Yesterday, we discovered what happens when you ask the British what they really think about foreigners. The result was a disaster. A disaster and a tragedy. It was the worst political event of my lifetime, and I lived through the Thatcher years.
I considered voting Leave at one point. There was always a case to be made that too many powers had been ceded to Brussels and it would be better to recover them for our own elected government. But it had become clear by the end of the campaign that the Leave that I would have been voting for was a different Leave from the one that the other voters had in mind:
This is an anti-system vote. The sight of Government ministers, business and union leaders, the IMF and Barack Obama lining up to support Remain didn't help the cause. It probably actively hindered it. The result is part of an anti-establishment, anti-politics wave which is breaking across Europe, and which has become bound up with nativist and xenophobic sentiments. Even the Germans have overcome their 70-year taboo on nationalist politics. And it will not end here. It is rather chilling that Marine Le Pen changed her Facebook avatar to a union flag yesterday (how dare that woman display the flag that my grandfathers carried when they fought to defeat fascism). It is not a good time for the EU to start breaking up.
A few further comments:
- The Leave campaign are already rowing back from their campaign promises, as it is a good idea to inflame the sentiments of angry people and then leave them frustrated. Nigel Farage has branded the claim of more money for the NHS a "mistake", while Daniel Hannan thought it wise to say on national television that "if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed". Yes, Daniel, I think they are. The Thatcherite element of Leave - the faction that thought that getting out of the EU would be safely confined to scrapping workers' right and environmental laws - are about to find out what happens when you try to ride the tiger of nationalism.
- There is a crackpot idea going around that we don't need to formally initiate the process of leaving the EU. We just start unilaterally legislating in breach of the treaties and then use that as a negotiating position to arrive at some sort of new associate member status which will allow us to have our cake and eat it. This course has been advocated both by John Redwood and by some clinically sane people. It is utterly fanciful. The EU has legal methods of circumventing these tactics - but, more importantly, they completely fail to comprehend the weakness of our bargaining position and how far we have pissed off our former European partners. They don't need us. We needed them.
- Boris Johnson will be Prime Minister. There are no two candidates who will come before him in the Conservative parliamentary party poll, and once he is before the general party membership he will win in a landslide. George Osborne's career is over. He will either spend the rest of his life on the backbenches or, even more humiliatingly, become foreign secretary.
- There will probably be an early election. Labour need to get a new leader to take on Johnson, and fast. There is a left-wing response to the alienation of working-class voters outside London which has fuelled the present anti-establishment, anti-immigrant mood. It lies in giving disaffected regions and communities a new stake in the country and its development - most obviously, by raising taxes and spending the money on big work creation and economic regeneration projects (particularly infrastructure projects, which have such a delayed return that government is better placed to invest in them than private capital). But this will be difficult in a recession - like the one that has just started - and Corbyn is not the man to sell such a programme to the voters. In fact, Corbyn is not the man to organise a drinks party on licensed premises.
- Everyone knows that Scotland will break off. What has not been noticed so widely is that Remain won in Northern Ireland. As recently as 20 years ago, the Protestant tribal bloc would have made sure that Leave won. The one bright spot in all this is the evident erosion of the tribal voting blocs in NI.
I regarded anti-European feeling as hopelessly, absurdly out of date and unrealistic.... It was a kind of post-empire delusion.
It was bolstered over a time when the American right... got together with the British right and constructed an argument that was a plaything for the US but a dangerous cul-de-sac for the British. This was the idea that somehow we should remain close allies of the US in contradistinction to being key partners in the EU.
Of course, this was a delusion was well. The US was so much more powerful... that such a dependence suited them but not us. It was also absolutely apparent to me that if we had reach in Europe, we were treated more seriously in Washington.
Moreover, in the rest of the world a Britain semi-detached from Europe was regarded as odd, part of British eccentricity....
"I've told Margaret she's crazy on this," [Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore] said, "Britain can't afford to be out of Europe in the world as it is today. It's just not realistic." Much later, the wonderful Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh told me the same thing. The Chinese were too polite and formal to say it quite so plainly, but it was obvious that's what they thought too.