Politics & Policy

Britain Is a House Divided

(Neil Hall/Reuters)
The battle over whether to remain in the EU has turned remarkably nasty — with repercussions beyond the referendum.

London, England — I have been in England for only one-and-a-half days, and it is already clear to me that the Brexit debate has by no means represented business as usual. Customarily, British political affairs are milquetoast affairs, with little of the vitriol or panache that marks American politics. This one, though, is different. It is bitter. It is bad-tempered. And, for want of a better word, it is rude. All told, the British seem thoroughly fed up with the proceedings in general, and even more fed up with those who disagree with them as to the ideal outcome. Whatever happens tomorrow, reconciliation will be a protracted affair.

Almost all of my more cosmopolitan friends are for Britain’s staying in, and, when I express the opposite view, have a tendency to condescend. “Really?” they ask, eyebrows raised. “Really?” And then, their irritation rising, they look at me with a sort of detached fascination, as if I had just suggested putting erotically shaped ice cubes into the Pinot Noir. One woman, who has been a friend since we were both eleven, told me over coffee that I should reconsider my position because “all the smart people” are pro-Remain. Another, an extremely sharp pediatrician whom I would trust with my life, has been berating her pro-Brexit siblings for “canceling out” the “sensible votes” that she and her husband hope to cast. The charges of smugness, it seems, have not been overblown.

Nor, I notice, have the reports of reticence from the other side. Perhaps because they are expecting precisely the reaction I got, the Leavers of my acquaintance tend to start their explanations with an apology. “I’m sorry,” they say, “but . . . ”; “I just think that . . . ”; “I understand that this is tricky, however . . . ” Such is the cultural power of the BBC and the political class — both of which have done their level best to make Brexit seem outré — that some people I speak to pretend that they are on the fence when they are clearly not, and relax only when I volunteer that I’m pro-leaving and have been for as long as I remember. “Oh,” they say with a furtive look around, “well in that case.”

On the train from Huntingdon to London, I see these divisions in full bloom. Almost everyone is reading a newspaper — it feels a little as if I’ve stepped backwards in time, to the 1950s — and their choices betray their politics. Running my eyes across the carriage, I feel as if I am attending a bizarre, hyper-ecumenical protest march, at which anybody with a strong, 40-point-font opinion is welcome. From seat level, the front pages resemble low-slung protest signs: “Leave!” “Remain!” “Leave!” “Remain!” “Leave!” It is possible, I suppose, that the people sitting behind these slogans are less sure of their views than it appears, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from their conversations with each other, full as they are of hard-headed assurances and mild exasperation at any expression of dissent. The phrase, “no, but you see” is used a lot, along with the insistence — repeated as if by rote and used by both sides — that “they are just trying to scare you.” On the surface it is all very polite, as Britons typically are. But there is an edge this time — an edge I haven’t seen for a long time.

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As a matter of fact, the closest thing I’ve experienced was the fight over the Iraq War. Then, as now, the hostility was open and pronounced. Then, as now, the most outrageous arrows were slung. And then, as now, the two teams did not break down along the usual fault-lines. Back when the case for intervention was being made, Britain was sliced in two. The cabinet split; political parties split; households split; the question caused fights within marriages and stretched friendships to the breaking point. Usually, one can infer what a person believes politically by their views on taxation, on trade unions, on the deficit, and so forth. But that wasn’t the case with Iraq and it’s not the case here. As one might expect, the rural area from which I hail is adamantly pro-Leave — around my village you see nothing but anti-EU signs; anything else would be treason — but so are swathes of the industrial North and the urban midlands: places in which voters wouldn’t return a conservative if their lives depended on it.

Remarkably, the British cabinet is just as hopelessly divided as is the public at large.

Remarkably, the British cabinet is just as hopelessly divided as is the public at large. At school I was taught with pride about the collegiality and collective responsibility that parliamentary executives exhibit, but at the moment that feels like so much lofty abstraction. As the campaigns have become more nasty and more desperate, the gloves have been removed: Astonishingly, many on his own team have taken to calling the prime minister a liar; also astonishingly, he has returned fire, suggesting in print and on the radio that those who disagree with him have no credibility. Quite how this will play out once the voting is finished is anybody’s guess, but, whatever happens, it is tough to imagine anything less than a profound shakeup. As of tomorrow, at least one faction within the government will be writing letters of resignation. (Interestingly enough, a few die-hard Labour voters have told me that they have been tempted to vote “Leave” just to give the Tory leadership a bloody nose.)

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I am struck by how wholly absent philosophy is from the real debate. Although my politics have changed dramatically, I have been opposed to the EU on sovereignty grounds for as long as I have known what it was. On this matter — and only on this matter — my hero was Tony Benn, a hard-line socialist who in 1990 made the best case for British independence that I have ever heard. By delegating more and more power to the EU, Benn argued, Parliament was confirming that it “had lost confidence in democracy”; that it “believes that it must be governed by someone else”; “that it was “afraid to use the powers entrusted to it by its constituents.” This, Benn believed, was unacceptable. “The rights that are entrusted to us,” he wrote, “are not for us to give away” — not to the King, not to the church, and not to another government. In Benn’s view — and this idea echoes throughout both British and American history — it didn’t matter whether the EU did a good job or imposed salutary laws or helped the economy to grow. “Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield,” he argued. “I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.”

#related#Having spent the day talking to voters about tomorrow’s referendum, I suspect that such arguments would today fall on deaf ears (as they did in 1990). Moreover, I suspect that the wholly practical nature of the debate is one reason for the pronounced animosity that is on display. Philosophical disagreements as to the nature of democracy can be more easily set aside than heartfelt fights over policy. In the North, it is customary to be told that the EU is flooding the U.K. with immigrants, and that the elites don’t care so long as they get easy access to their second house in France; in the South, especially in London, one hears it said incessantly that the EU provides vital business and travel opportunities that will disappear if the “myopic” Leave campaign prevails. Elsewhere, a fight is raging over the likely economic consequences of a British exit, with some voters warning me that independence will precipitate a recession and others yearning to throw off the yoke. Wherever one comes down on these questions, it seems clear that they are tailor-made to produce bad blood and the hardening of heads. If you believe that a given course of action is going to impoverish yourself and your family — and, moreover, that your opponents are stupid or indifferent or worse — you are unlikely to go down without a fight. Officially, that fight will come to a close tomorrow evening when the results are announced on TV. But the bruises will stick around for a good while to come.

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