I don’t want to be a party-pooper but the celebrations have to be kept short. What does this mean? It means that the Brexit vote, far from necessarily being “seismic” in its implications (the favoured description, so far as I can tell) could, potentially, become a damp squib. The political elite have already started to backslide. My fear is that a formula will be found which will pay only lip service to the Leave campaign victory.
The likes of UKIP’s Nigel Farage will not call the tune. The likes of longstanding Euro-sceptic Daniel Hannan will. He already has the exit process elongated. He conceives of an agreement which will preserve the common market for goods allied with free movement of labour. By the latter he means the free movement of people who can show they have jobs waiting; but, if that is your opening gambit, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where negotiations will end up. Listening to him, when frequently interviewed on the BBC, brought the Stockholm syndrome to fresh life in my mind.
One conservative chap, with a polished accent, whose name escapes me, said that he thought a general election should be called and that it would be perfectly proper if a party sought a mandate to stay in the EC. When you think you have heard it all, listen to an English public school old boy and no longer wonder why working people in Burnley, Bolton and Bradford feel betrayed.
The problem is not just that a large majority of parliamentarians favour staying in; it is that the popular vote was close. The 52% of those who voted to leave was far short of the two-thirds who voted for staying in the EU in 1975. The mandate for resolute action is far thinner and boon for those who believe they know better than do common folk. A further complication is the strong vote in Scotland (62%) to stay and in Northern Ireland (56%). And more complicated still is the gulf between younger and older voters. According to the BBC, 73% of those aged from 18 to 25 voted to stay.
I heard one younger commentator say that she thought that older people had been selfish. This prompted historian David Starkey to ask whether she thought there should be an upper age limit on voter eligibility. My own view is that people younger than 25, whose brains are still developing, should be excluded from voting. But this is regarded as an eccentric view by most so I better keep quiet about it.
Though Michael Gove (Lord Chancellor) is in the frame and maybe others, it seems likely that Boris Johnson will be the next Prime Minister. It is worth comparing a snippet of his take on the result with that of Nigel Farage. Farage referred to a conversation he’d had with a woman in Burney who had held his arm and pleaded with him to help take her country back. Underlying the concern among common folk is immigration which is now running at a net 330,000 per year. Becoming as strangers in your own land and having to wait longer for basic services, like seeing a doctor, is far from the everyday experience of Old Etonian Johnson and fellow Old Etonian Cameron. It shows.
Johnson said he wanted an immigration policy which is “non-discriminatory” (eh?), “fair and balanced.” And he wants this, as he said, “to take the wind out of the sails of the extremists and those who would play politics with our immigration.” Does he also want this to preserve the cultural integrity and social harmony of the UK? Well, clearly, this was not uppermost in his mind or he would have said so.
In short, as a Brexit supporter, albeit from a distance, I have no confidence that the wishes of British voters will be carried out. And the longer the process is dragged out, the more the referendum result will be put into a nuanced perspective to suit the views of the political elite. Leave just isn’t going to mean leave; it’s going to mean whatever the elite says it means. Those who led the Leave campaign have most of the work still to do. Let’s hope that they appreciate the long road ahead
It would help if exit movements in France and in Holland and in other European countries gather pace and prevail through popular votes. A disintegrating EU would be far easier for the UK to leave behind and a lot harder for the Scots and Northern Irish to embrace. The UK’s eventually landing place might depend on the success or otherwise of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others in Europe who would like to see their national sovereignty restored.