Like a huge minority of Britons I woke this morning deeply saddened by the news I had been dreading ever since the referendum on leaving the EU was announced: our four-decade-long participation in one of the most remarkable – and, perhaps, noble – political ventures in history will soon be coming to an end.
The European Union is by no means a perfect institution – in fact, it is profoundly flawed in some aspects – and many of the criticisms levelled at it by the “Leave” camp are justified. Huge problems exist regarding accountability, the absence at some levels of democracy in any meaningful sense, and waste (not to mention graft); moreover the creation of the euro has resulted in more and more de facto power accruing within certain more economically powerful countries – most prominently, of course, Germany, a country about whose power to determine the course of the continent substantial and deeply felt concerns remain. These and other shortcomings are observed and attacked not merely in the UK but right across Europe, and while some are more intractable than others it is to the EU’s shame that the corruption and waste issues specifically have not been resolved long before now. When asking (or, as the Brexiteers constantly hammered home, not asking at all) hundreds of millions of people to fund a political experiment it is a disgrace that those handling the funds should often personally benefit so substantially.
Nevertheless, it has always been my opinion that the EU’s pros outweigh its cons by quite some margin – and that those pros are not simply (or even primarily) economic ones. Since the days of the Roman Empire and the subsequent emergence of “Europe” as a concept the continent has had an unhappy habit of tearing itself apart through conflicts of quite inconceivable ferocity, most awfully in the last century when many tens of millions of lives were destroyed as a result of differences between countries which have a remarkable amount in common. While the coming together of former adversaries – first in the European Community and then, from 1993, in the European Union – is by no means the only factor contributing to the peace which most of the continent has enjoyed since 1945, it is a very significant one, and the philosophy underpinning it – mutual security and growth through co-operation and a collective approach to common interests – is a tremendous advance from the historical framework of dozens of distinct entities operating independently or within opposing factions and resolving disputes through war: what Clausewitz calls “the continuation of politics by other means”.
Europe – the European Union – as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts; the continent speaking with a collective voice and acting with a collective hand is immeasurably better placed than its constituent parts operating individually to address issues of global significance, and to counter where necessary the occasional excesses of its ally across the Atlantic and the threats posed by its giant, increasingly pugnacious neighbour to its east (not to mention the challenge both within and outside its borders of militant Islam). Moreover, on a more abstract level, I find there to be something extremely joyous about the fact that people from countries as distant and as disparate as Spain, Cyprus, Latvia and the Republic of Ireland can find themselves together in a tavern in Germany or a stadium in France or a theatre in Malta or a lecture hall in Denmark and embrace each other as citizens of such a remarkable union, celebrating both their similarities and their differences under both their national flags and that of the EU, knowing that they all have just as much right as each other to be where they are and that both culturally and legally they are just as European as they are Spanish, or Cypriot, or Latvian, or Irish – and that they all enjoy the same protection as each other and their hosts in a manner quite unthinkable throughout the great majority of our history.
Yesterday, the British turned our backs on all that. We – and despite how passionately I and my fellow “Remain” voters may feel, we are all now in the same boat sailing away from the continent – rejected that historical marvel of integration, of the collective voice, of celebrating what connects rather than separates us. Forty-three years after our delayed (and contentious) arrival at the grand European party, we’ve thumbed our noses at our fellow party-goers and gone to stand outside to play our own tunes – and we’ve done so not because we don’t like the music the European DJs are playing, but because, deep down, we just don’t want to be at the party at all.
Let’s be clear: the British electorate did not vote “Leave” yesterday on rational grounds – at least, most did not. I am fully aware that I’m laying myself open to accusations of condescension, elitism, even sour grapes – but I’m confident that my opinion here reflects the unpleasant reality that most people voting to leave did so not in line with the normal behaviour of the UK electorate (that is, voting for what they believe will most benefit them economically in the short and medium terms) but out of a sense of jingoism which I have always found to be one of our least pleasant national characteristics and which I had hoped was in decline.
