In the immediate run-up to last year’s referendum on Europe, there were two distinct classes of Brexiteer. There were those who had campaigned against the EU for as long as anyone can remember, on the basis, primarily, that our membership represented an unacceptable, and steadily worsening, surrender of sovereignty. Let us call these the principled Brexiteers, of whom our own Gerald Warner is one, along with, for example, Jacob Rees Mogg, John Redwood and Sir Bill Cash.
Then there were the Brexiteers who actually secured the Leave vote, made up of millions of ordinary people who – like NIgel Farage – felt “uncomfortable” in the presence of too many European migrants and feared for their own futures, and those of their children and grandchildren, in a Britain in which the poor and what Theresa May would come to call the “just managing” were ignored in favour of the super-rich and large corporations.
On the other side of the divide were the Remainers, representing 48 per cent of the 72 per cent of the electorate who considered membership of the EU a burning issue. Remainers felt themselves to be European – some vaguely, some romantically, some passionately. They considered Brexit to be a reckless gamble that would not only cut us off from full membership of the European family, but endanger our economy for decades to come.
This didn’t mean they were overjoyed to vote Remain. For they, too, knew that something was wrong at the heart of government – not just the Tory government, but all recent governments. They, too, were struck by the irony that while there was more money sloshing around the UK than ever in its history, most of it seemed to be in the hands of the top 1-5 per cent, who lived like princes while the rest of us were forced to run faster and faster just to stand still. In the end, however, they blamed this more on London than on Brussels. They blamed David Cameron and Tony Blair, not Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker.
So did the voters deliver a clear verdict? Yes. But only if you believe in the Duckworth-Lewis method. The 51.9 per cent won the vote over the 48.1 per cent, causing Leavers, led by Farage and Boris Johnson, to crow beyond all logic and arithmetic that they had won a resounding victgory. What the 28 per cent of Britons who hadn’t bothered to vote thought, nobody knew or cared.
Since then, of course, it has been downhill all the way. Just one disaster after another, up to and including the LIons’ defeat by New Zealand. It is as if, in pursuit of regaining control of our borders, we have lost control of our bowels.
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As it happens, my brother-in-law, who voted Remain but now favours Leave, emailed me this morning to say that he had been listening to a phone-in on Radio 5 and had been impressed by the fact that callers, no matter their previous party allegiance, all seemed to want the same thing – a decent place for their kids to grow up in; a place where education and health services worked reasonably well; a place where everyone had an opportunity to succeed and live a happy, comfortable life.
It then struck the b-in-l (a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative) that the mood in France, where the traditional Left/Right Establishment was swept away following the rise of Emmanuel Macron, was exactly the kind of mood now sweeping the UK.
He concluded – and if you knew him you would appreciate the extent of my gobsmackedness – “Have we any chance of finding a Macron?”
The answer, alas, is no. No such overarching figure has emerged out of the maelstrom that is British politics at the present moment. Theresa May is finished. She just goes through the motions to keep the show on the road at an awkward moment made infinitely more awkward by her own colossal misjudgments. None of her senior colleagues is a titan. Few would have stood a chance of reaching cabinet level under Margaret Thatcher. The best of them – David Davis – is hamstrung by the fact that he is responsible for negotiating Brexit and needs the premiership right now like a hole in the head.
But it is not so much administrative competence that is in short supply, it is identity of interests. Tories, when freed from electoral constraints, govern overwhelmingly in the interests of the wealthy and the aspiring middle classes, whom they regard as the twin engines of the economy. They can apply austerity for as long as it takes because they know it will not apply to them. They wish the workers and their families well, and would not see them starve. But they do not regard them as their natural constituency. Not exactly Macronism in action.
Jeremy Corbyn is, well … Jeremy Corbyn, which at least means he’s not John McDonnell. Corbyn regards Brexit as a monumental distraction. He has no interest in Europe just as he has no interest in America or East-West conflict. All of these are alien to him. He is nothing like Macron. Rather, he is like Pasha Antipov, the earnest young Bolshevik played by Tom Courtenay in the movie version of Doctor Zhivago. His youthful ideals have long-since calcified into a rigid belief system. In 1945, he would have told Clement Attlee that nationalisation of the coal industry and the railways and the setting up of the NHS were not nearly enough. What the country really needed, he would have insisted, was re-education of the masses, collective farms, a five-year plan and the replacement of bourgeois counties with “oblasts” run by Party hacks. Nye Bevin would have had him put down.
The less said about the Lib Dems, the better. With just 12 MPs, they are like the lettuce leaves that are sometimes added to a cheesburger in a bid to make it look healthy. Maybe Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary, can lick them into shape. What he can’t do is multiply their numbers. For that he’d need a magic voting tree.
As the for SNP, they are constitutionally prevented from standing in England, which means they represent no more than five per cent of the country. Sometimes I think this is a pity. The Scots used to provide lots of Britain’s more interesting and entertaining political leaders. But it is probably a bit much to expect English voters to will themselves into an independent Scotland.
So where is the British Macron to be found? And if he or she did arise, what would it mean for Brexit, austerity, the health service, tuition fees and tower-block cladding? The malaise into which the UK has sunk in the twelve months since the referendum is largely self-induced, and voters have to take their fair share of the blame. We are told that in some odd way it was the electorate’s wish that we should have a hung parliament. I reject that. Millions of voters wanted Corbyn as prime minister. Rather more wanted, or half-wanted, Theresa May. Neither side is happy with the outcome. As things stand, the Labour leader is able to cast himself as the “real” winner of the election, which begs the question, why isn’t he in Number 10? Mrs May is, however, without question, the loser. If she had been at the helm of the Queen Elizabeth this week, the great ship would not have eased its way into the Firth of Forth but got stuck fast on a sandbank. The real M. Macron – the one and only – isn’t laughing. He’s embarrassed. We should all be embarrassed.