The United Kingdom as a prison of nations? I think not
By Anthony Barnett: The referendum’s outcome caught everyone unprepared. Michael Gove, whose forceful decision to support Leave turned the campaign, was fast asleep. He had gone to bed confident that he had made his stand and the country would continue as before. He and his wife Sarah Vine were woken by a call at 4.45, as she recounted in her column. ‘“Michael?” a voice said. “Michael, guess what? We’ve won!” There was a short pause while he put on his glasses. “Gosh,” he said. “I suppose I had better get up.” The government too was taken by surprise. Cameron simply resigned. Only the Bank of England had a contingency plan, to provide extra credit to steady the markets. This was hardly long-term.
May’s close advisers describe their approach as a ‘new model conservatism’, with overtones of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. But he led a civil war that oversaw a regicide – not just the summary firing of a chancellor of the exchequer out of the back door of Downing Street. If Brexit was an uprising against the governing ‘political elite’ and their international friends, it was also a challenge to the way policies are imposed. ‘Take back control’ has thrilling, democratic implications if it means that people themselves start to take control. Brexit was not just about unfair policies, it was also directed at who made decisions and how policy is decided. Freedom from the European Union should have delivered the country on a more democratic course, replacing the hyper-centralisation of Whitehall and winner-takes-all elected dictatorship as well. Instead, re-imposing them will crush the vitality and democracy out of Brexit.
Instead, re-imposing them will crush the vitality and democracy out of Brexit.
The positive energy of the Leave campaign was rooted in a spirit of rebellion that goes back to the seventeenth century. For the most part deeply comatose, it was always latent – and has been awakened. This time a modern Cromwell, even in the guise of Theresa Britannia, is unlikely to triumph.
For three reasons. First, Brexit is just beginning. After the Welsh assembly was endorsed by its sliver of a majority, Ron Davies, the then Welsh Labour leader, said ‘devolution is a process not an event’. What was true for Wales is far more so for Brexit. There is nothing ‘final’ about it, nor should there be. Brexit demands, as May herself says, people ‘coming together’ and the ‘country uniting’. This won’t happen when people are told they must unite and are given ultimatums about what is final. For Brexit to work as a process, it needs to grow and gather support, not be dictated. The example of Thatcher’s firmness and success fills the air thanks to the tabloids. Thatcher’s belligerent leadership worked only when she also released individual capacities, opened markets whether for houses or on the trading floors, and empowered individualism. When she sought to insist on an unfair poll tax designed to drive voters from the electoral register, and began to regiment the population, she was broken.
Second, Brexit is an old people’s home. What does trading as ‘Global Britain’ mean to a young person who wants to live in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid or Lisbon? The YouGov survey of 5,500 voters on the day of the referendum shows the 18–24 age group backing Remain by 71 per cent. It was pensioners over sixty-five who supported Leave by 64 per cent, and won the day. Among the under-25s, young women voted by an overwhelming 80 per cent to 20 per cent for Europe. The future is becoming more feminine, more open and cooperative with other peoples and cultures, less obsessed with absolute sovereignty. The ineluctable demography of the new networked nationalism will undo Brexit absolutism.
Third, the force of Brexit is nativist and the natives who voted for it are the English, in rebellion against being treated as natives in the only way they can rebel – so far. The UK referendum on membership of the EU was not about the economics, as the Remain side ruefully acknowledged after the vote. It was about what kind of country we want to be. Does England therefore have the right to decide what kind of countries Scotland and Ireland want to be?