The Guardian view on the EU referendum

The morning after the night before: this was the 24 June Guardian editorial on the EU referendum:

“The vote is in, now we must face the consequences

A prime minister is gone, but that is of nothing compared to the fallout for the economy, our union and Europe. It will all have to be grappled with, and so too will the economic neglect and the social alienation which have driven Britain to the exit door.

The British people have spoken and it is no use dismissing what they have said. But there is no use, either, in wishing away the many, profound and – in some cases – dangerous consequences of the vote to leave the European Union.

Britain’s place in the world will now have to be rethought, necessitating the most profound debate about our alliances since the Suez debacle at least. The country’s very idea of itself will have to be reimagined and deep strains on the state’s fabric – between a pro-European Scotland and Northern Ireland, and an anti-European England and Wales – will have to be addressed. If there were any doubt at that, Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate signal that she would begin preparations for a second independence referendum will have dashed them.

There will need to be negotiations with Europe, of course, in which the UK could come in for the diplomatic equivalent of a punishment beating; and yet, at the same time, there is also potential for geopolitical instability well beyond these shores as well, as a gleeful Nigel Farage lost no time in highlighting at a dawn press conference, in which he excitedly talked about the prospect of inspiring Denmark, Netherlands and other EU member states to beat an exit. It is not only separatism, but also far-right populism that could be given a fillip. Then, the most immediate problem as the sun rose over an island newly apart was a historic run on stocks and the pound. These things could – unless managed wisely – so easily translate into a new crunch on the banks, a recession or even a sudden inability to finance the nation’s current account.

With so much that is so momentous in flux, the immediate preoccupation with personnel at Westminster – who’s up, and who’s down – seems scarcely relevant, even on a day when the head of Her Majesty’s government fell on his sword. But in charting a course through the choppy waters that the country now finds itself in, leadership will be important. David Cameron – instantly, utterly and forever broken by his defeat overnight – grasped that this was no longer something that he could provide, and announced that he would be gone within a few months. He made a graceful little speech in Downing Street, which will likely enhance the instant verdict on him with the press and the public today.

No speech, however, is now going to salvage his standing in the history books, which will now surely damn him as a man who – gratuitously and recklessly – gambled everything on his referendum and lost. His original folly was compounded by his refusal to stand firm against his internal enemies on the detailed plans for the plebiscite. He was brow-beaten into giving ground on the date, notice period and purdah arrangements last year, at what should have been a moment of great strength – the immediate afterglow of an unexpected general election win. If he had held his own then, that could have made a difference in what proved to be a close race. But right from the beginning as party leader, Mr Cameron followed rather than led on Europe, until it was far too late. Now the vote is in, the overriding sense is that no one is quite in charge. Witness how Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the two generals of the leave campaign, talked this morning of “no haste” to start exit negotiations – only to be followed by Ms Sturgeon pushing for a second independence referendum. As campaigners, the leave politicians were sometimes shambolic and often contradictory; now they have been handed victory, they have unleashed forces well beyond their control.

The immediate outlook for progressive and even humanitarian values in the UK is not, on the face of it, encouraging. There is no denying that, even if only on the Faragiste fringes, xenophobia had its part to play in the leave campaign. The voices that thronged on the airwaves in triumph on the first dawn of the post-Brexit future were those of the Thatcherite past: Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith and Norman Tebbit. Such figures who feel, and not without reason, that “we are the masters now” differ from Mr Cameron not only in their contempt for all endeavours European, but often also in their reactionary stance on social and other affairs. Most, but not all, of the Brexit wing of the Conservative party opposed, for example, gay marriage, the one solid progressive achievement on the home front which the outgoing prime minister could point to, as he acknowledged that his time was up. Underpinning this mostly reactionary pro-Brexit cabal in parliament is a motley crew of border-hopping, non-domiciled tycoons and ruthless press barons, a monied elite which has masked its audacious bid to grab the reins in folksy, homespun slogans.

So far, so depressing, but the liberal left – and the Labour party especially – needs to keep a cool head, pause and, above all, try and understand what the electorate has said. Only 13 months have passed since a general election, in which Ukip’s achievement was capped at 3.9 million votes. By contrast, the vote to leave the EU on Thursday was more than four times than number, at 17.4 million. There is not suddenly four times as much chauvinism as there was in 2015. Many of the people who voted leave are reasonable voters moved by reasonable anxieties – about wages, housing and, yes, the frailty of identity too.

The vehicles of progressive politics now need to pause and reflect on why they have found it so tricky even to understand all of this worry, still less to do anything useful to assuage it. One prompt for soul-searching ought to be their inability to change the tone of the conversation about immigration, which has been going wrong for a decade or more; another is a failure to reckon sufficiently early of left-behind towns and estates with an international economic order which has not treated them well. Doncaster, Wakefield and Hull – to take three northern examples – have been abandoned for decades, by London far more than by Brussels. Given the chance to show their rage at somebody, they have obliged.

Then there are the shortcomings of the European institutions themselves, the overall brand damaged both by the cruelties that the single currency has meted out on the continent’s south, the sloth in decision-making, and the opacity which made the charge of a democratic deficit, and the slogan “vote leave, take back control”, so fatefully effective. There is, then, serious intellectual work to do, as well as the urgent business of community politics. Door-knocking, street-campaigning and – above all – just listening, will be important in mending the broken connection between the electors of Britain, and the mostly pro-European representatives whom they elect. Listening will yield some uncomfortable truths, like the grim reality that the typical worker’s pay packet has not grown a jot since the banks collapsed, truths that need not only to be understood, but answered with a practical plan. It won’t be easy to do.

Painstakingly, and step-by-step, all of it will need to be done. Even before that, however, the victorious Brexiters must now start to do what they’ve managed to avoid doing throughout the campaign, and settle on one particular plan for leaving the European Union. Huge questions are left hanging by the campaign, in which the leavers have disagreed on more than they agree, including whether or not the UK will in future be a member of the single European market. The coming administration cannot duck these weighty questions any longer, and the pro-European majority in parliament is entitled to not only hold the government to account for the answers it gives, but to demand a role in determining the answers too. Even these urgent tasks may have to wait until the looming crises of financial stability and political leadership have been calmed. Britain could not be in more serious times.”

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