I spent much of yesterday at a school in the London borough of Lambeth. There, like in Cambridge where I live, the view was so resolutely ‘remain’ that the only remarks I heard were speculating about the extent of the Remain majority. I liked hearing that. Talk of Brexit was making me increasingly worried.
On the train I read the Financial Times. There were articles about Brexit paranoia and the mental health issues being connected with the uncertainty that the referendum had precipitated. But the general argument of the paper, expressed, in article after article was the argument for stability, for continuity, for connection – for Remain.
I had nagging doubts, of course. When significant people left the Brexit camp because of the misleading nature of its claims, I was aware that these were individuals moving, they didn’t seem to take people with them. I noticed the way the Brexit leaders were able, far more than, the Remain campaigners, to strike the populist note, to raise what seemed like a positive cheer out of dire negativity. Their product – uncertainty, instability and change should have been the most difficult sell, yet they managed to package and wrap it up to make it look like what people wanted – reassurance, nostalgia and calm.
It is too early to tell how this will play out, but that there will be many who find their decision haunting them for years to come seems to me to be inevitable. And these range from the huge mistake in leadership in promising this in the Conservative manifesto to the consequences for the local economy (I mean jobs) in areas so dependent on Europe for prosperity. Many eyes should be on Sunderland; will the job-giving Nissan plant survive?
The Conservatives have got us into this mess by failing to manage their internal affairs or negotiate a better set of reforms from Europe before this sorry referendum was launched. But Labour must carry huge responsibility for losing so much ground to UKIP. As for the Liberal Democrats, their failure to be a force for the values they espouse through what we may come back to view as years of golden calm and peaceful prosperity is also deeply culpable. It’s an odd world where the strongest feeling for Remain comes in the most nationalist of parties and eras. This doesn’t make Nicola Sturgeon right, but it does offer a relatively attractive form of nationalism.
Among the many concerns I have about what has just taken place, not least the capacity of the University of which I am a part to retain its extraordinary international standing for research, is the fact that so many wise and leading people spoke out for Remain, only to be howled down as a self-interested elite, an establishment that needed a kicking. It was the lack of a convincing retort to this that now makes our politics look so thin and shabby, not least when, as you look at the demographics of the referendum, it is the young who wanted to remain and the old who want out.
The biggest mistake of all in this is to have called a referendum. There was a time – when I was very young – that I thought that there should be regular referenda on all the major issues. After all, I thought, democracy is at its best the matter of taking a vote. Therefore the more votes that are taken, the better the democracy. The word wasn’t current then but you could say that I was imagining a ‘granular ‘approach to politics to replace the party political version.
I now see that as very childish thinking. And yet as I look forward I fear that in the absence of convincing political leadership (which is essentiality the art of selling principled compromise) the desire for binary questions based on unsubstantiated promises about what the new approach will deliver, will only increase. It panders to the deep desire we all have to believe things boil down to a simple yes / no and to believe that at last someone as noble and wise as ME is making the decision that counts. This is really foolish – but also deeply seductive. As someone said in a tweet, the remain campaign failed to take ‘original sin’ into account. You can say that about all forms of stripped down, uncomplicated politics. My worry is that people will get a taste for it and as life gets more uncertain and stressful over the coming months and years they will want more. I hesitate to say it but I don’t think that it will be long before there is a call for a referendum on the death penalty. And when it comes the people in power will know that it is the referendum mentality that got them there.
But if that’s the depth of my pessimism where is my hope?
That, I fear, is a question for another day. Today is a day of disappointment and as living with disappointment was a theme in the sermon I delivered at the school in South London yesterday. I am going to post there salient parts of that adders as my next blog. At the time I was naive enough not to connect it with the referendum or Europe. I am not so naive now. Neither are any of us.