When we last spoke to each other, the struggling heroine was tied to the railway tracks, the bonds were holding firm, the locomotive was rushing towards her, and the end looked nigh. At the last minute, however, even as her obituaries were being written (“a sad end to a fine life with many great achievements to her credit”, but also “few will regret the demise of this imperious harridan” and “this is not so much a death as an absorption into a greater Oneness”), Britannia suddenly broke free from the bonds, leapt from the tracks, jumped nimbly onto the rushing locomotive, produced a small revolver hitherto secreted in her underwear, placed it against the temple of the surprised driver, and said: “Make straight for the open seas, Buster, and don’t tell me you don’t know the way.”
I refer, as you have guessed, to the decision of the British people by a 52-to-48 per cent referendum vote to leave the European Union and resume being an independent self-governing democracy. It is less than three months since the vote—and early judgments are always suspect—but the result looks today like a much bigger deal for Europe and the world as well as for Britain than even passionate Brexiteers like me guessed in advance. So far there have been three stages in reaction to it.
The first was an almost universal surprise, since it was a truism that Leavers were a tiny handful of fruitcakes. A defeat for Remain was thus unthinkable. In fact there had always been widespread opposition to the EU among voters at all social levels, even though political parties, the media, and most national institutions had treated the idea with contempt and its adherents as eccentric at best. Suddenly the referendum rules meant that Leavers were on television making the case for Brexit nightly and, contrary to their caricature, they seemed quite reasonable. They persuaded some voters to switch to Leave, and Leave voters to be more confident of their own opinions. As the campaign developed, the polls swung towards Leave and many late polls showed the two sides as neck-and-neck. A Leave victory, though by no means inevitable, should have been seen as pretty likely.
In fact the reaction that followed surprise was a set of variations on horror, outrage, indignation, anguish and a desire for revenge. That was on the Remain side; the Leave side was pleased but not extravagantly so. For a while it simply pocketed its unexpected success and watched, bemused, from the wings while Remainers rioted angrily stage-centre. They plainly wanted the referendum result annulled but they were never quite able to explain why. Obviously they couldn’t say simply that they wanted a different result. So they had to invent a series of specious reasons that in their eyes cast doubt on its validity—that the Leave campaign was xenophobic and racist, that its voters (though not Remain voters) had not understood what they were voting for, that it had “told lies” (uniquely so in political campaigns, apparently), and so on and so forth. But the argument advanced with most passion by Remainers and repeated most often in the left-wing press ran as follows: because old uneducated people supporting Leave had outvoted young people with degrees voting Remain, these miserable old geezers had “robbed the young of their future” and, well, it wasn’t right.
No, it wasn’t right—on any number of grounds. First, the argument assumes what has to be proved: if the future outside the EU turns out to be better than inside it, then those who voted Leave will have bequeathed the young a better future. You’re welcome. Second, neither young nor old people voted as blocs; large percentages of both groups deviated from their respective majorities; and because of differential turnout, more older people than younger voted to Remain! Third, the argument that young people with degrees in particular were outvoted by old uneducated ones is a piece of vulgar intellectual snobbery. Happily, it is also false because (a) it confuses education (and, by implication) intelligence with possession of a degree, and (b) it assumes that the value of a degree is stable over time. However, according to a House of Commons Library study of educational changes in Britain: “Overall participation in higher education increased from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000.” It has hovered around the 50 per cent mark for the last few years.
So the value of a degree has been falling steadily since the mid-1960s. College never was the only avenue for talented school-leavers; before university expansion many went directly into business or the civil service. And given stable or even falling educational standards since then, it is absolutely certain that a great many over-sixties without degrees are better educated than many under-thirties with a diploma.
The excoriation of the Leavers continued for more than a month. It even included such old-fashioned discourtesies as hostesses asking Leavers to leave dinner parties when their social disgrace was revealed in conversation. Then the tide turned in a third reaction.
Its first wave was the gradual realisation that the predicted horrors of Brexit forecast by the Remainers had not in fact occurred. That was a bigger blow than it should have been. After all, Britain is still in the European Union and probably will remain there until the end of 2018. But the Remainers were seemingly so convinced of their predictions of apocalypse that they hailed the early inevitable signs of market and currency turbulence as proof that their Project Fear was proving to be Project Brexageddon.
My two favourite instances were (a) the New York Times headline “Alarmed Britons Ask Pollsters: Why Didn’t You Warn Us?” within a few days of the vote, and (b) the disapproving BBC interviewer who on D-Day+1 asked a Wall Streeter why he wasn’t taking the crisis more seriously, to which, seemingly amused, he replied that he’d been around the block a few times.
The Wall Streeter was right. Within a short time the Footsie 100 and 250 had both recovered ground lost, the Bank of England reported “no clear evidence” of a post-Brexit slowdown, the IMF predicted that UK growth over the next two years would be higher than any other G20 economy except the US and Canada, and the European Central Bank saw no sign that Brexit had had any impact on inflation. Much can go wrong in the future, of course, and there are many problems in the European and world economies. But the Remainers cannot cite any future crises as the consequences of Brexit because they have already played that card and been shown up as not just wrong but also alarmist.
With their scare-mongering discredited, the Remainers and their allies—or to be more precise, the Remain bitter-enders—have now become the focus of attention. What explains their combination of absolute certainty that they are right with their actual record of frequently being wrong? Why did they give vent to such unpleasant snobbery about Leave voters—a snobbery that is especially silly since both Leave and Remain voting blocs contain large slices of every conventional social class? Why were Remain’s hostile and largely fallacious explanations of the Brexit result taken up so uncritically by the media and officialdom of other countries around the world—so that CNN’s Christiane Amanpour could make a perfect fool of herself by asserting that an alleged upsurge in hate crimes was attributable to the Leave campaign without giving evidence of any link whatsoever. And why are claims that simply beg to be investigated—such as “Those with no formal education are twice as likely to vote Leave as those with university degree/in education”—transported uncritically onto front pages? As the statistician Gary Bennett asked and answered in a cool impartial analysis of Brexit statistics on the website Conservative Home: “What proportion of Leave voters fall within this group [that is, no formal education]? Just one per cent!”
I am not asking these questions about all Remain voters. Like all Leave voters, they cover many social categories, including “Not very interested in politics”. Yet those who are active and passionate on the Remain side around the world seem united by something deeper and more general than Brexit itself.
May I suggest two modest clues. The first is the case of the lady who was asked to leave the London dinner party for voting the socially incorrect way. (I know now of several such cases.) If it sounds like something out of Wilde or Pinero, that’s not accidental. It was an old-fashioned class loyalty and disdain in a new post-national class.
The second clue is the absolute determination of the Remainers during the campaign not to discuss Leave’s argument that Brexit was needed to preserve Britain’s sovereign democracy. Nor to acknowledge afterwards that democracy was an important reason why people voted for Brexit. Nor to wonder if their own attitudes to the Brexit vote, listed in the questions above, did not reveal a discomfort they could not respectably express with a resurgent democracy and the threat it poses to their class interests.
Christopher Caldwell, writing on a different topic in the Spectator, observed: “Western elites are hardening into something like a class. Having little contact with other social classes, they may, on certain issues, never have met someone who disagrees with them. They cannot distinguish between wishes and facts, and see no need to.”
And when they meet a people that disagrees with them, they almost explode with the frustration of not being able to say why they should prevail.