I can’t see any way out of this. We brought it upon ourselves; or at least, David Cameron did. Isn’t it interesting, and also alarming, how much influence smooth, shallow people can have on History, and usually for the worse? That’s a factor we serious historians rarely take account of; just as we’re left puzzled by clowns like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. (And, over the pond, Donald Trump.) Outlandish figures like this appear to make the whole process of History random. And if it’s that, how can we hope to explain it rationally?
Of course it hasn’t been entirely random, although these little twists in the tail of events may have been. Although the Brexit vote wasn’t, as I’ve argued from the beginning, mainly about Europe (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/), it did reflect something more than mere chance. It was of course a popular protest vote – but not necessarily against the European Union, which was widely blamed but not really responsible for people’s woes. Even ‘free movement’ was not the real cause, having nothing to do with the extra-European immigration that was the sort that people mainly resented. The underlying reason for people’s discontent was the impact of ‘austerity’; or, to put it slightly more controversially, of late-stage capitalism, as it struggles on towards its Götterdämmerung. This in fact was the crucial factor behind most European countries’ (and the USA’s) different forms of protest movement in recent years, either of the Left or of the Right. (Because most people were blind to the ‘late-stage capitalism’ aspect of it, they could go either way; just as they did in the 1930s.) These movements were then hi-jacked by upper-class politicians with very different motives and reasons for complaint, including, in Britain, post-imperial resentment.
It’s obvious to most of us that Brexit will neither restore Britain’s domestic prosperity and welfare, nor her prestige and power in the world – nor even her national independence in the face of the global pressures that will be brought against her in her ‘splendid isolation’. Which means that it’s all been a dreadful mistake.
It’s easy to understand how this could have come about: through the calling of a simple-majority referendum on a single vaguely-defined and yet existential national issue; called (by Cameron) for narrow party political reasons, and against strict constitutional law; decided on the basis of widespread deception and cheating on the ‘Brexit’ side; and moreover, by an electorate which differed fundamentally from what it will become when Britain actually leaves the EU (by which time many of the old Brexiters will have died off, to be replaced by young Remainers); and yet without any possibility of undoing it, even when all these flaws have been made blindingly obvious.
A re-run, or at least a second parliamentary or popular vote on the actual terms of the ‘divorce’ arrangements, would seem to be the obvious solution. Of course the result might be the same, but in that case it would be seen to be more legitimate, because people would have had a better idea of what they were voting for. Brexiters claim it wouldn’t be democratic: ‘the people have spoken, get used to it’; as if democrats aren’t ever allowed to change their minds, or as though two votes are somehow less democratic than one. Hence their resistance to a second vote; backed by the Right-wing popular press, using terms like ‘traitor’ against ‘Remoaners’; one of the worst and least free ‘fourth estates’ in the world – see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/04/26/the-uk-press-number-40-still/ – but which British politicians appear to crouch in abject fear of.
Imagine what would happen if Brexit were reversed, or even ‘softened’ – with Britain remaining in the Customs Union and European Free Market, for example. Brexiters (and the Daily Mail) would cry ‘Treason’. They might even foment a civil war, of one kind or another. That’s what I’m genuinely afraid of. If Brexit goes through – especially a ‘hard’ one – we on the other side will feel just as angry and resentful, but probably won’t take up arms. We’re better educated than the Brexiters – if that makes a difference. We’re also in less desperate circumstances than were those who were misled into giving the ruling élite a bloody nose by choosing Brexit; or those whose nostalgic yearning for a mythical imperial past has made them desperate in other ways.
So we’re basically fucked. Only a miracle can get us out of this hole. Perhaps ‘Doggerland’ rising from the waves, connecting us geographically to the Continent again. Or Trump’s America attacking us, reminding us of our dependence on our neighbours. Or the Daily Mail switching sides. Or the British people coming to their senses. (OK, unlikely, I concede.)