The People Have Spoken Now

“The European question has been given a decisive answer by the British people. We believe it was the right one. And it is final. Three other questions remain. Why did it happen? What does it mean? And what will happen next?”

Manchester Square
Summer of discontent? (Illustration by Michael Daley, after Giorgione)

The European question has been given a decisive answer by the British people. We believe it was the right one. And it is final. Three other questions remain. Why did it happen? What does it mean? And what will happen next?

In a prompt, dignified and justified resignation speech, David Cameron declared that the country required fresh leadership. He is correct: it was indeed his failure to lead the whole country, rather than just the metropolitan elites, that brought about his downfall. The referendum revealed all too clearly a division between the Haves and the Have-Nots, between those privileged by and those deprived of higher education, suggesting that Britain is hardly less divided than it was in 1845 when Disraeli warned of two nations “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. It was Chesterton who took up Disraeli’s critique: “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget. / For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.”

Well, the people have spoken now. Two duumvirates — Blair and Brown followed by Cameron and Osborne — have presided over the widening and deepening of this chasm. Europe has been the catalyst for this latter-day peasants’ revolt. Lord Mandelson spoke for the self-appointed, self-aggrandising Europhile aristocracy when he dismissed the electorate’s verdict as “the worst day in post-war British history”. It didn’t feel like that for the masses of ordinary people who have now found their voice. For the people who woke up to find themselves living in a free country again, the defeat of the Europhile nobility feels like a liberation, even a revolution.

What does this result mean? It has been above all a vindication for two women: one alive, one dead. The Queen was enlisted on the Leave side early in the campaign, a claim firmly denied by the Palace. But there was no denial when later she was quoted as having asked her  guests: “Give me three good reasons why Britain should be part of Europe.” That was a clear signal that the Queen shares the Euroscepticism of the majority of her generation. Another member of that generation was Margaret Thatcher. Brexit was her posthumous triumph. Such a bouleversement might never have happened but for her inspirational articulation of the case against a European superstate.

For the moment, those who voted Leave, usually for reasons no less noble or unselfish than the other side, are being made to feel as if they had betrayed their country. The colossal condescension of the rulers to the ruled has mutated into fury. Europe, it turns out, was always a moral issue even more than an economic one. Since the result, expressions of social and intellectual snobbery towards the Leave regions have proliferated in the echo chamber of social media. Such malice would have shamed our Victorian ancestors. The hideous murder of the Yorkshire MP Jo Cox quite rightly shocked the nation; yet the Remain campaign tried to blame their opponents for an act of terrorism. The attempt failed, but it left a toxic legacy. The referendum had a high turnout and a clear result. It seems, however, that some of us have forgotten how to be good losers. A petition for a second referendum is doing the rounds; others are proposing to hijack the Conservative Party by the same entryist tactics that enabled Jeremy Corbyn to become Labour leader. Some will stop at nothing to stop Brexit.

So what will happen next? The situation is perhaps most comparable to 1931, when Britain left the gold standard and a national government was formed. That is what should happen now; but who is capable of leading it? After the abrupt decision of the man who led the Leave campaign not to stand — for which the only word is Borexit — the nation is left with a field of Conservative candidates, none of whom is entirely satisfactory. Theresa May—at the time of writing the clear favourite — has many virtues, but she was on the wrong side of the referendum. She has been an outstanding Home Secretary in every respect except the one that mattered most to the electorate: she has failed to curb immigration. Michael Gove was right about Brexit and has been right about almost everything else, too. He has the stature and intellect to be Prime Minister. But Mr Gove lacks the popular touch that Boris Johnson has in such abundance. If Mrs May defeats him, as seems likely, she would be wise to make Mr Gove Foreign Secretary, assisted by the formidable Daniel Hannan MEP, with the job of driving a hard bargain with our European partners. Andrea Leadsom would be a splendid Chancellor — the first woman to hold that office — though she may not have the experience required to be Prime Minister. But this national government should draw on other parties too. Gisela Stuart, who distinguished herself in the referendum by her quiet authority, would be an oustanding Home Secretary — an immigrant in charge of immigration. The elder statesmen Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith have proved their commitment to healing a broken society. Remainers and Leavers alike belong in a cabinet of all the talents. But there could be no place in a national government for demagogy. Nigel Farage would wreck any attempt to rebuild national unity. Moderate members of UKIP such as Douglas Carswell MP would be welcome.

Standpoint has a strong claim to have provided the intellectual basis for this national administration. We look forward to informing the policies and providing a platform for the ideas on which to build a broadly-based government. This needs to happen if we are to make a success of Britain’s new independence. The moral imperative to listen to the silent, overlooked majority was demonstrated vividly by the referendum. We can only hope and pray that our new Prime Minister, whoever it is, will be able to create a truly national government.