As a visitor in London on the weekend of the Brexit Referendum, there was a strange atmosphere about the place. It felt as though a country had taken leave of their collective senses, and for this correspondent, it had an air of being behind enemy lines. The country that stood for Europe in 1939, had now rejected the institution that came from the ashes of that war. The Leave decision had seemed both brutish and symbolic. The UK had voted to quit after decades of tabloid vitriol and contempt towards Brussels and a populist campaign that preyed on fears about immigration by appealing to the worst instincts of the electorate. Europe had lost a member of the family. Things had changed utterly.
The fallout from this self-inflicted catastrophe was in many ways worse than feared. Trillions wiped from share value globally, a spike in racist assaults in England and political chaos at Westminster. The demographic and class split that had been projected by pollsters, came home in dramatic and divisive fashion. The Old voted to Leave, the Young voted to stay. Middle Class Graduates voted to Remain, Working Class voters wanted to go. Scotland, London and Northern Ireland put it up to the rest of the United Kingdom; we aren’t with you, mate. The consequences of last Thursday’s decision will be played out for years.
For the Conservatives, the reckoning was swift. David Cameron will go down in history as having made a monumental error in calling this referendum to appease the right wing of his own party. The catastrophe has cost Boris Johnson his lifelong ambition to be Prime Minister. The party of traditional financial stability has presided over the most risky political stunt in the last fifty years. It looks like Theresa May might come through as PM by being one of the last sane Tory MPs in the field.
The Labour Party is in absolute turmoil. A career Trot clings stubbornly to power when the overwhelming majority of his elected colleagues want him out and out now. Corbyn runs the very real risk of destroying HM’s Opposition. Egged on by a motley collection of dreamers, political know-nothings and, frankly, mad individuals, the Corbyn experiment has failed. It is time for Labour to regroup around a Centre-Left Remainer, someone who won’t be afraid to put it up to the Hard Left that if they want street politics, there are alternative parties for them to join.
The case for Scotland having a second independence referendum has never been stronger. Nicola Sturgeon can argue that the interests of voters north of Hadrian’s Wall have irreparably drifted from those south of the border. The hypocrisy of a Westminster Tory government dominated by Leavers dictating policy to Scotland on such a kernel matter of self-determination would be breath-taking. If Labour pivot to supporting the case for Scottish independence, the march towards that goal may be swifter than imagined less than only two years ago. A constitutional crisis that has been sped up rather than created, Brexit has served to underline that Scotland and England are inexorably drifting apart.
Another fine mess the Leavers have created is injecting fresh doubt into Northern Ireland. The Six Counties voted to remain. The DUP – bizarrely – supported a referendum that drives a wedge in the Union. As it happens, the Irish Government will row behind many of the British Brexit negotiation positions; this is because governments tend to look to national interests. But let’s be clear. Nationalists can point to the winner takes all democratic centralism of the vote result. The Good Friday Agreement was a precarious patchwork of a deal; last Thursday’s result has frightened many.
The demographic breakdown from Brexit is a further issue of concern. The lowering of the tone has allowed racism to rear its ugly head in public. The anti-immigration rhetoric was stoked up so much that we shouldn’t be surprised that working class areas voted to leave. If you’re not White or Eastern European, it is not a good time to be living in certain parts of England. The fact that younger people voted to remain may offer some solace for future European engagement. But the country voted out and once Article 50 is invoked, the countdown to leaving begins.
The grounds for optimism aren’t that widespread. The hope is that market adjustments and political instability will be short-term. But the real risk is that voting leave has done real medium to long-term damage to the UK, Europe and the World. The Centre may hold, but this unnecessary political adventurism has shattered the hopes of millions. Better Together wasn’t just a slogan to remain, it is a truism that we should all aspire to or should we not, there should be compelling reasons not to. Leave never made the case that there were these reasons. They’ve broken it. They can try and fix it.