Salvage from the breckage

​“Out” is not a long word, or a difficult concept. But, as the post-referendum turmoil continues, many Brits are having obvious difficulty getting their heads around it.

“Out” is not a long word, or a difficult concept. But, as the post-referendum turmoil continues, many Brits are having obvious difficulty getting their heads around it. Leavers, who had such a wonderful night torching the manor house, are now uneasily aware that the dragoons are coming. Remainers are frantically drafting and signing petitions. Even European friends, much in evidence at the ECFR’s annual council meeting earlier this week, seem convinced that, if only we can play it long, something may turn up.

As so often, we have to turn to Angela Merkel for sober truth in a crisis. “I see no possibility to reverse this. We would do well to accept this reality”, she told reporters at the summit in Brussels. “This not a time for wishful thinking, but to see things as they are”. As for myself, I cannot abandon one sliver of hope – described below. But it certainly does not lie in pretending that there is no hurry, and continuing with Johnson-esque fantasies (now, on the evidence of his latest Telegraph column, a pathological condition) about having cake and eating it. In the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “If it were done when ‘tis done, ‘twere well it were done quickly”.

And this for two main reasons. First, because the battered EU ship must cut away from the wreckage as quickly as possible if it is not to founder itself. Salvation lies only in finally having done with the British issue and focusing attention where it is desperately needed – on the economic and migration crises – and, yes, in demonstrating to populists across the continent that if you are not “In” then you are “Out”. Looking beyond the near-term battering Britain will now receive, there is no more vital British national interest than that the rest of our continent should remain strong, and prosperous, and a redoubt of security and civilised values as the world beyond heads the other way. 

As Hamlet tells his mother, urging her to take a good hard look in the mirror: “I must be cruel only to be kind”.

Even more to the point, a rapid demonstration that actions have consequences is just what we Brits desperately need. As Hamlet tells his mother, urging her to take a good hard look in the mirror (sorry, but it is a Shakespeare anniversary – and no harm in recalling that good things too have come out of England): “I must be cruel only to be kind”. It really is time that we faced up to the facts that indulging our toxic press may all be very amusing, but it has corrupted our politics – and that if we carry on with current levels of regional, social and generational unfairness in our society the next insurrection may be through means more direct and altogether more destructive than the ballot-box.

I may be wrong about this – how can I, a rich southerner, be sure what motivated 70 percent of the people of Hartlepool to vote Leave? Perhaps they’re still just a bunch of “monkey-hangers” (from their celebrated execution during the Napoleonic wars of a ship-wrecked ape whom they took to be a Frenchman). But I refuse to believe this – and prefer instead to focus on how the distribution of English (and Welsh) votes doubles as a map of economic deprivation. Leave was above all a howl of rage from great swathes of our people who have seen their own living standards ruthlessly suppressed for years on end whilst FTSE 100 chief executives have helped themselves to an average £5 million a year, and their government has connived in a system whereby the payment of taxes by the monied classes has become, in effect, voluntary.

In sum, if the Brexit disaster can precipitate the revival of real social democratic politics in what remains of Britain, something will have been salvaged. And – why should the man whom Rupert Murdoch will shortly install as our next Prime Minister have the monopoly of pipe-dreams? – it is worth recalling that we shall not be definitively “out” until the two-year Article 50 clock has run its course. There will be a general election before that happens. A change of heart by the British people, the emergence of a centre-left party and leader capable of speaking to those people, an explicit electoral mandate both to return fairness to our society and to stop the “out” clock before it is too late – well, hope springs eternal. As a life-long civil servant, I never expected to feel like a Maoist; but these are odd times we are living in.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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