Freddy Gray’s “Brexit: What Now?” (City of Westminster, September) reads like the continuation of the Remain campaign by other means. After a balanced opening, his article tilts like the final stages of the Titanic. Some instances. Donald Trump said, on the day of the result, “What I like is that I love to see people take their country back,” which became with Gray “one of those hypnotically bad Donald Trump sentences that becomes more mysterious each time you hear it.” As opposed to the crystalline clarity of “Yes, we can”?
“Vote Leave’s efforts to detoxify the Euroskeptic brand”: Whatever was “toxic” about Leave, a free and legitimate choice offered by the government? The anecdote told by Gray of his son is in fact the best part of the article, since it illustrates the Stalinist mindset of devout Remainers. “The leave vote contained a strong element of base nativism.” Nativism, in my Chambers, offers a second meaning, “the tendency to favour the natives of a country in preference to immigrants.” I cannot see that as mortal sin. Is “nativism” to be accounted as evil made flesh?
Gray follows his party line: “Vote Leave . . . cleverly refused to have anything to do with the more vulgar populism of UKIP. This caused much tension in the anti-E.U. coalition, but it enabled Vote Leave to seem [my italics] moderate and appeal to different voters.” As well one might say that UKIP refused to be subsumed into the official Vote Leave campaign. Nigel Farage went his own way, as always. One would not guess from Gray’s coverage that the referendum owed everything to one man, Nigel Farage, whose party never let Cameron forget his supremely unwise dismissal of them as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.” UKIP hung on to the flanks of the Tories like Cossacks harrying a retreating army, and eventually frightened Cameron into offering a referendum he was sure he would win. It is absurd for Gray to speak of “a coup against David Cameron carried by his former lieutenants Gove and Johnson”; a coup, which is a plot, cannot be applied to a nationwide plebiscite instigated and implemented by the government, which threw all its massive resources into securing the right result. That doomed campaign could well be titled “The Revenge of the Fruitcakes.” Very few may claim that they changed history; Farage may, and his resignation is mentioned by Gray in the same sentence as Cameron’s with the implication of equivalence. Truly, Gray treats triumph and disaster just the same.
The warring politicians get less than their due here. Mrs. May did not, as Gray claims, “campaign” for Remain. She merely indicated a preference for Cameron’s choice, then took no further part in the campaign. “Johnson seemed to shrivel before the enormity [sic] of his task.” He did not “shrivel”; he merely took a day off to play cricket in the immediate wake of the great victory. Gove’s attack on Boris recalls Croker’s review of Macaulay’s History—he had “intended murder and committed suicide.” Gray offers the theory “that Gove and Johnson are both journalists by training and by instinct, and therefore temperamentally unsuited to running a country.” What about Disraeli, a fashionable novelist and no stranger to the press? Or the great Lord Salisbury, who built his reputation in a series of acute and biting articles for the serious press? Churchill paid his debts—some of them—through his well-rewarded journalism. Would Gray cite Great Contemporaries as prima facie evidence of temperamental inability to run a country? And Gray has forgotten Ian Mac leod, whose brilliant tenure as editor of The Spectator provided in its day the highest class of political journalism.
The post-Brexit outcome gets flaccid treatment. “Prime Minister May now says that ‘Brexit means Brexit’—but nobody is quite sure what that means.” Nobody could be sure. The Leave campaign did not have a program, and the electorate was offered a stark choice, the meaning of Brexit being lodged with the will and negotiating skills of the government. Nothing is sure, not even the terms of Article 50, for Theresa May has the power to pull the communication cord and stop the process. Such astute observers as John Redwood and Daniel Hannan recommend that she go the Repeal route: This means a short act repealing the 1972 Act of Accession to the Treaty of Rome, coupled with another short act confirming all subsequent arrangements with the EEC/E.U.—pending a review of these matters by the British government. Meantime, negotiations are put in the hands of the Three Brexiteers, holed up in their timeshare lease of Chevening. Gray’s final paragraph is only speculation. I’d go with Albany (King Lear): “Well, well, th’event.”
Mr. Gray Replies:
It comes as a surprise to be accused, by Mr. Berry of Stratford-Upon-Avon, of carrying on the work of the Remain campaign. I voted Leave, work for a magazine that declared itself for Leave, and now spend quite a lot of time rowing with bitter London Remainers. Moreover, in the article, I described myself as “Leave-inclined.” I do however think the referendum has brought out quite a spectacular amount of silliness and paranoia on both sides.
I don’t think that “nativism” is evil made flesh; I do, however, believe that “base nativism” (the words I used) can be unpleasant, especially when it shoots and stabs women to death while shouting “Britain first.” Perhaps that makes me elitist.
Mr. Berry’s main quarrel is that I do not give Nigel Farage and UKIP enough credit. Well, perhaps, but my point is that UKIP by themselves would not have won the referendum, and that is true.
Mr. Berry does make a good point about Mrs. May. She did not “campaign” for Remain in the referendum, as I said, so much as sit it out for fear of making the wrong call. That’s what makes you Prime Minister.