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Over the last week, we have been told repeatedly that European politics is consensus-based, reasonable, respects ‘complexity’ (never mind the unfolding nightmare in Italian politics or the disastrous elections in Germany, where different brands of European fascism are very much back on the scene), while British politics is uniquely fractured and simplistic.
Spare us the lectures.
Over the weekend, pro-Remain campaigners have signalled a potential legal challenge to the government over Brexit. They argue that legislation introduced by David Cameron in 2011, the ‘Referendum Lock’ Act, which means that any change in Britain’s place in the European constitution must be put to the people in a referendum, makes the Brexit negotiations illegal under UK law. Eloise Todd from ‘Best for Britain’ said: “The 2011 Act brought in assurances that any significant changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU would be put to a people’s vote.” The youth movement ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ is behind the move, launching a zany “We’re taking David Davis to court over Brexit” crowdfunder.
That’ll work – use some legalese to challenge the result and people will vote our way. We’ll roll out the big guns – Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and Adonis – and get some young people to give the Remain message a youthful, activist twist.
Remain did not deserve to win – and Remainers have to realise that. We had no God-given right to win that referendum. History was not on our side. That hasn’t changed. Those in the centre of British politics (like me) must integrate the Brexit vote into our thinking. Corbyn showed the way in his speech on the Customs Union – we can too.
This is what I do not get about the offer Remain made at the referendum and the offer they are continuing to make. Vote ‘in’ because we can manage things better in Europe. Vote ‘in’ because Brexit isn’t worth the hassle. Vote ‘in’ because of the various rights associated with EU membership – cheap holidays, visa-free travel, Interrailing and the Erasmus programme. Don’t rock the boat.
If those are your arguments, you deserve to lose.
When did we forget that politics is not just about the control of resources and their management? It is also about setting out a shared story that gives the ring of truth to power, that builds trust in institutions, that tells us who we are? And when did we forget the part that Europe must play in that story?
British soldiers lie buried in Europe’s soil. It is drenched in our blood. More than 700,000 soldiers spent their lives. On some estimates, Britain lost around 2% of its population to the war effort. And they came from all over our Kingdom. Rural communities in Scotland made unbearable sacrifices for Europe’s cause. Almost one in five of the male population of the most remote Hebridean island, Lewis, left to fight a century ago. Some villages lost almost half their men.
The Great War changed Scotland for ever, and it traced an enduring mark on its literary culture too. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song’ – for me, the Great Scottish Novel – articulates the extraordinary effect of the conflict in Europe on Scotland’s soul. At a funeral for men lost in France, the village Minister says: “And who knows at the last what memories of it were with them, the springs and the winters of this land and all the sounds and scents of it that had once been theirs, deep, and a passion of their blood and spirit, those four who died in France? With them we may say there died a thing older than themselves, these were the Last of the Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk.”
After the Great War, a whole swathe of Scotland simply died out. The pre-war rural way of life simply could not be sustained – with its small farmers and crofters close to their land and to the village community. Instead, it gave way to big estates, with the men who gave that old, vanished world substance and vitality gone over the sea, never to return.
Where were (are?) the voices on the Remain side articulating this world view? Our relationship with Europe has never been a cost-free exercise in claiming rights, free travel or cultural dialogue – it is something for which we, and our forebears, have made unendurable, unbearable sacrifices. There are things that were important to us before that we have now lost in Europe. And in this sense, Europe is a testing ground for the British soul. Our commitment to share in its traumas is a yardstick for our better selves. Do we care for people who are not our own? Do we remain open to the world? Forget the hard Brexiteer nonsense about opening ourselves up to the Anglosphere (which cares little for the old Mother Country), it is in Europe that British identity has forged itself.
I voted Remain because we cannot separate ourselves from Europe. I voted Remain because we are bound into Europe’s disasters– where, in George Steiner’s words, “Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald.” There is nothing of that tragic sensibility on the Remain side – you do not speak for me.