In retrospect that hope was idiocy: the British national identity may be a confusing one (especially, right now, for the Scots who voted overwhelmingly in favour of “Remain” yesterday and who will, I have no doubt, now be clamouring for another shot at independence before too long) but there are few stronger on Earth when defined in opposition to others. That is to say, we may not today have too robust or coherent an idea of “Britishness” (as opposed to Scottishness, Welshness etc) to rally around (beyond the increasingly archaic banner of the monarchy), but we know damn sure we’re not French, or German, or Spanish, or any of the other countries we’ve regularly drawn swords against for countless generations – and as so much of what we turn to when defining our nationality is historical in nature, and as so much of that history consists of mortal – and, crucially, invariably (as we are taught) successful – struggles against our neighbours, the idea of “taking orders” from “foreign powers” is utter anathema to the average Brit.
The idea that we can – and indeed should – operate independently of our continental neighbours – of anyone and everyone – is a consequence of the deep-rooted (and completely erroneous) belief that we have always been powerful enough to do so; that it was not the English Channel which saved us from the Spanish Armada, from Napoleon and from Hitler but something innate in the British character that makes us simply superior in certain indefinable but very real ways to the foreigners who’ve tried for centuries to subdue us but have always succumbed to the “bulldog spirit”. We don’t have the experience shared by pretty much everyone else in Europe of being invaded and overcome by a superior force, and, crucially of being liberated by other nations (in this sense, ironically, we have much in common with the Russians, another race experiencing a resurgence of nationalist sentiment inspired by a terribly selective interpretation of history). As a result, the importance of cooperation, of a collective approach to problem-solving simply isn’t anywhere near as profoundly understood by the typical Briton on the street as it is (however begrudgingly) by our continental counterparts, most of whom have in living memory relied on foreign powers for their very survival.
The British press – especially the more right-wing papers, which in this country means the great majority – have played on this with regards to the European question for much longer than I’ve been alive and politically conscious. It’s impossible to overstate the role played by the media in yesterday’s decision – not simply in the lead-up to the vote but over the past few decades. “Bashing Brussels” – attacking and mocking the EU in all its manifestations – long ago became the default setting for most newspapers because editors have always been well aware that such a perspective taps into the fundamental jingoism at the heart of the British psyche; as a result, successive generations of Britons have been subjected to the most profound anti-European propaganda – of which The Sun’s infamous 1990 headline “Up yours, Delors!” (Jacques Delors being the then-President of the European Commission) is representative. Stories lauding the EU’s many achievements have been few and far between; articles pouring scorn upon it for its shortcomings (real or invented: the eagerness with which many papers have exaggerated or simply made up altogether stories demonstrating the EU’s incompetence or excessive bureaucracy is one of the most disgusting aspects of this whole issue) could be found on pretty much a daily basis for decades – and, of course, a snowball effect was created as this propaganda further broadened and strengthened anti-European sentiment amongst its recipients, thus increasing the value to editors (and to media owners, the most prominent of whom, Rupert Murdoch, is not even a citizen of the state whose political course he has been so active in directing). In a country whose inhabitants are much less politically aware today than their great-grandparents were, the power of this relentless coverage has been incalculable – and much more influential in determining the outcome of yesterday’s vote than the faux-Tudor pub populism of Nigel Farage.
Another theme of consistent value to – and thus constantly revisited by – the British press which played a huge role in yesterday’s vote was the immigration issue. During the last half-century the UK has experienced a huge influx of migrants from across the globe, transforming the country from an overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon society into one where whites remain the majority but where Caribbean, African, Asian and, more recently, Eastern European faces and voices are seen and heard in every town in the land. This is, of course, an intensely sensitive issue; it is true that out-and-out racism plays a part, but it is not racist to assert that many Britons who might not view themselves as racist or xenophobic per se are nevertheless unhappy with this development which has so transformed the country and in which, they feel, they have had no say. The essentially non-productive agonising of the left-wing intelligentsia over this issue has been mocked by the right (represented, again, by the majority of the media) which in turn has deployed the extremely disingenuous tactic of criticising (subtly or otherwise) this demographic shift without focussing on the fact that it has come about as a result of the demands of industrial leaders (the financial bedrock of the right in the UK) for cheap labour.
