July 2016. Brexit a Month on: Shock, Irritation, Pride and Optimism

I read a letter to the Daily Telegraph recently. “On June 23rd my to-do list read: buy Marks & Spencer curry for two; go to post office to post letters; cause British recession and existential crises in the EU by voting Leave; cut the grass. I managed to do the first three on Thursday, and on Friday I cut the grass.”

At ten p.m. on the fateful day of the referendum, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. The months of speeches, debate and argument were done, and the votes had been cast. At last, we thought, we could move forward to whatever direction the people had selected. I realise now that was a little premature. But four dramatic weeks later I have to say: so far so good.

The BBC coverage began that night as the polls closed, and lasted for the next nine hours. Along with some hardy friends back in the UK, I watched through the night, though I did have one distinct advantage: I was in Utah, seven hours behind Britain, so we could keep an eye on events while we ate our dinner.

The BBC immediately announced that Remain had apparently won. Opinion polls taken on the day indicated a 4% to 8% lead for no change. I suspect that most of us Leavers were sad but quietly relieved: we had voted for our principles but were not going to have to endure the turmoil that we knew would inevitably follow leaving the European Union. One of the Leave leaders talked of losing the battle but winning the war.

But then the first actual results were announced, and our world began to turn upside down. Newcastle, an area of both heavy industry and higher education, had been projected to vote decisively to remain. In reality the Remain vote won by a very small majority. Then came Sunderland, close to Newcastle and also very working class, but without the universities. It voted out by a striking margin. The pundits scratched their heads and spoke of aberrations, or something happening specifically in the North East.

As the results were announced, the patchwork map of Britain on our screens coloured and the vote count rose – and across England and Wales it was clear that something special was happening – and not just in the north east, but nation-wide. For a while the numbers were within a few thousand either way, then Leave began to pull away. Soon Leave was winning everywhere: in the deprived industrial heartlands, in the leafy and affluent suburbs, in the rural communities. There were only a few exceptions. London voted massively to remain, by 70-30 margins. Oxford and Cambridge and a few other intellectual centres followed suit. And the Scots, who voted decisively to remain, demonstrated again how different their attitudes are to the rest of the country.

By the end 73% of the adult population had voted, with 17.4 million electing to leave and about 16 million voting to remain. The analysts reported on the various demographic groups, and most were close. Overall, the young had tended to vote in and the older to leave. There was a divide between the richest and poorest, though even here significant numbers voted unexpectedly. More people in the country had voted to leave the EU than had ever voted for anything before.

From what I can tell, the whole of Britain went into shock. I know our family did. There was little euphoria. We had actually done it – but stepping into the unknown is scary business. The pundits talked of buyer’s remorse, of us voters intending to show the politicians our displeasure but not really wanting to win. A push began for a rerun, so we could change our minds. Four million people signed up for it. Economic indicators nose-dived. Personalities and politicians lined up to criticise the result and tell us we had voted for Armageddon. Analysts concluded that the vote had happened because the great unwashed had been deceived and lied to by the Leave campaigners – we didn’t even know what our own self-interest was! Others suggested it was the old being selfish and not thinking of the future that the young would inherit. Awfully, there were four hundred racist attacks in the week or so following the election. Pundits suggested the result was a victory for the bigots in our community. Peter Mandelson called the result “the worst day in post-war British history”.

Worse, politicians and celebrities decried that the referendum itself had happened. “We didn’t want this referendum,” declared Hilary Benn, “because we don’t want to leave the EU”. Another politician observed that night: “This was much too important and complicated a decision to have put to the electorate”.

At first I confess to feeling a little brow-beaten. But the more I heard of all this, the more irritated I became. The criticisms did not reflect the reality as I had seen it. I had seen thoughtful people around me soberly weighing up the decision, some voting in and some out. My sister Katie sat in a meeting a few days after the vote with other senior lawyers, a justice of the peace and some extremely wealthy clients. She was surprised to hear that, like her, they had all voted to leave. A college teacher I met described to me the debates in his classes, in which the students debated and argued and given reasoned positions on either side. Yes, people vote for all sorts of reasons. Yes, some no doubt were xenophobic. Some would have just wanted to stick it to the political class (a la Donald Trump). But this was not fanned-up rage. This was a difficult and nuanced decision, with reasonable arguments for both options. No doubt some remainers also voted for less than optimal reasons: out of fear, or for travel convenience. This was not brainwashing or manipulation. It was democracy at work.

