Post Brexit, Britain still torn between nationalism and global leadership

By Harold Evans, Reuters

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A man looks at a notice outside a polling station in central London, Britain, June 23, 2016. A man looks at a notice outside a polling station in central London, Britain, June 23, 2016.

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Political forecasters are smart about everything except the future.
At 7.30 a.m. on the not-so-bright Brexit morning, the polling site Populus had 55 percent of Britons planning to cast their ballots for continued union with Europe --10 percent more than those predicted to be quitters. YouGov predicted a European margin of 4 percent. The betting markets had been a binge for Remain.
Now please estimate how many Remain voters, seeing their side so far ahead and weather nasty in places, decided to take a rain check. Then consider the effect of the same Thursday morning polls on Leavers who felt impelled to get out their umbrellas and vote down the Europeans and the “faceless bureaucrats” and refugee “hordes” of Daily Mail phantasmorgia.
The Leavers may have found the polls that morning credible, but they chose not to believe the experts’ forecasts of disaster that a Remain vote would engender. After all, even the former education minister, Brexiteer Michael Gove, had inveighed against giving credence to experts -- people who knew a thing of two about currencies and trade. He stands indicted by the plethora of misery in the tumbling pound.
James Moore, former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for international affairs, assures me this financial turmoil will last for months.
One wishes the Leavers long and happy lives -- but they’ll mostly escape the relatively stagnant future they chose. Roughly 75 percent of over-65s voted exit while a similar number of under-25s voted to remain to stay in Europe. If younger Brits bear the burden of the future, the older carry the burden of what they remember as a better past.
Britain is a culturally richer, more interesting and innovative country than it was in 1993. But it is noticeably a different Britain. The foreign-born population of 3.8 million has increased to 8.3 million, not evenly distributed. Immigrants get blamed for delays in the National Health Service and for pressure on schools, hospitals and housing. One daft Remain argument was that a Leave win would lead to a fall in housing prices.
Yes, bad news for the well-housed, but a very good incentive for the ill-housed to vote Leave. And further proof that the elite hadn’t a clue about how the other half lived.
The Remain campaign had by far the better intellectual case in the analyses by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England. But it was light on emotion. Remain lost Blue Labour workers by not realizing how deeply the older people in the north resented seeing their home communities change beyond recognition without so much as a by-your-leave from London.
Britain has always been conflicted in its patriotic nationalism and its desire, bred of an extinct empire, to be a world leader. I lived through a series of European torments. When I was editor of The Times in 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invited me at a small Downing Street dinner to honor French President Francois Mitterrand. The idea of building a tunnel under the English Channel (or, as the French would say, under La Manche, the sleeve) was first mooted by a French engineer in 1802. By 1981 it was a subliminal item on our menu.
The entente was cordial at Thatcher’s top table. I was sandwiched between Europhiles, Bank of England Governor Gordon Richardson, and the British Rail Chairman Sir Peter Parker, who was nodding agreement with the French minister of transport. We would have had a deal before the noisettes of lamb, but for the noises off.
At coffee, Thatcher’s husband Denis, and his gossip mate, the amiable Bill Deedes, editor of the Daily Telegraph, vented about how awful it would be to have smelly French trucks driving through the hop fields of Kent. Aux Barricades!
Listening glumly was the normally ebullient Christopher Soames, Conservative leader of the House of Lords. As ambassador to France from 1968-67, he’d helped Britain join the European Economic Community, the trading bloc that led to the European Union now so spectacularly disavowed by the English mainland.
It took six years from that dinner for Thatcher to wear down internal opposition to the Chunnel. “Too often in the past,” she said when the tunnel treaty finally was ratified in 1987, “pioneering spirits, men of vision and imagination, have been foiled by bureaucracy, narrow minds or plain fear of the unknown.”
Thatcher became a passionate supporter of Britain’s first referendum, in 1975, over joining the single market of the European Economic Community (EEC). So was Richardson, the Bank of England governor. My dinner companion was prescient about what will enter history as the great Cameron screw-up, the decision to buy off pressure from the far-right whiners in his own party, the tabloids and the Tory Telegraph, by promising a referendum.
“I must confess that I sometimes have to rub my eyes to be sure that I am not dreaming,” said Richardson of the1975 vote. “That we really are deliberately engaged on a constitutional innovation as unsuitable and destabilizing as the referendum we now await.”
That referendum went well. Two-thirds of the country backed British membership of the European Economic Community.
Thatcher was torn over Europe throughout her premiership. She could see the economic benefits of cooperation and she was determined that Europe should be able to defend itself. At the same time, she was provoked into her Iron Lady posture when Jean Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, told the European Parliament that within 10 years he expected 80 percent of European legislation to be made without British involvement.
“Let me say bluntly on behalf of Britain,” she said. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."
Britain’s new cabinet is likely to feel similar ambivalence when it takes over this fall. Populist insurgencies have gained ground in a Europe struggling with low growth, debt and the refugee crisis. The Leave vote, bad as it certainly is for Britain, is worse for Europe. Other dominoes may fall.
The Tory Party is not overflowing with strategic vision. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, the crowd-pleasing leader of the Leaves, clearly expects his betrayal of Prime Minister David Cameron to be rewarded with Johnson’s own succession to 10 Downing Street.
Johnson, however, is distrusted by many Britons, especially after he propagated almost as many misstatements as the world champion, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the United States. Johnson peddled the same Trumpian tropes about taking the country back. In place of Trump’s Mexicans, the excitable former mayor famously likened the European Union to the Third Reich, with Adolf Hitler arriving soon at the white cliffs of Dover.
Johnson has his history upside down. A united Europe would have seen off Hitler in 1936. “Had the French marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tail between our legs,” Hitler sneered after admitting that he took a gamble by sending three ill-equipped battalions into the demilitarized zone between Germany and France.
Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 documents the terrible price the continent paid for the isolationism of the 1930s, the xenophobia, the mass media nationalist incitements and the pathological delusions that doomed a generation -- and are again rampant.
Harold Evans is Reuters editor-at-large and was the editor of the Sunday Times and The Times from 1967-82. The opinions expressed are his own.

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