A Bri­tish tragedy in one act

Now will Brexit lies be ex­posed?

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - CHRIS PATTEN

THURS­DAY night is said to have been mo­men­tous for those who cam­paigned to leave the EU and turn Bri­tain’s back on the 21st cen­tury. On that, at least, I can agree. As Cicero wrote: “O wretched and un­happy was that day.”

The de­ci­sion to leave the EU will dom­i­nate Bri­tish na­tional life for the next decade, if not longer.

One can ar­gue about the pre­cise scale of the eco­nomic shock – short and long term – but it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any cir­cum­stances in which the UK does not be­come poorer and less sig­nif­i­cant in the world. Many of those who were en­cour­aged to vote al­legedly for their “in­de­pen­dence” will find that, far from gain­ing free­dom, they have lost their job. So, why did it hap­pen? First, a ref­er­en­dum re­duces com­plex­ity to ab­surd sim­plic­ity. The tan­gle of in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion and shared sovereignty rep­re­sented by Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU was tra­duced into a se­ries of men­da­cious claims and prom­ises. The Bri­tish peo­ple were told there would be no eco­nomic price to pay for leav­ing, and no losses for all those sec­tors of its so­ci­ety that have ben­e­fited from Europe. Vot­ers were promised an ad­van­ta­geous trade deal with Europe (Bri­tain’s big­gest mar­ket), lower im­mi­gra­tion, and more money for the Na­tional Health Ser­vice and other cher­ished pub­lic goods and ser­vices. Above all, Bri­tain, it was said, would re­gain its “mojo,” the cre­ative vi­tal­ity needed to take the world by storm.

One of the hor­rors that lie ahead will be the grow­ing dis­ap­point­ment of “Leave” sup­port­ers as all of these lies are ex­posed. The vot­ers were told that they would “get their coun­try back.” I do not be­lieve they will like what it turns out to be.

A sec­ond rea­son for the dis­as­ter is the frag­men­ta­tion of Bri­tain’s two main po­lit­i­cal par­ties. For years, anti-Euro­pean sen­ti­ment has cor­roded the author­ity of Con­ser­va­tive lead­ers. More­over, any no­tion of party dis­ci­pline and loy­alty col­lapsed years ago, as the num­ber of com­mit­ted Con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers dwin­dled. Worse is what has hap­pened in the Labour Party, whose tra­di­tional sup­port­ers pro­vided the im­pe­tus be­hind the big “Leave” votes in many work­ing­class ar­eas.

With Brexit, we have now seen Don­ald Trump-style pop­ulism come to Bri­tain. Ob­vi­ously, there is wide­spread hos­til­ity to any­one deemed a mem­ber of the “es­tab­lish­ment.” Brexit cam­paign­ers like Michael Gove re­jected ev­ery ex­pert as part of a self-serv­ing con­spir­acy of the haves against the have-nots. So, whether it was the gov­er­nor of the Bank of Eng­land, the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, or the pres­i­dent of the US, their ad­vice counted for noth­ing. All were por­trayed as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an­other world, with no re­la­tion­ship to the lives of or­di­nary Bri­tish peo­ple.

That points to a third rea­son for the pro-Brexit vote: grow­ing so­cial in­equity has con­trib­uted to a re­volt against a per­ceived met­ro­pol­i­tan elite. Old in­dus­trial Eng­land, in cities like Sun­der­land and Manch­ester, voted against bet­ter-off Lon­don. Glob­al­i­sa­tion, these vot­ers were told, ben­e­fits only those at the top – com­fort­able work­ing with the rest of the world – at the ex­pense of ev­ery­one else.

Be­yond these rea­sons, it doesn’t help that for years hardly any­one has vig­or­ously de­fended Bri­tish mem­ber­ship in the EU. ProBrexit vot­ers were fed a lu­di­crous con­cep­tion of sovereignty, lead­ing them to choose pan­tomime in­de­pen­dence over the na­tional in­ter­est.

In grim cir­cum­stances, con­cerned par­ties must hon­ourably try to se­cure what is best for the UK. One must make the best of the hand that has been dealt.

Still, three im­me­di­ate chal­lenges come to mind.

First, now that David Cameron has made clear that he will re­sign, the Con­ser­va­tive Party’s right wing will dom­i­nate the new gov­ern­ment. If his suc­ces­sor is a Brexit leader, Bri­tain can look for­ward to be­ing led by some­one who has spent the last 10 weeks spread­ing lies.

Sec­ond, the bonds that hold the UK to­gether – par­tic­u­larly Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land, which both voted to stay in Europe – will come un­der great strain. I hope the Brexit re­volt will not lead inevitably to a vote for the breakup of the UK, but that out­come is cer­tainly a pos­si­bil­ity.

Third, Bri­tain will need to be­gin ne­go­ti­at­ing its exit very soon. It is dif­fi­cult to see how it can pos­si­bly end up with a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with the EU than it has now. All Bri­tons will have their work cut out for them to con­vince their friends around the world that they have not taken leave of their mod­er­ate senses.

The ref­er­en­dum cam­paign re­vived na­tion­al­ist pol­i­tics, which in the end is al­ways about race. A task we all have in the pro-Europe camp is to try to con­tain the forces that Brexit has un­leashed, and to as­sert the sort of val­ues that have in the past earned us so many friends and ad­mir­ers around the world.

All of this be­gan in the 1940s, with Win­ston Churchill and his vi­sion of Europe. The way it will end can be de­scribed by one of Churchill’s more fa­mous apho­risms: “The trou­ble with com­mit­ting po­lit­i­cal sui­cide is that you live to re­gret it.”

In fact, many “Leave” vot­ers may not live to re­gret it. But the young Bri­tons who voted – over­whelm­ingly – to re­main a part of Europe al­most cer­tainly will.

Patten, the last Bri­tish gov­er­nor of Hong Kong and a for­mer EU com­mis­sioner for ex­ter­nal af­fairs, is chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.


A gen­eral view of Lon­don. South­east Asia’s third-largest bank by as­sets is tem­po­rar­ily halt­ing its Lon­don prop­erty loans due to un­cer­tainty caused by the Brexit vote, which caused global mar­ket tur­moil.

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