And the more I thought about that, the more I realised that the criticisms and analysis were actually an assault on democracy itself. The implication was that on fundamental issues the people must simply accept that others know better than they do. It is a tough issue, I recognise. The American constitution is designed to protect minorities from the ‘tyranny of the majority’. The abuses on social media demonstrate all too painfully that many people can get caught up in slogans and sound-bites. But what are the alternatives? As Winston Churchill famously quoted: “Democracy is the worst of all systems apart from all the others”.

Well, interestingly, it seems as if western leaders have indeed come up with another system, and are busily pushing towards it. One article I read described it as: “centralising power in the hands of well-educated liberal-minded public-spirited experts”. The European Union is the clearest example, in which benevolent but un-elected technocrats take us to a new peaceful and unified world. It is also fascinating to observe this trend in the USA, though that is for another time. Alexandre Kojève, one of the founders of the Common Market, the predecessor to the EU, wrote that mankind was on the cusp of establishing a “universal, homogeneous state” in which all of humanity’s desires would be recognized and fulfilled through a single morality of “humanitarian universalism”, presumably rather than through varying local attachments.

I wondered if Mr Kojève’s views are widely held within EU circles. Last night I learned the answer when Pam and I happened to listen to a TED talk about Brexit given by a British social scientist, Alexander Betts. He espoused exactly the same perspective, and then told the appreciative audience how astonishing and depressing it was to realise that not everyone brought into the vision. (Someone should have told him about William Buckley’s observation, fifty years ago: “Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.”) His message was that people had voted for Brexit – and therefore for a continuation of the conflicts and economic hardships of history – through fear of the unknown. He also correctly noted that many normal people have simply not benefited from the self-evident advances of modern globalism. Therefore, he suggested, better education and more focus on the common man is needed to overcome this setback and press on to our brave new world.

I can only guess that the same thinking permeates the well-educated liberal-minded experts from Britain and abroad who bombarded us with reasons to stay and who were so shocked and angry when we disagreed. Business leaders, arch-bishops, economists, bankers, presidents of foreign nations, professors, the BBC, scientists, the IMF – all seemed to be convinced that the future lies beyond mere parochial boundaries and local cultures, and requires a single set of values, a single people. In their view national pride seems to become xenophobia. Disagreement becomes bigotry. History and tradition become embarrassment.

The global vision is deeply desirable and attractive. Like the EU itself, it is a noble ideal – the brotherhood of man, the end of war, equal opportunity for all. It is the dream of all thoughtful people across all eras. But this particular solution contains one fatal flaw: human nature.

Consider an event that happened one month ago. Last month Tata, the owners of the last British steel mills, decided to withdraw from the market. If no buyer could be found the steel mills would close and an important industry would be dead. We learned that the British government was not allowed to inject temporary capital to protect the plants and its employees. The EU forbids such intervention on the basis that it would give our own industry an unfair advantage over steel from other European nations and thus prevent free movement of capital and trade. At a philosophical level you can see the principle. If we are all in this together then you cannot play favourites. And since we are free to move wherever we want, and we are all Europeans together, then if we lose our job in one location then we can simply move to another – even if that is to a different country.

But right there is the fatal flaw that our TED speaker does not see. Many of us have indeed changed country. But those who do move tend to be either professional, young, or desperate. An upheaval such as this is very challenging, and most people cannot or will not uproot. The steel worker in Port Talbot will not want to move to Poland or Italy. He has a web of associations and relationships. He is part of a community. His identity is linked to where he is, so he simply becomes unemployed – and when his government is helpless to help, the potential for alienation and anger remains, and the great vision fails.

We are not just autonomous economic units, unencumbered in our decisions. We are human beings, and we need to be part of something. We need relationships. We need to love and be loved. We need our families, our friends, our community, perhaps our church. We want to feel proud of our country. We want to feel identity, and identity is local. Tradition binds us and gives us place. For us British our history, our national narrative, our sense of fairness, our parliamentary democracy, our democratic self-government, are part of all this. We value our tradition of democracy and the rule of law that is our gift to the world.

