Never in living memory have the British voters done their rulers such a violence as this. In choosing to leave the European Union after more than four decades, they have prompted the fall of a Prime Minister who won a clear majority just over a year ago, severely weakened the Leader of the Opposition and sent stock markets into free fall. The most significant consequences of this result will be felt beyond our own shores. In part because it is a shock, and also because it is a wake-up call, this result is a challenge to the very foundations of Europe, our democracy and our kingdom, which may be another victim of the popular will.
Deaf ears in Brussels
No nation has ever left the EU before. What happens next is therefore unclear. The immediate task, which was addressed by David Cameron, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and also Boris Johnson yesterday, is to stabilise financial markets and restore investor confidence. This won’t happen immediately, and the sheer shock of the result – which proved once again why we shouldn’t let pollsters hijack our democracy – will have a major and painful impact that cannot now be undone.
Further departures from the EU have suddenly become more likely and, with it, the complete unravelling of the post-war federal project. In France, support for Brussels is even lower than in Britain. The Dutch may soon secede, too, while several Eastern European nations blame the EU for the influx of desperate refugees into their country. As these remarkable scenarios illustrate, for all its historic achievements, the EU has failed in recent years to respond to the complaints of those it serves.
To some extent this is inevitable in any bureaucracy; and for many of Europe’s most disgruntled people, it is a now a catch-all term for their grievances. Few voters really understand the labyrinthine peculiarities of the EU; fewer still know precisely what the EU does, and doesn’t do, for their local community. Sadly, most Leave voters will find in the coming days that Britain did rather well out of its membership. The coming slowdown in growth will reduce immigration, eventually, but at a bad price for the national finances. The Leave camp argued that, freed from the shackles of Brussels, Britain would thrive and prosper as never before. The reality will more likely be a grubby negotiation that takes at least two years. In that time, it is incumbent on the EU to make the case to other would-be leavers across the continent that membership is a benefit to them.
If Europe needs to undertake a listening exercise, so too do our Westminster parties. As this column has long argued, the current make-up of Britain’s political parties makes very little sense. The hysterical, deceitful manner in which they conducted the campaign was at times appalling; and it will be a matter of lasting regret that voters, in their frustration at not being listened to, have committed an act of such self-harm to show their anger. The writer Philip Pullman put it well on Twitter: “We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.”
If anything, the headache could soon get worse. It was opportunistic and inevitable that Nicola Sturgeon would point out that Scotland wishes to stay in the European Union, having voted emphatically in favour of it, and should not be wrenched away against its will. Another referendum seems inevitable – and with it, secession. What an irony that Mr Cameron, who wanted to be a One Nation Tory, could end up leaving the break-up of two unions as his legacy.
Goodness knows what Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy will be: at this rate, very little. His performance really has been a heady mixture of the lamentable and the contemptible. He, and Labour, are a sub-plot to this whole story, because they're now so astonishingly weak. But it would be hard to think of how Mr Corbyn could have put in any worse a performance than he did yesterday, when he said, with all the authority of a student union leader bemoaning rent rises, that this was clearly a vote against austerity and therefore we should invoke Article 50 straight away. It's not quite right to say, as some Labour figures are now saying, that he’s beyond a joke, because Mr Corbyn isn’t funny. The sooner Labour get rid of him, the sooner we’ll have a functioning opposition in parliament. Just think what an opportunity a Tory-made recession would be if Labour had a plausible contender for Prime Minister at its helm.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The diplomatic response around the world, with many leaders venting dismay, shows that Britain’s standing has taken a bad knock. For the next three months, our economic turmoil will be compounded by the very political psychodrama that David Cameron has always been so keen to avoid. It will take all the skill and wisdom of Britain’s civil servants to ensure that the stability of our economy isn’t compromised.
Yesterday several businesses said they would look at moving staff overseas: the sooner they are persuaded there is no need, the better. It is now, ironically, incumbent on the establishment so derided by Nigel Farage to keep the show on the road. The voters of Britain are headed into the unknown, and it’s not at all clear that those in the driving seat have a firm grip on the steering wheel. It follows – though we desperately hope it can be avoided – that we might be headed for an almighty crash.
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