The anti-Brexit hysteria never went away. “How Brexit damaged Britain’s democracy” was the headline of the regular political columnist “Bagehot” in The Economist (March 30). One can hold different views on the value of Brexit—but a referendum is a “threat to democracy”? All subsequent events have pointed to ever-growing economic success. George Osborne’s doom-laden forecasts hovered between astrology and chiromancy; the hand he read was his own. He has now taken refuge at the London Evening Standard (owned by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch) as editor, a handsomely paid and allegedly influential follow-on to the chancellor of the exchequer. John Major, too, wished to preserve his reputation—embossed. He and other spectral figures, such as Michael Heseltine, rose up from the grave to defend their legacy project, the E.U. The entire referendum campaign was a remake of Peers v. People, from a century ago, and like most remakes it was not a patch on the original. The heartland of Remainers is London, hence Metro-Retro, and there the Franc-tireurs fought in the House of Lords their last stand.
We have learned a great deal about Britain in the postreferendum data. That is because the referendum was conducted through the regions and the parliamentary constituencies. The people are counted as a whole, one by one, but collated through their local habitation whose exact numbers are known. More, there was a general election in May 2015, so it was easy to compare those results with the June 2016 referendum. The grand conclusion is that personal wealth counted for a great deal in the outcome.
Take the City of Westminster. If you owned a pad within easy walking distance of the Houses of Parliament, you might feel that there was nothing much wrong with the status quo. So you voted Remain, as did 69 percent in that neighborhood. The same went for Kensington, a borough flooded with international money. Overall, Greater London voted just under 60 percent to Remain—and even Tower Hamlets, a poor and heavily Muslim borough, voted 67.5 percent that way. As London went, so did not the nation; the provinces forked toward Leave. Boston, Lincolnshire, which has had huge immigrant problems, voted 76 percent to leave, and was the greatest supporter of Brexit in the country. In London what matters is wealth, together with policies sympathetic to immigrants. The teeming immigrant capital is nonchalant on the issue, as is its Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. In the provinces, exposure to immigration is neuralgic.
We now know much more about the voting patterns, too. Trevor Phillips had a fascinating article in the Daily Telegraph (April 4) on an extensive survey carried out by YouGov, a well-regarded market-research firm. They recalled 6,000 voters living in England, with the poll focus on religion. Those disclaiming any religion broke 48-52 percent for Remain, while Roman Catholics went for Leave by a narrow 51-49 margin. The surprise was that Anglicans and Episcopalians voted to leave, breaking almost two to one. The reasonable conclusion is that identity is more important than had been thought, and that economics had been overrated as a key factor. The Church of England had in effect if not intention marshaled support for abandoning the Treaty of Rome. History, as everyone points out, never repeats itself, but it does carry echoes of the past. Henry VIII (“that excellent monarch, whose later years were clouded by much domestic unhappiness,” as an Oxford historian put it) is today remembered for more than his wives. He broke the union with Rome. But the Church’s elite is at odds with the provincials. The leaders of the Anglican Church, including Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, shared the Establishment distaste for Brexit. (A former archbishop, George Carey, did support Leave. He has recently had his picture removed from King’s College London for the offence of speaking out against gay marriage.) The wider truth is that Huxley’s Alpha-Pluses backed Remain, and continue to do so.
The referendum revealed that the Remainers, despite their waning powers, still have numbers and determination. They have been aided by the resources of the Brussels payroll. One instance from the referendum campaign was striking. The Times published a letter of 282 signatories, all theater people and largely actors, endorsing in the warmest terms the Remain side. Now what, one might ask, is so special about actors as a group? The referendum was couched purely as a head count of the nation, the ultimate popular vote. The answer is that actors felt themselves to be beneficiaries of the European Union, since numerous grants, research opportunities, and exchanges came over as gifts from the E.U. They had in effect been bribed to see things the right way. Much the same could be said of the sciences—all of them. And academe is of course hotly anti-Brexit. It was the unbribed portion of the electorate that got the decision. From my own constituency, I can attest that the neighborhoods most strongly pro-Brexit were working-class.
There are two strains in the Remainers’ mind, beyond economic self-interest. One is class: The sense of social outrage at the result was palpable. How dare these peasants challenge us? And who is this Wat Tyler? Our good King Richard II should crop the ears of these rebellious hinds. I do not exaggerate the tone of voice of the lofty Remainers. The other strain is caught in a word: heresy. As Charles Moore said of the euro, “it is part an imperium and a belief system.” The hierarchs of Brussels admit no questioning of their system. A most eloquent exposition comes in Shaw’s Saint Joan, when the Inquisitor’s long speech is a prolonged defense of burning the titular character.