I believe therefore that a majority of the British people saw through the fatal flaw of the EU. Maybe it was conscious, or maybe it was instinct. But we do not want what is on offer: a gigantic social experiment that is utopian like so many others, and that in clashing with human nature is bound to fail. We all want to avoid conflict, but a free society will always have a range of deeply-held moralities, identities and attitudes that will sometimes collide. A truly liberal society creates space for them all. The freedom that protects our identity and social cohesion is hard-earned and easily lost, and yet the various treaties of the EU are giving away that very sovereignty. By a miracle our opinion was asked, and we politely gave it.

So, yes, I am proud of most of my countrymen – excluding the racists who seem to have emerged, I hope temporarily. As for the rest I am proud of their thoughtful thinking, whichever way they voted. I am proud of the decision, courageously made in the face of serious pressure and fear-mongering. As Admiral Nelson said, “the boldest measures are the safest.” I have enjoyed the somewhat cantankerous attitude of people around me to this pressure. A recent newspaper letter captured this nicely: “We British chopped off a king’s head but asked his son to reclaim his throne. We’ve gone metric but we still down pints. We’ve got the most variable summer weather in the world, so we invented cricket. We are a fierce democracy but love the Queen. We’ve been conquered but have never given in. We take ourselves seriously but then poke fun at ourselves. We form queues but then don’t do what we’re told. What we don’t do is conform.” This is the deep instinct of a free people and I am moved by it.

I am also proud of the manner in which it all happened. Yes, there have been protests and marches, vigorous debate and mud-slinging. That is all part of the nature of a healthy and vigorous democracy. And yet for the most part the experience has been a credit to our political process and to us as a people. There have been no riots, no attempted coup. Our political leaders are clear: Brexit means Brexit. There has been no triumphalism, but rather an immediate reaching out. It is no mean feat for a country to achieve such a state and to protect it in times of trial.

The few weeks since the referendum have been eventful. David Cameron immediately resigned as our Prime Minister, saying he would stay on temporarily as a caretaker. Within three weeks a new Conservative Prime Minister was selected – Theresa May. I am delighted. She seems to possess an inner strength and mission that are perfect for the times. Within a few days she had fired many of her cabinet and brought in fresh faces. For the first time we have a Conservative cabinet in which a majority were educated in state schools rather than through elite private institutions. She has declared that economic success is not success unless the common man benefits, and is already making changes to reach towards that ideal. She has separated the foreign office into three, adding separate departments for Brexit and for foreign trade (we now have to start arranging trade agreements ourselves). In a parliamentary debate yesterday about whether Britain should continue to hold a nuclear deterrent she was asked whether she would be “willing to press the button and kill 100,000 innocent people”. The answer was simply: Yes. Then a long pause and the comment, “otherwise it is no deterrent”. I am not debating nuclear weapons here, though it seems to me she was declaring the ugly truth. But we appear to have a leader with both principle and inner strength: a new iron lady. And how we need a strong leader within our strong democracy to take us into our own new world.

So I am optimistic about the future. Britain will no longer be a “member state”, but a nation in the fullest sense of the word. I believe we have a government that is facing in a positive direction. They are talking of a new and better relationship with the rest of Europe, and the world. The people I talk to feel optimism in the air. This is a good time for those who believe that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

At 3.06 am on referendum night a symbolically powerful moment that flashed up on our television screens. Runnymede, the place by the Thames where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, announced for Leave. The place in which the first tentative steps were taken in the western world towards the rule of law and of citizen rights, had voted to leave the EU. To paraphrase the song, “democracy is coming home.”


PS: On the lighter side –

Donald Trump arrived in Scotland the day after the referendum and tweeted: “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back.” Scotland voted to remain by 68%. Life tip: fellow-Americans, think about your presidential choice carefully.

Fox News in the US displayed an on-screen announcement that Britain had left the United Nations. Life tip: take Fox News fact-checking with a pinch of salt.

Four days after the referendum, England played Iceland in the Euro football tournament, and managed to lose. Iceland has a population 0.05 the size of Britain’s. The timing was perfect and the comments flowed free: “Only England could manage to exit Europe twice in one week”. “I haven’t been this embarrassed to be English since…. well, since Friday morning”. “England got knocked out of Europe twice this week. Once by Iceland, and once by people who shop there.”

And from Facebook: “Somewhere in Utah expectant couples are looking at the news today and thinking…. ‘You know, Brexit sounds like a strong name.’”


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