Just a couple of days before voting day I had a rather unpleasant experience – a ninety year old telling me she wanted her country back. To me, the very expression represents something particularly unsavoury. What on earth does it mean and, of course, it invites xenophobic, immigrant loathing which has been reported since the day of infamy.
The result of the 24th June was, for me, an earthquake, a shock of seismic proportions and something that will take me a considerable time with which to come to terms. Initially numbed, I simply could not believe that the voters had carried out an exercise in self-harm. However, the realisation of what happened turned quickly to an anger that even I was surprised at how cross I was.
Early on in the referendum I was reminded of Wilson’s reasons for voting yes to the Common Market. He had a real concern as to who would inherit power in the wake of a possible No victory – Benn and Powell, both on the far wings of their parties. The Leave victory just possiblly has done that. We will have to wait and see.
My anger has been difficult to manage as I thought of how Britain would lurch to the Right because, let’s face it, a victory for Leave played into the hands of the right-wing. Decent people who spoiled their papers or voted Leave should have seriously considered who their fellow travellers were but I have to accept that this clearly did not come into their thinking – and we are now in this mess.
The sense of disarray quickly became apparent when Leave politicians started to row back on their promises that had been clearly advertised on the Boris battle bus and, what soon became apparent was that there was a contest over the meaning of Brexit. There was no single prospectus provided by Vote Leave which will heap up problems in the coming weeks and months. However, what is galling though is that some Leave politicians have affected horror that the Government did not have an exit plan. Why plan for something that you don’t believe in?
None of what I have written thus far has really begun to attempt to answer the question as to why the electors decided to choose the Exit door. I would suggest that there are a huge number of reasons why they decided to take this route and not buy the Remain view that this was an act of self-harm on steroids, the economy would be damaged, recession would return and that this was a leap into the dark.
Arguably, David Cameron lost this Referendum back in the nineties when the Europhiles gathered around the shrine of Margaret Thatcher and her active hostility to Major and Maastricht. The Conservatives waged a civil war ever since and was more concerned with fighting each other than they were New Labour. This failure to deal with the Europe question back in 1993 meant that Europe would remain toxic in the Conservative Party into the foreseeable future.
Cameron had no choice but to show his Eurosceptic credentials in order to win the nomination for leadership and this he would hang on him like an albatross from 2005 when he was elected. He should have remembered that Wilson had used the referendum in 1975 to maintain unity in the Labour Party which, as we know, and (in part for different reasons) was pretty short-lived with the split in 1981. Cameron’s gamble and failure and the victory of the Europhiles does not mean that unity amongst the Tories is in any way guaranteed and probably, in the coming years, the atmosphere over Brexit and what it means will become hugely venomous. The party faithful may well choose a right-winger and there will be a return to the civil war days, no doubt.
David Cameron’s legacy will forever be attached to Brexit and the possible breakup of the Union but, equally as important, he should take responsibility for the mess we are about to enter. Osborne was right in the idea that the argument should have been won differently, not with such a blunt instrument of a referendum. This is going to have massive ramifications for our geo-political position in the world and our future and our children’s future has been squandered.
I should have realised in the early days of the campaign when I spoke with colleagues (educated and intelligent) who had real doubts about voting to Remain. I was scandalised as I didn’t even need to look at the Leave arguments as, for me, voting to remain was a no brainer. More the fool me for believing that the electors would make the sensible decision. I suppose that is why I was so shocked. It is clear I was living in a bubble.
During the campaign I became aware that Vote Leave were keeping things pretty simple and using slogans to communicate their message. ‘I want my country back’ and ‘taking control’ – utterly meaningless in reality – began to have resonance with the electorate and smoothed away all the difficult complexities of what an exit meant. Nice easy slogans of course don’t take away the muddle that will ensue.
Although I don’t go with the view that the voters are largely stupid, I do go with the view that that the population that votes are easily swayed by glib slogans on red buses. Anti-intellectual, anti-fact politicians have a great deal to answer for and have shown gross negligence by dismissing expert opinion and basing their campaign on ‘a bright future’ and ‘banning pessimists’. Their advertising was mendacious and the implication of millions of Turkish people crossing the English Channel in the future was the real project fear. Gove’s comparison of the Remain politicians to Nazis was highly irresponsible. The Vote Leave lurch towards the UKIP tactics of fear of immigrants will continue to haunt the streets of the UK for a long time to come.
The other most important reason for the defeat of Remain on the 24th June was the question of immigration that has never been tackled properly and required a grown-up, carefully considered argument for Remain politicians to face head on. A case has got to be made for the positive implications of immigration and all the benefits and we should state the case courageously and not run away in fear at ninety year olds wanting their country back. Our argument should have taken into account both the economic and the issue of immigration and how the UK prospers from the increasing diversity. We cannot have the single market and not have free movement of people. And we need to invest where appropriately so as to relieve pressures on the public services.
A key reason too was that the drip-drip of the bad press and the remoteness of Brussels has gained traction over the years and the anti-EU politicians have used simplistic arguments to scare voters over all these years. The problem is that the leading Remain politicians have not been that convinced by the EU either so it is not surprising that Labour supporters were not always sure what side their party stood for.
The economic argument didn’t work either and I kept thinking that the average Briton will remember: it’s the economy, stupid. Well, I was totally wrong. One intelligent, educated person I met the day before voting said in answer to my concerns that there would be a sterling crisis replied rather cavalierly that exports would be cheaper and hadn’t considered how a sterling crisis can wreak huge damage in the long term. As these very same people travel to the United States and beyond this summer I hope that when they complain about the increase in prices that they made a contribution to this.
I also got the impression after the event that there were many people – I met a few – who said that they thought their vote would not count. I struggle to see how intelligent and educated people would have been so foolish. I suppose, like me, they lived in a bubble and did not think for one minute that the country would in one act – be it as a protest or whatever – commit the unthinkable and not remain in the EU.