Most importantly as far as the European question goes, the immigration issue has become another destructive stick with which to beat Europe – despite the fact that it is only the most recent wave of migrants, from the former Eastern Bloc, which can be “blamed” upon the European Union (thanks to EU legislation which gives citizens of member-states the right to work in any EU country). The preceding waves, primarily from former British colonies in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, which have done much more to change the “sight and sound” (the racial and linguistic composition) of the UK, had nothing to do with the EU. Nevertheless, any Briton unhappy with the demographic changes occurring in his or her lifetime – which for older voters, educated in the somewhat racially prejudiced spirit of Empire (my own maternal grandparents, two of the loveliest, kindest and most generously spirited people you could ever hope to meet, were nevertheless apt to drop into distinctly unenlightened terminology when discussing people of other ethnicities), includes all of the major waves of immigration since WW2 – has been encouraged by the press to place the responsibility for this transformation at the door of the EU; the apparently logical consequence as far as many Britons have come to see it is that exiting the European Union will at least halt unwanted immigration, if not somehow magically reverse it altogether.
The economic consequences of such a reversal of that trend, no matter how implausible (or in the case of non-EU migrants simply impossible) it may be, have barely been addressed by the mainstream press over the last few months. In fact, the deeper economic significance of a potential Brexit rarely came up for discussion in media which simply doesn’t credit (rightly or wrongly) the average reader with enough intelligence to be able to participate in a debate on that level. There was little to no exploration of economic theory investigating what would actually happen were the immigration tap to be turned off; instead, both sides used headline figures – billions of savings here, billions lost there – to scare or encourage rather than to prompt genuine debate of the underlying issues. And of course the reason for this is simple: everyone knew that for once Britons were going to vote according to their hearts and guts, their hopes and prejudices, and while the “Remain” camp attempted increasingly desperately to woo and/or terrify voters with big numbers the impact was never going to be substantial. It wasn’t “the economy, stupid”: it was the Union Jack, and Spitfires, and Waterloo, and an island nation burning bridges that voters yesterday forgot went both ways.
So now, today and forever those bridges are burnt, and whatever new ones are to be built in their place are yet to be decided. The short-term impact of the vote is not yet known (though both sterling and share prices plunged through the floor today, almost certainly a harbinger of serious woes to come), the long-term ramifications much less so. The next months and years will see us attempt to extricate ourselves from the EU with as little disruption as possible – though much is inevitable – and then redefine our legislative and economic relationship with our neighbours. It is my belief – though I am no economist – that this process will see us suffer significantly economically and that many of the flag-waving bulldog Brexiteers will come to regret their choice, as they see the UK of the future becoming a much poorer place than it would otherwise have been. I hope I am wrong, for my own sake, for my daughter’s, and for our 65 million countrymen and -women.
Regardless of the economic ramifications, however, I believe we will be a poorer country in other ways as a result of yesterday’s vote. I believe by turning our backs on Europe we have given up something of indefinable yet gigantic value: the spirit of community which unites hundreds of millions of people who speak different languages and fly different flags yet share a historical, cultural and philosophical framework which transcends international boundaries and which their countries are using as a foundation upon which to build a new type of political entity – one which, yes, has profound flaws, but which really is, again, much greater than the sum of its parts and which will, I am sure, play a crucial role in helping both its own citizens and the people of the rest of the world through the challenges which lie ahead. We have renounced our ability to help shape and direct that entity, but more importantly have rejected the concept of European unity and fraternity for the sake of a much more insular, more primitive nationalism. Once more, Britain stands alone, our fingers raised in a “V” towards the continent; but this time our isolation is of our own choosing, and for me and many others today the Union Jack is flying at half-mast.