Margaret MacMillan is a professor of international history and Warden of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
As I watched UKIP leader Nigel Farage chortling in triumph, I was reminded of what the British humorist Peter Cook once said: that Britain was in danger of sinking giggling into the sea. In an act of unparalleled frivolity, a majority of the British public have just taken a giant step closer to that fate. They will enjoy their victory today, but they are going to wake up tomorrow with a massive hangover. British exports will probably fall off with key markets no longer freely accessible; a falling pound will make imports and foreign holidays expensive; and even more hospital beds are likely to disappear because there will be curbs on immigration even of nurses and doctors.
And the map of the British Isles is going to look different. A large majority of Scotland’s voters were for staying in the European Union. A new referendum on independence is almost certainly now on the cards and this time the Scots may vote to leave. Why after all would they want to stay in a Disunited Kingdom? There will have to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because the latter is a member of the EU. As the triumphal Brexiters in the Leave camp will be quick to point out, the present open border would allow all sorts of migrants to flow northward and then into Britain.
History was called into the debate and, as so often, shamelessly misused. We got the obligatory references to Winston Churchill on both sides and the spirit of Dunkirk. The Leave camp painted a picture of a mythical golden age when jolly beef-eating Britons sat serenely in their island fortress.
Think of the Tudors, the Brexiters cried – they didn’t give a hoot for all those foreigners on the other side of the Channel.
The reality, of course, was something different. England was a minor power with a hostile Scotland to the north and an unruly Ireland in the West. It had few friends on the continent and lived in fear of invasion. The fallout of this referendum will leave an England about the same size as the one then. Will the English have to take up piracy again to help pay the bills?
The vote to take their country out of the European Union was never about the EU itself for the British. Many of them didn’t know even the basic facts about it: A taxi driver told me he was for Leave because he didn’t like the European Court of Human Rights. When I pointed out that the Court was not part of the EU and that Britain would remain a member of it, he said that he still didn’t like the EU.
The poor EU came to stand in for so much that voters didn’t like about their world from worries about the dangerously underfunded National Health Service to the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Globalization does not bring benefits to everyone and there are real grievances – about job loss and declining wages – underlying much of the voters’ anger and their resentment of indifferent elites.
The vote was about giving two fingers to their own leaders, the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels and the oligarchs who treat London as a playground and a safe place to park their money. The same anger and a well-founded worry for their own future and that of their children is fuelling populist movements around the developed world whether that of Donald Trump in the United States or Marine Le Pen in France. The right-wing populist parties across Europe will have taken heart from the British result.
The Leave side also played on the hostility toward immigrants and refugees who are, increasingly, lumped together into one horde of jobs and benefits-seekers heading toward Britain. One of the most unpleasant sides of what has been a nasty campaign has been the relentless attacks on foreigners by the Brexit side with, for example, wild and unsubstantiated claims about millions of Turks poised to move here.
One of the minor light moments in the aftermath of the result was to hear a young Tory MP called Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton and Oxford) saying in a plummy accent that the People have spoken. But what they intended to say is not at all clear. For some Brexiters, getting out of the EU was seen as a way to encourage the unfettered free market – getting rid of irritating regulations about consumer protection or labour laws. Yet for others, like the man I ran into in a local shop or the voters in the economically depressed Welsh valleys, Brexit was a blow against capitalism and for the workers.
In the campaign there was a lot of talk about getting back control or sovereignty. It is like the promise of a new and a shiny toy – even if you don’t know what it is or how to use it. There is no such thing as absolute sovereignty for a country. Every nation in this world – even North Korea – has signed up to international agreements and obligations. Britain will get out of the EU, but it will still be party to thousands of other international treaties and agreements.
Ironically – and there are lots of ironies at the moment – the referendum has also undermined the authority of that cherished British institution, Parliament. Why, as a number of commentators here have asked, do we elect representatives when we also second-guess them? And the campaign has also vividly demonstrated the dangers of referendums in another sense.
By boiling complex questions down to a Yes or a No, they create a simplistic big headline view of the world. Foreigners Are Bad! We Are Good! And we all have pie in the sky when the new day dawns.
Vera Lynn will sing The White Cliffs of Dover, there will be good English marmalade for breakfast, and the sun will shine forever.
The campaign has also underlined the failure of Britain’s political classes. The Tories and Labour have spent as much time fighting each other as talking about the referendum. The Conservative Party is deeply divided and the bitterness created in recent months will be hard to fix. The parliamentary Labour Party is increasingly hostile to the party leader Jeremy Corbyn. There is precious little in the way of leadership on offer in any of the parties, except the Scottish Nationalists.
The Britain of the future (and perhaps we will start calling it England) will be smaller, poorer, possibly meaner, and certainly less relevant in the world. That is only partly a problem for the British themselves. What should concern us all is what it means for the rest of us. The EU has been dealt a blow, perhaps a mortal one. Ms. Le Pen has already said she wants a referendum on French membership and other right-wing parties around Europe are following suit. It is not inconceivable that the EU will fall to pieces. Russian President Vladimir Putin must be laughing his head off in the Kremlin.
The world as we have known it is changing – and not for the better.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: