‘A Republic, if you can keep it’ Benjamin Franklin 1787
‘A week is a long time in politics’ Prime Minister Harold Wilson 1964
‘Never in the field of political conflict was so much debated by so many to such little effect’ Adapted and twisted from Winston Churchill’s wartime tribute to the RAF by the author
Until now I have deliberately stayed out of the Portsmouth Point articles, vlogs and debates over the EU referendum. Partly out of laziness and too many other things to do, partly because pupils were doing such an excellent job on both sides themselves. But now, as the dust is settling, I feel compelled, or at least duty bound as a politics teacher and historian, to contribute some thoughts and reflections of my own on the whole debate and outcome.
Firstly, I found this a truly fascinating if often unedifying campaign. Fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly it broke most of the traditional political rules not least with strange alliances: George Osborne and Alastair Darling, Ruth Davidson (leader of the Scottish Tories) and SNP First Lady Nicola Sturgeon. We were disappointingly spared the Cameron-Corbyn love-in, though. But on the Leave side, too, we had right-wing Eurosceptics from Tory and UKIP alongside credible Labour figures such as Frank Field and Gisella Stuart, plus a few Old Labour dinosaurs such as Dennis Skinner MP, the "Beast of Bolsover".
Rule number two that was broken was that divided parties (or in this case campaigns) do not win elections. The Leave camp was divided from the start with two principal groups emerging: the official Vote Leave group which encompassed the more ‘establishment’ Eurosceptics such as Gove, Johnson and Stuart, and the more insurgent/UKIP orientated Leave.EU which was more the Farage vehicle. Logic should have dictated some infighting among the two groups. Other than Vote Leave disowning the controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster put out by Leave EU, they co-operated rather like the Soviets and the British/Americans in WW2. Separate fronts, but willing to pause mutual suspicion for long enough to fight a common enemy. This worked: Farage and Johnson/Gove will have had an appeal to separate constituencies of voters. I don’t see the traditional Labour voters of South Wales, Merseyside or the North East ever voting for a Eurosceptic Tory.
The third rule to be broken was that referendums result in a victory for the status quo, that caution prevails, not least when the bulk of the ‘establishment (big business, economists, trade union leaders etc) attempt to persuade ‘their’ people to fall in behind. If I was to identify one common sentiment the morning after the night before among staff and pupils regardless of how they voted or aligned, it was shock. Deep sadness and anger among some, quiet resolve and grim satisfaction among others. Few, I felt, were in a celebratory mood ready to crack open the bottles of fizz. This was a truly momentous decision, a political tsunami, Unlike a general election or presidential race, we won’t be able to reverse the decision in four or five years. Well, it could happen (in politics anything is possible), but I deem it very unlikely.
What we have witnessed is a victory of guerrilla-style political tactics over the big guns. The Leave side was more committed and grassroots-based; hey, they had a gazebo and a goodly number of supporters in Cosham High St one Saturday while Remain had a handful of slightly dejected, though doubtless fully-committed, activists and one fold-up table. This turned out to be a hearts-and-minds operation, whereas the Remain side wheeled out a vast arsenal of experts: economists, defence chiefs, industrialists, trade union leaders, world leaders, even historians. The British public was bullied, pleaded with and warned by the ‘experts’. This was political equivalent of carpet-bombing: it didn’t work in Vietnam, it didn’t work in the UK. Leave, by contrast, had fewer such resources, but it had enough, just enough, to sound plausible - and it had more ordinary troops on the ground. Leave had a simple message - some would say simplistic: take back control (of our borders, of our economy, of our finances). There was ugly xenophobic populist nationalism for sure, but there was enough intellectual rigour to reassure many folk that they were not voting for the BNP or Britain First. For every ten or twenty Remain FTSE 100 CEOs, there was James Dyson and Anthony Bamford (of JCB) arguing for a bright economic future outside the EU. They had sane politicians, as well as the usual demagogues.
