There hasn’t been much rejoicing on the winning side of the EU referendum. How many of them must have spent the weekend 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 ought to get a badge: ‘I may be an old fart, but I voted Remain.’
Trump and Putin are rubbing their hands in glee, racists and neo-fascists have been encouraged all over Europe, and the rest of the EU looks about to disintegrate. (It won’t give an ‘independent’ UK an easy ride in trade talks, whatever Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson may be saying now.) Brexit leaders are back-pedalling on their most popular claims: no, immigration won’t fall, we’ll just be able (in theory) to ‘control’ it; no, the money we save won’t go to the NHS – we never said it would (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: Canada, Norway, Switzerland. Apparently no thought at all had been put into what would happen next – almost as if they’d never really believed they could win.
Perhaps they never really wanted to win, either. Europhobia 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. Now it is about to be. And it has come to look far more complicated and difficult than they had assumed – or had fooled their followers that it would be.
Who would have thought that such a small stone flung into the water by a saloon-bar bore like Nigel Farage could cause such giant waves? But the water, however smooth it seemed on the surface, was seething underneath. British society is a reactionary, undemocratic, divisive mess. It has been for some time, but recent Tory cuts exacerbated the problem. The scale of the distrust of and hostility to the ‘establishment’ was – is – unprecedented since the time of the Chartists. Cameron – smooth, superficial, privileged, sheltered and trained in deception (‘public relations’) – couldn’t see that. Hence his richly deserved fate: 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 further consideration. And perhaps this one won’t either. Cameron has left the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to his successor, who won’t take power till the autumn. A lot can happen between now and then. 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 can be held, once Farage’s ‘decent people’ have been faced, as they are now, with the reality of an out vote? The government has been all too willing to disregard the popular will in the case of ‘austerity’. Perhaps Cameron doesn’t want to appear a bad loser, though you can be sure the Brexiters would have had no such qualms if the vote had gone the other way.