Anthony Barnett belongs to that small but not negligible category of left wing intellectuals who saw through Tony Blair from the start. He was dismayed by Blair’s lack of interest in ideas, repelled by his lack of any real radicalism and shocked by the absence of the slightest sense of history.

Long before Tory sycophants finally saw through Blair, Barnett was lamenting his failure to make use of his famous victory in 1997 to change Britain for the better.

So I approached this timely book on the constitutional meaning of Brexit with respect, and was not disappointed. Mr Barnett really does want to understand why the British public voted for Brexit. This makes him unusual.

He doesn’t sneer at the Brexiteers. He takes them seriously. The most convincing chapters of this book show how the lies and cynicism of New Labour ahead of the Iraq War destroyed the trust ordinary people felt in a bankrupt political system. Barnett then examines the malign effects of the Cameron premiership, showing how Cameron used Blairite techniques of manipulative populism to lie to voters (most importantly on immigration) and thus count them out of the political equation.

Thus Blair and Cameron abused British democracy, one of the core factors which led to the referendum result of 2016.

So far, so good. Yet there is a mystery at the heart of this often entertaining and brilliant book.

Mr Barnett has devoted his life to fighting for democracy and public virtue.
Yet he regards Brexit as a disaster. This position baffles me. Remember that the European Union was and remains an anti-democratic project, run by a small political/technocratic elite united only by disdain for ordinary voters while pursuing an agenda nobody wants. Barnett agrees with this.

The EU hollows out politics because politicians are accountable for decisions they never made, while the European Parliament is a talking shop. The case for staying in Europe is economic (access to the single market) and not political. Mr Barnett agree with this too. That is why last year’s Brexit vote was  (whether or not you approve of the result)  our greatest democratic moment in Britain since 1945. Once again Mr Barnett is in agreement.

So why does Mr Barnett dislike Brexit when he ought to be pleased that power is returning to voters?

I was so puzzled that I rang up Mr Barnett and asked him. He replied that Britain’s history is bound up by Europe. Whatever happens there (fascism is the example he cited) crosses the channel. So we need to stay inside the EU and fight for democracy, not bunk off.

The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump
Anthony Barnett
Unbound, 416pp, £8.99