I can’t see this turning out well. Opinions are too inflamed. Not, I suspect, the opinions of the majority of people, who are left bewildered by the whole European debate, and seem not greatly concerned about how it will end. How much discussion is there currently in pubs, classrooms, even homes, of the actual issues of Brexit? And how much real feeling, of the kind exhibited in our press, and on the extremes – mainly the Right-extreme – of the parliamentary political scene?
But it’s not Brexit itself that has unleashed this tsunami of hatred, especially on the Brexit side: all that talk of ‘treason’ and ‘enemies of the people’, for example, in the MSM; and even – at the crazy edges of pro-Brexit opinion – of putting the ‘Remoaners’ in front of firing squads. The real cause is the general condition of the country, and its growing divisions and inequalities, which go back decades before we even joined the European Community. This is what the ‘Brexit’ referendum was really about. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.) It’s the Brexit voters who have suffered most from this alienation, and so are the most voluble over the question that this dispute is now focussed on: the issue of Britain’s membership of, or relation to, the EU. It’s all coming to the surface now: racism, hostility to ‘Establishments’ and to politicians generally, anti-intellectualism (Govey); and, underlying all this, disappointed hopes and expectations that the progressive 1940s, ’50s and ’60s had encouraged in all of us. (See my piece in the TLS, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/swinging-fifties/.) Looking for someone or something to blame, their attention has been diverted – by that ill-judged referendum – on to Brussels bureaucracy and immigrants. They’re the scapegoats. Perhaps we should be grateful that this time it isn’t the Jews.
In other Western countries we find much the same thing, albeit with different foci in each case. It must be an effect of late-stage global capitalism, its seemingly inexorable progress through our institutions, and the instabilities and inequalities it is largely responsible for. In some countries a general sense of national humiliation comes into it too: ‘Take back control’; ‘Make America great again’. Historians like me have already drawn attention to the parallel that can be made with the conditions (not necessarily the events) of the 1930s in Europe. This is the sort of soil in which Fascism grows. There are signs of that, too; not only in the rapidly growing explicitly neo-Fascist parties of the present day, but also in the behaviour and policies of Trump, his great fan Farage, and even our comic little British Rightists like Johnson
and Gove. (Remember, Hitler and Mussolini were treated as comic figures once.)
There’s no foreseeable way out of this. If the ‘hard’ Brexiteers win, those of us who feel that we’ve been robbed of one of our crucial (European) identities will never forgive them. If Brexit is reversed, which is possible, albeit unlikely, its champions will never forgive us. Anything in between – a ‘softer’ Brexit – will be met with cries of ‘appeasement’ or ‘betrayal’ from one side or the other. With things getting worse materially for most of us, the sources of resentment will still be there, widening the deep divisions between us. Our shocking press will make the most of them. I’ve known nothing like this before in my longish life; except in my history books. (Though Suez came close.) What does it presage? War? Revolution? Counter-revolution? Civil war?
Probably none of these things. We’re a moderate – apathetic? – people, after all. The Mail, Telegraph, Express and Sun, and their alien owners (‘alien’ because they’re British tax avoiders), don’t really represent us. Hopefully.