NO THANK YOU, EUROPE!
WE’LL RULE OURSELVES
By Dominic Sandbrook
An edited abridgement, with pictures and captions by Lasha Darkmoon
There are times, not very often, when you can feel history being made. An archduke falls, a wall comes down, a plane hits a building, and in that moment you can feel the ground shifting beneath your feet.
When those initial results came in from Sunderland and Newcastle in the early hours of yesterday morning, I could barely believe it. Even now, to write the words ‘Britain has voted to leave the EU’ feels extraordinary, like a leap into some alternative reality.
For once, all the cliches are justified. This was not merely an electoral earthquake. It was a popular revolt by vast swathes of England and Wales against the political, financial and cultural elite, whose complacent assumptions have been simply blown away.
Indeed, for once it really is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the moment. What happened was undoubtedly the most dramatic, the most shocking and even the most revolutionary event in our modern history. We will live with the consequences for the rest of our lives.
Every rule of politics has been broken.
Barely a year after winning a stunning majority, the Prime Minister has gone, a broken man. The Tory Party, plunged into a three-month leadership battle, has been divided almost beyond repair, while Labour’s leaders have been exposed as almost comically unpopular and out of touch.
Scotland has probably never been closer to secession from the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, which will now have our only land border with the EU, has been thrown into tumult. And to cap it all, the pound — ironically, the supreme symbol of the independence for which millions of people voted on Thursday — has plunged on the exchange markets.
Perhaps never in living memory has our national story become so unpredictable. Never has our country been more divided, and never has the future been more uncertain.
I cannot think of a modern political moment to match it.
THE EMPIRE ON WHICH THE SUN NEVER SET
“We are not amused.”
— Queen Victoria
The present Queen of England was a “secret” backer of Brexit
and was pleased at her people’s rejection of a federalist Europe.
What makes all this so dramatic, though, is that it represents something new — a revolution by millions of people, many of them traditional working-class voters, against the massed ranks of the political and financial Establishment.
If nothing else, the result should banish for good the stereotype of British voters as deferential, forelock-tugging yokels, dutifully falling into line behind the country squire.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England, the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Italy, the IMF, the World Bank and the head of the TUC all lined up to lecture the British electorate. But what is now clear is that every time they hectored and cajoled, every time they piled on the doom-laden prophecies, millions of ordinary voters bristled with resentment.
The curious thing is that despite the shock and disbelief among the Establishment at the result of the referendum, you can’t deny it has been coming. After all, for years, resentment has been building and Ukip—Britain’s most Euro-sceptic party—has been piling up votes in by-elections and European elections.
As it happens, I thought Britain would vote to remain in the EU. I thought that when it came to the crunch, voters would revert to the status quo, as they so often do.
Perhaps, instead of poring over the polls, I should have re-read some of my own articles over the years. For a long time I have warned that the gulf between the Establishment and the people was widening into an unbridgeable chasm. Too many politicians have lost the ability to speak in ways that people understand. Indeed, nothing says more about the failure of the Westminster elite than the fact that so many working-class Labour voters, especially in the old industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands, defied their party’s warnings and voted Leave.
In this context, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were the worst possible salesmen for the Remain campaign.
Born and educated amid immense privilege, the very picture of public-school entitlement, they have never been able to reach voters outside their natural Tory heartlands. Yet although future historians will devote millions of words to the events of the past few weeks, the campaign itself was probably irrelevant to the outcome.
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The fact that immigration dominated the campaign was enormously revealing — not merely because it is the most toxic and emotive issue of our age, but because concerns about it had been building for so long.
If I had to pick a moment when the great rebellion really began, I would be tempted to pinpoint April 1968, when thousands of dockers and market porters marched on Westminster in support of Enoch Powell, who had been kicked off the Tory front bench after his controversial anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
At the time, the rebellion of these traditional working-class Labour voters sent tremors through British politics. Yes, there was a racist element — but there was more to it than just racism, or even opposition to immigration per se.