Oh, and there was the British press which lined up largely as expected with Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express all backing Leave in their normal subtle way. The Mirror, Times and Guardian were predictably Remain. And what of social media? This is where it gets interesting. It all depends who your friends are (or in some case were) – posts, links, videos were shared with reckless abandon. I’m not sure how many minds were turned or merely reinforced. All I can say is: thank goodness we don’t offer parties or campaign groups open access to TV ads as in the States. Now that really would make me leave the country!
Finally, it didn’t follow the rules of the Scottish referendum either. There the ‘heart’ cause of independence rode high until the ‘head’ side prevailed (just) in the final days when it became clear that a vote to leave (the UK) was a very real possibility. The political ‘big guns’ were wheeled out (think Gordon Brown) and the Union saved. The EU referendum started off with the Remain camp generally ahead, resurgence by Leave, then a tilt back to Remain, and then… well the polls got it wrong (just)… I thought the tragic and horrific murder of MP Jo Cox would be a turning-point in national sentiment. Committed in the name of what was effectively radicalised British nationalism, her murder showed up the ugly side of estranged patriotism. Again, the political rulebook was torn up and it (in my opinion quite correctly) had no bearing on the final outcome. Why correctly? Well, were we to have a referendum on banning the wearing of the burka in public, it would be totally wrong for the outcome to hinge on an atrocity committed by a radicalised Islamist extremist. The real arguments lie elsewhere (by the way, I emphatically do not want such a referendum on burkas in case you were wondering). Yes, that last week of the campaign was a long and painful one…..
So what now? Well historians are reasonably good most of the time at explaining the past, less good at predicting the future. As for political pundits: well, they are mostly as reliable as racing tipsters (Corbyn as Labour leader? Come off it). This, then, is the most difficult and problematic part of my reflections, and the most easy to ridicule in the light of subsequent events. So here goes…..
1. The result will stand. It must. The people have spoken, if not exactly roared, for Brexit. How ironic, or perhaps fitting, that IDS the ‘quiet man’ has been on the winning side. The turnout was high enough to lend full legitimacy to the result, the polling sufficiently orderly and secure to guarantee a ‘safe’ result. Anyone wanting a re-run is undermining the democratic process, a bit like the good people of Ireland who, having rejected the EU Lisbon Treaty in 2008 in a popular referendum 53%-47% and delivered the ‘wrong result’, were invited to ‘think again’ in 2009 when they approved the treaty in a second vote. Looking back at the fate of the 1956 Hungarian Rising, I can see why Dubcek of Czechoslovakia shied away from giving the ‘wrong answer’ to the USSR in 1968 during the Prague Spring. There is no place for sour grapes and recriminations, though I daresay the elites of the Labour and Conservative parties will happily indulge in this.
2. The ‘divorce’ will not be as bad or as painful as many anticipate. We won’t see the closure of every Polish grocery store or the end to cultural exchanges to Europe; we will still enjoy croissants and Yorkshire Tea. Yes, there are some across the Channel who will want to want punish us for making the ‘wrong decision’, but I genuinely hope that calmer heads will prevail. Yes, we have plenty to lose potentially, but, trade-wise, Europe, not least major exporters such as Germany, has potentially even more to lose. We could be taken to the cleaners and stripped of every marital possession, but hopefully instead we will get good, fair access arrangements to the ‘children’. The European family will still exist; we cannot go it alone, and any Brexiter who voted thinking we could is living in a fool’s paradise/island. This was (I hope) an anti-EU institutions vote, not an anti-European vote. Children are remarkably resilient, provided divorcing parents behave as adults. Some of course might argue that if the ‘children’ of Europe had been treated more maturely by their ‘parents’ in the EU institutions instead of being groomed into a federalist integrationist vision of Europe, this whole messy business might never have happened.
