Dawn breaks behind the Houses of Parliament and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, LondonCREDIT: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS
There were two referendums on Thursday. The first was on membership of the EU. The second was on the British establishment. Leave won both, and the world will never be the same again.
It’s impossible to overstate how remarkable this victory is. Twenty years ago, Euroscepticism was a backbench Tory rebellion and a political cult. It was a dispute located firmly on the Right with little appeal to Labour voters. It took Ukip to drag it into the centre of political life –given momentum by the issue of immigration – and slowly it has emerged as a lightning rod for anti-establishment activism.
Even so, the circumstances of the referendum were not ripe for victory. David Cameron only called it to hold his own party together; and once it was called,he decided to turn the British and global establishment against it. Out came the Treasury, the IMF, even the President of the United States to argue that Britain had to stay. This was textbook politics, how things used to be done – and it worked back in 1975 when the UK voted overwhelmingly on good advice to stay in the Common Market.
But this time the establishment consensus coincided with a historic loss of faith in the experts. These were the people who failed to predict the Credit Crunch, who missed the greatest economic disaster to hit us since the Great Depression. And we were supposed to believe them? Slowly the consensus came to resemble not just a conspiracy but, worse, a confederacy of dunces.
Even so – even as Leave pulled ahead in the polls – it was still impossible to think it could win. The murder of Jo Cox convinced me that it wouldn’t. I suspected that it would cement in most people’s minds a link between Brexit and risk: Leave forced this referendum, Leave created the febrile debate, Leave had to bear some responsibility for the air of chaos. Even I would’ve preferred the referendum to be cancelled. The whole thing made me feel sick to my stomach. There was talk of Leave support wilting and turnout dropping, while Remain was surging. Remain’s Project Fear evolved, inexplicably, into Project Tolerance. Now a vote for the EU was a vote for love. And if the British couldn’t be terrified into voting Remain, surely they could be guilted into doing it?
No. People wanted to have their say and they did. Up and down the country they defied the experts and went with their conscience. Labour voters most of all: the northeast rebelled against a century of Labour leadership. I am astonished. Staggered. Humbled. I should never have lost faith in my countrymen. Those bold, brave, beautiful British voters.
Why did they do it? That, we’ll pick apart in the next few weeks. I think that Leave genuinely ran the better campaign, more hopeful and upbeat. Immigration mattered a great deal – although one YouGov poll ranked it third behind democracy and the economy. It’s possible that voters grasped the essential point about this referendum better than we the commentators did. It was a vote of confidence in Britain. Should we run our affairs or should we delegate it to foreign bureaucrats? When I was leaving my polling station, I said to a chap: “I found voting quite emotional.” He replied that this was the day we got our freedom back. That’s how it feels for millions of Britons.
Not how it feels, perhaps, for Londoners or Scots. We’ve seen a new division emerge within our country. Scotland increasingly defines its politics as Left-wing and Europhile. London is simply a different country: the metropolis triumphant. The young may have overwhelmingly voted Remain, too – but, hey, they will grow older someday. The young who voted Remain in 1975 overwhelmingly voted Leave in 2016. In part, perhaps, because they didn’t like being characterised as ancient bigots by the Remain side. Top tip for winning future elections: don’t call the electorate “thick” or “losers”. It, er, turns them off.
What happens now? We drink. We be happy. We sing a song. Then we piece back the country and get on with the great project of building the British century. We voted the right way because we’re a nation with a sense of destiny. The world is ours now. Go get it.