Referendum Result: The Seismic Moment in Politics of Our Generation
The prime minister has failed. Lord North, NEVILLE Chamberlain… David Cameron
This was not supposed to happen. First the North East voted dramatically in favour of Brexit; then Wales, then the Homes counties. Suddenly David Davis looked very happy. When places such as Sheffield, Wolverhampton and Southampton voted Leave, the game was clearly up. The night only saw Brexit extend its lead. At 4.39am David Dimbleby declared that Leave had won. Against all expectations, Britain has voted to leave the European Union. It now remains to be seen whether the sky will fall in.
Everyone who calls themselves a democrat must accept and respect this result. It would have been quite wrong for campaigners for Brexit to have used a close Remain result to campaign for a second referendum. The same goes. It may seem a perverse result, it may fly in the face warnings from economic bodies but that is democracy.
But this is now a country divided, starkly shown by the dramatic disparity between its metropolitan areas and the de-industrialised north. Cue calls for politicians to wake up to “voter anger”. This is an easy reaction. There is only so much that politicians can do in face of international trends and forces. It is something far easier to say than do. For every talking head who blamed immigration, another blamed austerity.
Politically, David Cameron lost his mandate. Resignation was the only option. He called a referendum, he led the campaign and he lost.
Was he wrong to call the referendum? Maybe. But if this was the result in 2016, what would have been the result if the people had been “denied” a referendum yet again? Mythology festers. Where he was wrong was in the blatantly political nature of its timing, in badly managing expectations of his renegotiation and in the campaign he led which threw away a substantial lead. His fellow EU leaders (soon to be former fellow leaders) must also accept responsibility for setting themselves against reform. Its second largest economy has now left.
David Cameron’s legacy will now be the man who oversaw Britain's withdrawal from the EU against his recommendation. The prime minister has failed. Lord North, Neville Chamberlain… David Cameron.
Those in the Labour party who see a cause for glee in any of this should be cautious. Polls showed that its voters did not know what the Labour position was. Jeremy Corbyn’s studied ambiguity did not help drive up the left-wing vote. While Labour supporters voted 2-1 in favour, the results for Brexit in its heartlands of Sunderland, Hartlepool et al. exceeded expectations.
Echoing the divisive language of the Tea Party, Nigel Farage, in what was an early victory speech, has called this a victory for “decent, honest people” as if those who voted Remain who were somehow less real, less British. It was an astonishingly irresponsible, almost sectarian, speech at a moment which called for unity.
These are issues for another day. We are in unfamiliar waters. The upheaval will be huge. Brexiteers said that a vote to leave would not trigger a second referendum in Scotland. Given the huge vote in favour of Remain north of the border, this seems unlikely. They must now also live up to their promises to the British people. They promised control of immigration. They promised the same trade relationship with Europe with less interference. They promise “control”. They said that any downturn would be short-lived. Now they have to deliver. Those of us who thought their campaign a deceptive one had better hope that we were wrong.
an act of self-harm Britain
There is no precedent in world history for the act of self-harm Britain has just committed by voting to leave the European Union.
Throughout the campaign, Brexiters tagged Remain’s efforts as “Project Fear” instead of offering reasoned counter arguments. In time, it will be realised that “Project Fear” was actually a tragically failed attempt to alert us to our new reality.
Britain has just opted to be less influential in this globalised world. We are now a weaker, more isolated country that is more vulnerable to decisions taken without us by other nations. One that has lost control, not taken it back.
The economic impact of Brexit on the British people will be substantial in the long-term. The coming weeks will probably see some financial market turbulence of the type that can seem abstract to most of our daily lives. But deceptively little else will happen instantly because Britain will technically still be in the EU for at least two more years whilst its departure arrangements are negotiated.
The real effects of voluntarily abandoning our biggest market will be felt in a few years’ time, when big employers have quietly scaled down their investments in Britain and others have chosen to go elsewhere. There is no way to Boris-bluff around the simple sum for global companies: being in a market of 450 million people (the EU) beats being in one of 60 million (the UK). In two, five and ten years time the British people will be worse off and a significant number of us will be unemployed.
Of course, other events on which our coming economic troubles can be blamed will happen in that time - another global financial crisis is eminently possible. But we should not use such events to obscure the damage we have inflicted on ourselves today.
Other excuses will certainly be sought by our future leaders now that blaming the EU for their failings is no longer an option. This long-standing cop-out is one reason why Remain found this campaign impossible to win, despite having the facts on its side. For decades, British governments (particularly, but not exclusively, Tory ones) have found it convenient to blame our problems on mythical, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. In reality, all major EU decisions are taken by our democratically elected government together with their colleagues from our partner countries. But as Mr Cameron has just found out, spending a few months saying it would be a disaster to leave an alliance you have spent decades denigrating is a hard trick to pull off convincingly.
None of this matters much to the minority of Leave voters who are motivated by ideological beliefs such as nationalism and small government fundamentalism. But most people are not ideologues and voting “out” was an expression of frustration at their current lot. More time and space is needed to analyse why so many people feel so insecure that they were willing to commit political and economic self-harm (although Fintan O’Toole has already had a decent crack at it in “The Irish Times”) . But the political and economic consequences of leaving the EU will ultimately only worsen, rather than resolve their concerns and make them more difficult for future governments to resolve.
We Britons should wish ourselves good luck. We are going to need it.
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