What Powell’s appeal reflected was exactly the same disquiet that has driven so many people towards Ukip during the past decade: a deep sense of anxiety at the decline of working-class communities, the eclipse of British industry, the pace of cultural change and the rise of globalisation, all of which have left so many ordinary people bewildered and bereft.
Indeed, in recent years that sense of disconnection between the leaders and the led, between the affluent London elite and the working-class voters of provincial England, has become greater than ever.
The financial crash in 2008, bankers’ bonuses, the MPs’ expenses scandal, even the revelations of the Panama Papers (which revealed that Mr Cameron’s father had set up his investment fund in a tax haven) — all these things heightened the popular sense of a nest-feathering elite that had become fatally out of touch.
And for the result, just look at what happened in Powell’s old stamping ground, Wolverhampton, on Thursday. A traditional Labour city, it voted overwhelmingly, by 62.6 per cent to 37.4 per cent, to leave the EU.
It was the same story in the rest of our old industrial heartlands — in Stoke and in Sunderland, in Hartlepool and in Hull, where the Labour message fell on deaf ears and the Leave camp piled up massive majorities.
Some liberal commentators, fulminating with rage against what they see as the ‘ugly’ side of British life, would have you believe this is all a question of “racism”. White working-class voters, they say, are “bigots”, raging against the modern world.
You don’t need me to tell you what snobbish, condescending rubbish this is, not least because, during the campaign, it proved so disastrously self-destructive.
IS THIS RACISM?
The truth is that as the BBC’s head of political research, David Cowling, argued last week in a leaked memo, the “metropolitan political class” have lived for far too long in a “London bubble”.
“There are many millions of people in the UK who do not enthuse about diversity and do not embrace metropolitan values, yet do not consider themselves lesser human beings for all that,” he wrote. “Until their values and opinions are acknowledged and respected, rather than ignored and despised, our present discord will persist.”
There is, however, another dimension to all this, to which many of those inside the metropolitan bubble have been similarly blind. The fact is that Britain — well, England and Wales at least — has always been a deeply Eurosceptic place.
Indeed, perhaps the really remarkable thing was not that we decided to come out of the EU, but that we ever joined in the first place
NEVER TOO LATE, BRITAIN!
What took us into the Common Market, as it then was, was not Euro-enthusiasm, but anxiety about our own weakness during a period of unprecedented introspection and self-doubt.
It is no accident that Britain first applied to join in the early Sixties, when our Empire was breaking up, we were floundering to find a new role in the world and the headlines were full of doom and gloom about our relative economic decline.
Remember, too, that when the British people voted to remain in the EEC in 1975, they did so against a backdrop of extraordinary industrial unrest and political impotence, with inflation surging towards a post-war record of 26 per cent.
Even at the time, few people were very enthusiastic.
When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church in the 16th century, he famously proclaimed that “England is an Empire”, by which he meant that it was different from the rest of Europe, special and self-contained. And whether you believe in it or not, the idea of our own uniqueness has always played a central part in our national story.
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Over the next few centuries, the vision of Britain as a cradle of liberty, a unique bastion of Protestant freedom against Catholic Europe, became entrenched in our national imagination.
Yet nations cannot live by myths alone. And even the most enthusiastic Brexiteers would surely have to admit that Britain now faces perhaps the most febrile and uncertain period in our modern history.
The challenges are immense. In the next few years, David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister will need to take Britain out of the EU, negotiate new trade deals with our international partners and introduce a new system to control immigration.
On top of that, the new PM will need to move mountains to mollify Scotland and Northern Ireland — both of which voted to Remain — and somehow keep the United Kingdom intact.
And all this against a background of unprecedented political chaos and national division, with fully 48 per cent of the electorate, including the vast majority of youngsters, having voted to Remain.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Never before in our peacetime history have we so desperately needed calm, mature, effective and decisive leadership, embodied by a Prime Minister who understands the mood of the country and can bring the British people together.
WHY THE BRITISH PEOPLE DID THE RIGHT THING
TO TURN THEIR BACKS ON EUROPE