But we are confronted today throughout Europe with a heresy that is spreading among men not weak in mind . . . It sets up the private judgment of the single erring mortal against the considered wisdom and experience of the Church.
The European Union is a secular Church. To question its beliefs is, as Douglas Murray says, “heresy.”
The denouement arrived in the form of the General Election, following last year’s pitched battle between Remainers and Leavers. “Let the long contention cease! / Geese are swans, and swans are geese.” Theresa May, having sworn on a stack of Bibles that she would never call an election, did just that. The augurs rated her chances as excellent, and the Times imprudently forecast a landslide. She went on to run a dim, misjudged, and ultimately catastrophic campaign, in which the Cabinet knew virtually nothing of her manifesto until it became public—with a glaring blunder on what families are to pay for the care of their elderly relatives, the so-called dementia tax. And exception was taken to the official Conservative leaflet, which has this in bold: “WITH YOUR HELP—AND YOUR VOTE FOR MY LOCAL CANDIDATE—TOGETHER WE CAN GET BREXIT RIGHT AND SECURE OUR ECONOMIC FUTURE.” The phrase is repeated, “voting for my candidate . . . a vote for anyone other than my candidate.” My candidate? She has none. Americans vote for a president; the British do not and cannot vote for a prime minister. They vote for a member of Parliament, who belongs to a party with a known leader. If the prime minister stands down, the party selects a new leader as prime minister, and government carries on. The wording of the Conservative leaflet had more than a whiff of Führerprinzip.
And the terrorist attack of June 3 did not dispel doubts. May’s reaction was “Enough is enough.” Really? Could not “enough” have been called after the London Bridge attack (March 22), or the Manchester Arena outrage (May 22)?
Why the delay? This was one of those Shakespearean moments of self-revelation, when a character says more than was intended. And when May said (June 4), “There is, to be frank, too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” then to be equally frank she was home secretary and prime minister for seven years of this excessive tolerance. It flourished under her advice and consent. All this was cloaked in the mantra “strong and stable government,” repeated to widespread nausea. The polls tightened by the day. And this was an election when the pollsters got it largely right.
There were other factors. The youth vote, underperforming in past elections, came through strongly this time, greatly benefiting Labour. This was a social-media contest, a Facebook election. In university towns the increase in the youth vote was marked, in reaction to promises of university fees being abolished. Momentum, the left-wing grassroots movement, had learned from Bernie Sanders’ methods in the Democratic primary. Overall, the turnout was much higher than in any recent election, something directly attributable to the youth surge. Close on 70 percent of voters aged between 18 and 25 turned out.
The election result, a hung Parliament, was devastating. It was a complete refutation of May’s leadership style. The Conservatives lost their overall majority and, though still the largest party, must look for support to the DUP, the Ulster nationalists. The shades of Gladstone and Lord Salisbury must look down aghast at yet another British government having to treat with the Irish and pay their price (on border controls with the Republic, for example). Theresa May is mortally wounded and may not live long; the bookmakers quote Boris Johnson at 2-1 as her likely successor. But seasoned cynics judge that the Tories may rather like the idea of a weak leader, prisoner to the party. She can neither discipline the recalcitrants nor sell the ranch in the negotiations. The public likes strong leaders; the inner party would prefer them to be something more amenable to their pressures.
For the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn emerges as their hero. He has that prized quality of authenticity, and putting on the mantle of Mr. Cheeryble made him many friends during his campaign. Like Trump, he appeared as the anti-establishment outsider. Labour can abandon for the present its time-honored dispute between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, with the customary distraction from the cares of government it provides, and rally round Jeremy. UKIP is finished. The LibDems, a touch up at 12 MPs, must make the best of their endorsement by The Economist. It is a wan consolation. The nation had feared that the Scots privateer would berth alongside Labour’s flagship, and, after an exchange of compliments between the two captains, Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn, they would join forces on common policies. These would be ultraleft, Corbyn being a great admirer of Lenin, and Sturgeon aiming only at Scots independence—which would make her ruler of a sovereign state. The numbers weren’t there, to the vast relief of the country.
This election was billed as the climactic battle in the War for British Independence. Brexit would be achieved, triumphantly, in the wake of an incontestable Conservative victory. But now the British hand is thought to be weakened, and its main player not known. Spirits rise on the Continent—and on the Tory right.