. You can be sure that the Brexiters would have had no such qualms, if the vote had gone the other way. Perhaps the Queen could step in. (Wait a bit: she’s an even older fart than me.)