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This morning, I found myself agreeing with Nigel Farage. Perish the thought!
He said: “If the Establishment do stop Brexit from happening, then I think all sorts of extraordinary things could happen … there will be a very large number of people in this country who will be angrier than you have ever seen, certainly in modern British political history.”
I’m a Remainer and I agree. Here’s why.
The campaign to stop Brexit seems to be gaining ground. Take ‘Our Future, Our Choice’, a ‘Momentum-style’ youth activist movement whose mission is to reverse the referendum result. It has prominent backers including Lord Adonis and Alastair Campbell.
Take this from Femi Oluwole, one of its founders: “I’m going to deliver the Will of the People, the people who will actually have to live with the consequences of Brexit. The under 55 population of the UK voted to Remain in the EU … the alternative would be knowingly creating a situation where by the time we actually leave, based on natural realities, we would be a Remain country.”
This makes me uncomfortable for several reasons. This kind of language is a mirror-image of the Brexiteer-style populism of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. They make their appeal to ‘real’ people who have been ‘left behind’ by the ‘metropolitan elite’. In response, OFOC cites ‘real’ people, in this case ‘the young’, who will have to live with a post-Brexit future, supposedly all engaged, active, interested, not old, stupid and dying. It’s an uninteresting kind of language and it won’t help.
I voted Remain. I do not like what Brexit is doing to our politics. In my view it is a potential national disaster that risks poisoning the future as it is already poisoning the present. For me it ranks alongside other post-war disasters like Suez, the IMF bailout in 1976 and the intervention in Iraq, as real and damaging setbacks to our standing in the world. The last two years have been humiliating. It hasn’t just been a humiliation because of the rank incompetence of the Tory leadership. It is the Brexit project itself that is doing the damage. It will leave us poorer and smaller than before, in my view, accelerating our national decline.
But we shouldn’t try to reverse it. Farage is right.
The Brexit vote was won decisively by the Leave side. It was absolutely decisive. The margin was not small. It was big. More than a million more people voted to leave than to remain. In referendum terms, where often the margin of victory is much smaller than in general elections, that is enormous.
He’s right for more interesting reasons too. Brexit is a new iteration of the old argument about British and English identity. Is England’s soul more of the Shire or the Metropole, the North or the South? Is Britain more Scotland or England?
On each of these questions, Leave and Remain came down decisively on either side. Leave for the Shires; Remain for the Metropole. Remain for the South; Leave for the North. We are not a ‘Remain’ or a ‘Leave’ country, as Femi would have it. England is not decisively outward-looking or inward-looking. England is a mish-mash of competing interests. And Britain too lies somewhere in between pro-Remain Scotland and pro-Leave England.
And let me be absolutely clear. The strain of England that voted leave is not shallow, and stupid and unthinking. It may sometimes look to its critics parochial, or different, or alien, but it is not shallow.
It is the England evoked in Philip Larkin’s poetry, the England of Whitsun Weddings (“banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed / Coach party annexes”). It is the England lovingly preserved in John Betjeman’s poetry (“Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, / Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun”). It is the England that Anthony Powell evokes in novel form. ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ is full of characters who delight in England’s smallness, in its parochial charms and pleasures.
And just as the Remain side expresses another, distinctive voice in the English story, so does Leave. That is the irony of organizations like ‘Our Future, Our Choice’. They forget a whole swathe of what it is to be English, to be British, to be Us.