Now comes the actual work of leaving the EU.
London, England — So, what now?
The immediate answer is: Nothing. As the prime minister made clear in his resignation speech this morning, it will be months before the government triggers Article 50 and initiates withdrawal proceedings, and, even after it has done that, progress is likely to be sedulous and slow. In time, there will be fireworks. But for now there are markets to calm and voters to unite, and there is at least one leadership election to stage. Triumphant as the Leave campaign may be feeling this morning, last night was less akin to Agincourt and more akin to the second meeting of the Great Council. Yes, the United Kingdom has declared its independence; but the fighting has only just begun.
I have seen it suggested — or, perhaps, hoped — that the powers-that-be will simply “ignore” the vote to leave. This is not going to happen. In a strictly legal sense, Parliament is sovereign and can do as it wishes. In consequence, this referendum was technically not binding. Culturally, though, any indication that the government was trying to defy the voters would trigger a catastrophic constitutional crisis. Speaking in front of Downing Street this morning, David Cameron set the tone: “The British people,” he confirmed, “have voted to leave the EU and their will must be respected.” “The will of the British people,” Cameron added, “is an instruction that must be delivered.” Sadly for him, the task of making that delivery will fall to his successor.
As in 2015, the simple answer was that the public lies to pollsters. And who can blame it? I have spent quite a lot of time in the U.K. over the last month, and I have been startled by the condescension, the disdain, and the downright bullying that I have seen from advocates within the Remain camp. That this morning I am seeing precisely the same attitudes on display has left me wondering whether the British chattering classes are capable of learning new tricks. More than 17 million voters opted for Leave yesterday, and yet to take their opponents at face value would be to conclude that this vast and diverse coalition of citizens was little more than a revanchist, hate-filled, antediluvian rump. It is certainly the case that the center-right opted overwhelmingly for exit. But it is notable that the election was won not on the playing fields of Eton or in the leafy gardens of England’s Home Counties, but in the industrial Northeast and the blue-collar Midlands. Indeed, as the Mirror and others have observed, Leave’s margin was provided not by a surfeit of conservatives, but by working-class social democrats who traditionally vote Labour but whose concerns are increasingly out of sync with the rest of their party. (This, incidentally, is another reason that Parliament could not get away with ignoring the result of the referendum: Because UKIP is nipping at Labour’s heels throughout the country — and because there is strong anti-EU sentiment among at least a third of Labour voters — the Labour party’s leadership knows that to sign onto any coup would be to sign its own electoral death warrant.)
In our present climate, it is customary for cosmopolitan sorts to accuse anybody who dissents from the European project of being an unreconstructed “nationalist.” Insofar as this describes the dissenters’ desire to return power to their own parliament and to ensure that their vote matters as much as it should, it is an accurate term. Outside of that, however, it is a slur, and a damnable one at that. George Orwell contended that the difference between patriotism and nationalism was that patriotism involved “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people,” while nationalism “is inseparable from the desire for power.” By this definition at least, Britain’s decision to extricate itself from the EU was patriotic, not nationalistic. Indeed, if there is any group within the debate that seeks to impose “a particular way of life . . . on other people,” it is the one that wants ever-closer integration into Europe, and, eventually, a federal super-state.
Before all that, though, there is a serious hangover to dispense with. And it’s going to get quite a bit worse before it gets better.
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