I SPENT THE SUNDAY before the crucial vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union with my parents and family on the south coast of England. It was Father’s Day and a very pleasurable lunch was being enjoyed in a traditional public house, complete with a hearty roast dinner and warm beer. It was a typically British scene—but for one thing.
Over lunch the conversation turned to politics. Unlike most other countries I’m familiar with—France, the United States and India, for example—talking politics at a family function is generally frowned upon. And expressing strong views in a forthright fashion is a definite no-no. We’re supposed to stick to uncontroversial niceties like the weather or issues where you can get passionate without falling out, like football.
My family lunch was not unlike many others that week, I am sure. The question of whether Britain should stay or leave the EU was in everybody’s mind and on everybody’s lips. The country was divided, but it was also engaged in a way that rarely happens, even when there’s a general election. This felt far more important that who should form the next government—and it was.
There’s no such thing as a typical British family, any more than there is anywhere else in the world. But mine is of the kind that you might come across almost anywhere. Not particularly rich, but not particularly poor either. Middle-class, hard working and easy going. We’d rather avoid most contentious subjects than have a row about them.
That lunchtime, I became convinced that Britain was going to vote to turn its back on the system of European cooperation that we had signed up to 40 years ago and watched evolve and develop in the intervening years. Knowing that I was passionately in favour of staying in the EU, a few of my immediate family admitted sheepishly that they planned to vote the other way. But, more importantly, all of them said the overwhelming majority of their friends were for ‘Leave’.
I might have concluded that maybe, for some reason, they had atypical friends and acquaintances. But so many of my own friends reported similar encounters elsewhere in Britain. Those of us who live in London can sometimes get a very distorted view of what the rest of the country is like. We’re used to the buzz and bustle of a cosmopolitan, outward looking capital city. The rest of the country was feeling grumpy, ignored and uncared for.
So when the results started coming through overnight after the referendum polls had closed, I was not surprised to learn that the vote was for Brexit. Most commentators, politicians and businesspeople were visibly shocked, however. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and even most of those who had campaigned for exactly this result were unprepared for the outcome. They had relied upon the opinion polls, which failed once again to reflect the true state of public opinion. And most lived and worked in the same metropolitan bubble that insulated them from the pressures and concerns of the country beyond.
Britain was immediately plunged into crisis. Not one crisis, but several. None of them will be resolved for months if not years to come
Britain was immediately plunged into crisis. Not one crisis, but several. The most significant of these being economic, political and constitutional. None of them will be resolved for months if not years to come. In each case there was an immediate shock to the system, coupled with a speedy realisation that many serious hurdles lay ahead before Britain could ever get back any kind of equilibrium and start charting a new future for itself.
On the economic front, it was the fall in the value of the pound and of stocks and shares in British companies that was immediately apparent. Soon afterwards came the warnings that jobs in multinational companies and financial services might be shifted across the English Channel to continental Europe. The possible sale of the remaining Tata Steel production unit in the UK was said to be in jeopardy. And there were rumours that big industrial plants, like the one that produces hundreds of thousands of Toyota cars for the European market, might close and be relocated elsewhere.
Politically, the fall-out was instantaneous with the announcement by Cameron that he would resign. A year ago, he was celebrating being the first Conservative Party leader to win an absolute majority in the House of Commons since 1992. Now his career was over, with his reputation in tatters. No sooner did the manoeuvring begin to find a new Tory leader than the opposition Labour Party erupted in open revolt aimed at deposing its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was thought to have been too half-hearted in campaigning for his party’s policy of remaining inside the European Union.
The referendum hadn’t asked the British people who they wanted running the country—that was what last year’s general election was supposed to be about. It had asked them how they wanted to be governed, although even on this fundamental point the public were not presented with a straightforward choice. They were given the chance to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the way they were being governed at the moment, and they said ‘no’. But they were never offered a clearly defined alternative. Of all the deceptions and dishonesty propagated by the ‘Leave’ campaigners, the most serious by far was their refusal to admit that they had no plan for how to disentangle Britain from the EU and no blueprint for what the country would look like, and how it would engage with the rest of the world, in the event of Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn was thought to have been too half-hearted in campaigning for his party’s policy of remaining inside the European Union
Alongside the hundreds of complex questions thrown up by the result was a fairly simple one that was also the most pressing: ‘What happens now?’ Nobody had an answer.
It is the third of the big crises that will prove the most enduring and have the most profound impact. The economy will stabilise, even if it is in a much weaker state than before. The political parties will resolve their leadership issues one way or another. But the structural basis of British democracy, and indeed of the nation itself, will take much longer to find a new equilibrium.
It is a tired cliché to say we now have a ‘Disunited Kingdom’, but that reality now stares us in the face. Two of the four parts that make up the UK—Scotland and Northern Ireland—voted to remain in the EU. The Scots would have a perfect right to hold another referendum on whether they should become a fully independent nation. If that were to happen, Cameron’s risky strategy to try to keep his party united would not only have failed in that endeavour but would also have fractured two political unions, not one. And the long, painful process of trying to rebuild trust and put an end to division in Ireland will be set back by the creation of an unnecessary and unwanted customs border between the Republic of Ireland to the south, still a member of the EU, and the politically fragile province of Northern Ireland, forced out of the EU as a result of the UK-wide vote.
The challenge of finding a post-Brexit settlement with the European Union that satisfies the competing demands of the different nations and regions of the UK is monumental. The prospect of a settlement that is capable of responding adequately to their needs and expectations is remote, to say the least. The EU, imperfect though it is, was always the least bad option. But it has always been hopeless at communicating its own achievements and has had to deal with a barrage of ill-informed commentary and often downright lies from much of the British media and right-wing politicians for decades.
Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Britain is about to discover that EU membership is the worst way of working with our European neighbours, except for all the others.
THE NEW SETTLEMENT, whatever it is, will be determined not just by decisions taken in the UK, but elsewhere in Europe too. The shock of Brexit to the European system cannot be exaggerated. Faced with the very real prospect of similar pressures to leave in other countries, including founder-members like France and the Netherlands, the EU may be forced into long-overdue radical reforms of how it goes about its work. It is perfectly possible that by the time Britain is ready finally to say ‘goodbye’, a process that could take two years or more, the institution we are leaving looks very different to how it does today. Under those circumstances the British people would have every right to be consulted again before it is too late.
A second EU referendum looks politically impossible today. But with all the cards thrown up in the air, circumstances in the future could make it not just possible but necessary.
Perhaps the strongest argument of the Brexiteers was that Britain is a strong, resourceful nation with a proud history, and that difficult though all these problems may appear, we will be able to resolve them. After all, British constitutional experts drafted the rules that still govern vast areas of the world including, of course, India. Some sort of constitutional fix will inevitably be found, because it has to be found. Much, much harder to resolve will be the divisions in British society exposed—and in some cases created—by the referendum. Those divisions may never be fully healed, but if they cannot be contained and if politicians fail to find the language and policies to respond to them, then they will be the biggest threat to Britain’s future security and prosperity.
The UK is a more fearful, fractious and frankly ugly place than it was before all this started. Instances of disgusting racially motivated abuse have been reported all over the country. To cite just one example, a Sikh radiographer working in a busy hospital reported being told by a patient, “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.” Sentiments have been unleashed that may always have been there below the surface but which were, until now, kept in check.
Of course not everybody who voted to leave is a racist. The motivations for Brexit were various and complex. It’s probably true that more people were inspired by the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ than by a desire to send foreigners back to where they came from. Never mind that many of those suffering abuse, or merely feeling exposed and uncertain, today are every bit as British as I am.
If I had to point to one sentiment that lay at the heart of the momentum behind Brexit, it would be powerlessness. A feeling that the ordinary citizens of this country have no power to change things. That Westminster doesn’t listen to them, never mind the politicians and bureaucrats they couldn’t name or identify at the heart of the European Union. That globalisation is a force so far outside their control that they feel like pawns in a vast game they don’t understand and never chose to be part of. This was their opportunity to kick back, and they took it.
Engaging with that anger and frustration and responding to the genuine concerns that created it is the single biggest challenge facing the British political system. The tradition of liberal democracy, in which power changes hands between parties that despite their differences share a common faith in the representative democratic system, is itself under threat. It is a threat that is not unique to Britain by any means, but one that has been exposed here in the most brutal fashion.
To those who argue that it will all work itself out after a reactively brief period of instability, I say simply that I wish they were right but I believe they are wrong. The febrile atmosphere in politics today is not conducive to working out the longer-term solutions to these problems, but the day of reckoning cannot be put off too long. They transcend party politics and go beyond borders.
I am sure the next time my family get together we will discuss Europe again. We have not fallen out over it, although tales of family feuds and broken friendships abound. Sadly, this vote of the British people has resolved nothing and has thrown up many more problems than it was intended to resolve. Britain has a reputation both for being a tolerant and easy-going nation, and for muddling through when times get tough. Those qualities are being tested today as never before in my lifetime. Wish us luck.