3. We will see a Political Reformation across Europe. The other EU countries and the EU institutions have three options in essence. (1) To bind ever closer together and isolate/demonise heretical Britain (well, England and Wales at any rate). (2) To reform the EU so that it addresses the many genuine concerns across Europe about its dysfunctionality in many areas. We voted not to leave a ‘city on a hill’ but an institution which is deeply embroiled in, and unable convincingly to respond to, both the migrant crisis or the crises in the Eurozone. Neither problem, it should be noted, is the result of British intransigence. (3) Lastly, and most radically, the EU could disband, re-calibrate and re-build a pan-European organisation that promotes trade, cultural and educational exchange and co-operation without a vast bureaucracy and that underlying desire to re-draw the boundaries of nation states into a USE or United States of Europe.
That great (if at times flawed) German, Martin Luther, set in train a chain of events that shook the very foundations of Early Modern Europe. There was pain, division and (as it was the sixteenth century) some pretty nasty intolerance all round, but there was positive reform. The Roman Catholic Church, bruised and battered by this insurgent force, put much of its own house in order from the 1530s onwards, removing many of the abuses and much of the corruption that motivated Luther to draw up the 95 theses in the first place. Ironically, the Counter Reformation Church that emerged was one that the Luther of 1517 (though perhaps not the Luther of 1521) could have stayed with. The real and ultimately irony is that a reformed EU might well be one that many ‘Brexitlite’ voters could live with, but we won’t be in it. However, had we not voted to leave, the reforms might never have happened. We joined the party late, so didn’t have a say in planning it, left early before the best bits, but those best bits were only good because we walked out moaning how boring the party was.
4. UKIP will probably wither as a political force. Their mission is done, expect drifting back into the Tory ranks but perhaps Labour too for some. Both main parties may well shift further rightward and leftward accordingly The SNP have thrived post referendum because they were able to capitalise on a missed opportunity and a Scottish Parliament/Westminster representation where they can fight boldly and independently for Scottish interests without being independent. They will also probably get a second independence referendum and probably win it. UKIP, if they had also been on the losing side, might well have continued to enjoy a similar resurgence. I’m also not sure how matters will play out in Northern Ireland, the Union there may well break and a peacefully united Ireland will become a political reality. The law of unintended political consequences in both cases perhaps. The most pro and sincere Remain party, the Liberal Democrats will paradoxically do well I predict. True, from a paltry 8 MPs, the only way is up, but expect them to capitalise on a fractured centre in British politics. They have lost the war, but will win some battles in the future.
5. Finally, there is a huge burden on those who voted Brexit to bear the responsibility for what they (and I hold my hand up here) have set in motion. It is on into the political unknown - though not, I believe, into an abyss. There will be healing to be done, for sure, and triumphalism and flag waving is not the order of the day. Those on the Remain side need to come around and make the best of a democratic vote they deeply and sincerely disagree with. The real tragedy would be if they refuse to join forces with those negotiating for the best possible and most equitable terms of departure. If not quite a national crisis, it is a complex and tricky situation, but fundamentally and crucially, a democratically decided one no matter how ignorant or misled you think the other viewpoint or its voters are.
A very real challenge will be to restore trust among ourselves and trust with our neighbours across the Channel: to make the best of our newly acquired freedom for manoeuvre and encourage other states, where they want to, to follow suit and re-calibrate Europe. In 1940, Britain stood alone in Europe, actively resisting Nazi domination. Without our painful sacrifices then, the EU would never have emerged. In 2016, we have made a considerable sacrifice to do what some feel is morally right, and by so doing will probably enable a much needed reconfiguration of Europe. No, of course the EU institutions are not Nazis and their intentions are far nobler, but the comparison holds water, I feel.
Where does the Benjamin Franklin quote at the start fit in? When asked after the Constitutional Convention (which drew up the American Constitution) whether the newly independent USA had a monarchy or a republic, that was his reply. My gut feeling today is that we have a Brexit if we, too, can keep it. That truly will be a challenge…….