IT is hard from the events of the last five months to avoid the conclusion that without a major change of direction, the United Kingdom is headed for political disintegration and economic decline. Although the Scots behaved rationally in two referenda, they too will probably be dragged down. It is as if the nation has been seized by a form of dementia, but the harsh reality lies in a wave of populist and anti-democratic sentiment.
The British press is obsessed with divisions in the Labour Party. But this obscures the fact that a far greater ideological divide troubles the Conservatives. The solution for Prime Minister ‘Lucky Dave’ Cameron was resort to a binding referendum on the European Union, decided on the smallest of margins. This will not save the Tories and the resignations have already begun. In the Richmond Park by-election the supposed independent Zac Goldsmith has been endorsed by both the Conservatives and the right-wing rabble, punch-up party known as UKIP, which signals where the Tories are headed. A parallel fate could await the Labour Party on the left.
Reaction to the Brexit vote has been bizarre. It has become routine to regard it as ‘the will of the people’. First, this is mathematical nonsense: had young people bothered to vote the result would have been very different. Second, this meaningless phrase has been used by every tin-pot dictator in modern history to justify populist authoritarianism. So it was entirely predictable that the decision of three High Court judges that Brexit (article 50) cannot be invoked without the involvement of both houses of Parliament would be faced with a howl of abuse. In the process the hypocrisy of the Brexit camp has been fully exposed. One of its main campaigning points was the recovery of parliamentary and judicial sovereignty. It comes as no surprise to learn that many Brexiteers have no conception that the British fought for centuries to secure the sovereignty of Parliament. The people elect constituency representatives to look after their interests, but Brexit supporters now wish to deny MPs their role in favour of some medieval prerogative vested in the Crown invoked by Theresa May. She is now doing a second-rate impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, developing a condescending manner and resorting to sarcasm.
Plebiscite politics has been shown for what it is: highly undemocratic. Reduce a complex issue to binary terms that can be appreciated by the most challenged of voters, back it with a campaign run by popular politicians prepared to tell very big lies, achieve a referendum majority, and there it is : the ‘will of the people’. Some of the Brexit arguments had virtue. But underlying them were darker tendencies in British – or more accurately, English – society. The Brexit vote was an attack on the so-called political Establishment and on expert knowledge; a blatant expression of xenophobia; a desire to turn back the clock to some idyllic, non-existent past; a rejection of idealism and internationalism. The English have always harboured deep philistine tendencies and anti-intellectualism was a factor in the referendum result. The demographic breakdown of the vote suggests this: the revenge of Clacton hairdressers and Grantham grocers.
Apart from the hard right, what one commentator described as the ‘whey-faced men in suits from UKIP’, the Brexit campaign was joined by a number of political opportunists, the most prominent of whom was Boris Johnson, now struggling unsuccessfully to look like a convincing foreign secretary. Without his campaign of half-truths the referendum vote might have been reversed. But his involvement and the long-term agitation of Nigel Farage is ongoing evidence of a strange trend in British politics: a symbiotic, almost feudal, relationship between conservative working-class voters and right-wing toffs: Oswald Mosely, Enoch Powell, Farage and now Johnson. A fisherman, recently interviewed on Sky TV, said he had total confidence in Johnson – a man with Establishment credentials that could not be deeper and whose biography provides plentiful evidence of unreliability. But his populist political skills are clearly well-honed.
The British government can produce nothing more convincing than ‘Brexit means Brexit’ while it tries to pander to a popular press that sounded like a lynch mob after the High Court ruling that predictably upheld the basic principles of British democracy. But as Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out, the Brexiters have little clue how to proceed (the ministers in charge – Davis, Fox and Johnson ‒ have with good reason been nicknamed the Three Blind Mice) and even less conception of the problems that await.
Developments since June have rapidly taken on the characteristics of an attempted right-wing coup (a coup with a different flavour to that portrayed in Chris Mullins’ novel of the 1990s) cynically exploited by May and her government as they eye the working-class vote of the North and Midlands of England. This has reached such preposterous dimensions that a call for parliamentary debate, and a legal decision to back it, has been attacked in some quarters as akin to treason; defiance of the ‘will of the people’. But who exactly are the traitors? And anti-Brexit MPs seem by and large to have behaved like rabbits caught in the headlights, mesmerised by right-wing venom. This situation requires a strong counter-attack: where are the defenders of British democracy? There is an encouraging precedent: eventually the excesses of the Thatcher government led to voter defection. Already in Richmond there is evidence of cross-party liberal alliance building.
Apart from its economic insanity and political myopia one of the most distressing aspects of the referendum result was the fact that millions of British people, including many who surely voted for European Union membership in the 1970s, turned their backs on history. Twice in the twentieth century the British were drawn into European wars. The participants included this writer’s grandfathers and both parents. The founders of European unity were determined to make another war impossible, in part by binding economies together. Shamefully the British have now raised two fingers to that worthy aim. Ultimately they will be impoverished – in more ways than one.
Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 48, 7 November 2016