One of Marx’s most famous aphorisms comes at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
The result of the second UK referendum on membership of the European Union appeared immediately as a tragedy. It has rapidly degenerated into a farce, which may yet have tragic consequences.
The vote to leave the European Union clearly reflects the pain of those who feel excluded by modernity or never welcomed it in the first place. The voting analysis reveals a narrow majority created by socially conservative older people nostalgic for the days of an ethnically pure country linked to an ethnically pure Empire; by poorly-educated working-class voters losing out to better-skilled migrants with a stronger work ethic; by small business owners resenting any regulatory intrusion into their property; from established South Asian migrants believing that restrictions on EU migration will create more opportunities to bring over their own kin; and by subsidy junkies in farming and fishing, rejecting the strings that necessarily come with handouts from other taxpayers.
There are lessons for other European countries and, indeed for the US, since this is much the same demographic as potential Trump voters. One big difference here is that the leading figure of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, is much more popular with women voters, despite his colorful love life and extra-marital progeny. A charming rogue rather than a demagogue.
Rational analysis points to all the flaws in the reasons for voting Out. The Empire now has more important trading links and Britain was never as ethnically pure as its origin myths suggest. A depressed economy will struggle to pay pensions and residential, nursing and domiciliary care will all falter without young migrant workers. If low-paid jobs cannot be filled by migrants, as a price of entry to the UK labor market, indigenous labor will have to be conscripted by cuts in social security and more aggressive eligibility tests. Small business regulation will not vanish but simply be relocated. The clampdown on migration will affect everyone – it will be no easier to bring brides from Bangladesh. The farming and fishing communities are already squealing for guarantees that they will not lose funding when urban taxpayers question their self-immolation. It’s like addicts turning in their dealer and then complaining that there are no drugs on the street. This is the tragedy – the big losers from Brexit are those who voted for it.
However, all these rational arguments were coolly made during the campaign – and failed. The Remain campaign never adequately addressed the emotions roused by the Out-ers. The Labour Party was particularly to blame – and its leader is rightly paying the price for his half-hearted commitment and lukewarm rhetoric. Even if the Labour heartlands don’t know where their class interest lies, their representatives do and are in open revolt. A new leader is needed with the low cunning of a Harold Wilson or a Lyndon Johnson, although such qualities are not in obvious supply, except perhaps in Scotland.
The results demonstrate the contemporary power of vanity and soundbites as political currency – and the consequences. In the aftermath of victory, the hollowness of the Leave campaign has become transparent. There is no plan, other than the personal advancement of its leaders. If a plan is to be constructed, this will depend on the very experts whose skills and values have been comprehensively trashed throughout the campaign. We are called upon to step forward and make something work that we didn’t vote for and consider to be nonsense, accompanied by further sneers about our reluctance to accept the ‘will of the people’. Maybe Ayn Rand got it wrong – the Atlas Shrugged moment is when the professionals, the intellectuals and the creative classes walk away and leave the populists to their ‘common sense.’ This is the farce.
As I write this, the country has been rudderless for almost a week. There is no effective government or opposition, except in Scotland. Small-state conservatism has hollowed out the civil service to the point where it lacks the resources to provide an effective caretaker administration. The Out-ers wail that no-one else did their thinking for them, now that they have to clean up their own mess. The economy has tanked, exactly as predicted by the ‘know-nothing’ experts. The constitutional legalities of implementation are tortuous – forty years of legislation and the embedding of EU membership in the foundations of devolved governments cannot easily be unwound.
Meanwhile the EU gets ready to move on, freed from the drag of a reluctant partner. The coolest head in the room is obviously that of Angela Merkel, who is prepared to create some space for the UK to untangle itself and return to the fold – but on her terms. There are still options, particularly in a country where parliament is the location of sovereign power. We have had tragedy. We have had farce. There may yet be routes to mitigate the consequences of David Cameron’s slipshod tactical games, if the supporters of Remain can mobilize to create them – they have enough smart, creative and expert people on their side. Otherwise we are looking at a genuine tragedy – probably not a sudden catastrophe but a slow economic decline into Europe’s poor relation. This is pretty much where we were in the early 1970s when a Conservative government signed us up as members of the club. That’s not what I want for my grandchildren.