The Old Gods’ New Tricks

"What would George Weidenfeld have thought of Brexit? He would have analysed the causes and asked: 'Now — how do we save Europe?'"

Britain’s EU referendum campaign almost persuaded me to start believing in — and perhaps honouring — the old gods. Every one of their tricks came into play and I am presently exhausted by their inventions. A week before the vote I bumped into a pro-Brexit friend. With the recent polls showing Brexit with as much as a ten-point lead, was I wrong, I wondered, to have a lift in my heart? No, he assured me. Hours later the Labour MP Jo Cox was killed by a man who appeared to be shouting some kind of nationalist slogan. “That’s that,” I thought.


It is always striking how people use individual gunmen for their own ends. When someone claiming to act in the name of Islam guns down dozens of people (as happened the weekend before Jo Cox’s murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida) most governments and pundits announce that the attack has nothing to do with Islam and that no community should be tainted by association with the lone gunman. By contrast, whenever a white gunman claiming to act in the name of some neo-Nazi cult guns people down, those same governments and pundits insist that there is in fact a well-spring of hate behind the gunman — a hatred that may be in the hearts of us all. But the fates have finer tricks up their sleeves. What were the chances of a promising, attractive, young female politician campaigning for “Remain” being murdered on the eve of the polls? Huge compared to the chances that her birthday would also fall on the eve of the referendum. So on Wednesday June 22 Trafalgar Square was given over not to a rally for “Remain” or “Leave” but a memorial with careful but clear political undertones. The actress Gillian Anderson read a poem called “I shall stand for love.” Particular emphasis was put on the lines, “I shall stand for love / So that our children are safe / Our friends are sheltered / So that our borders are open.” Sentiments like that, expressed at a time like that, are what cause people to lose judgement or reason and welcome in all manner of furies.


I have said before that the art of prediction is no such thing. So certain was I that “Remain” would win that I told people in the days before the poll that it was simply a measure of how close we could make it, so Brussels would hear and perhaps even listen. Then on the night itself the gods picked up such carefully crafted rationales and hurled them around, dashing some careers and elevating others.

As I write the markets are fluctuating wildly and we appear to have no government. But perhaps you are reading this in August on a beach, with a settled and distinguished new government in place and the British economy roaring again (as I trust it will). Or perhaps you had to stay at home and are currently burning rubbish for heat and stockpiling water. As ever the Liberal Democrats provide an opportunity to consider the worse plight of others. The news that Clement Freud appears to have been a serial child rapist sends me back to Michael Bloch’s masterly biography of Jeremy Thorpe. There is a photo from 1973 of the ten Liberal MPs. Already this was a rogue’s gallery. There is Thorpe, not yet on trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. And the vast, gross figure of Cyril Smith, now understood to have been a child-abuser. And here is Clement Freud. Is more to come? There they are, all smiling — the whole world ahead of them and wholly ignorant. How little we mortals know.


One of the genuinely cruellest things to happen during the campaign was the striking down of one of the people most vital to the whole debate. Rodney Leach suffered a stroke while chairing an EU debate shortly after the campaign began. He died a week before the vote. I should think there was nobody who knew more about the EU than him. As with one of his other great causes — a sceptical take on climate change — you had to pinch yourself to remember that someone who knew so much had acquired such knowledge alongside a hugely successful career in business. Now that the country is in a situation that few of us ever imagined, the loss of Rodney — apart from the loss to his family and numerous friends — seems to me the most terrible loss to our nation. We had need of him now.


Two days after the result several hundred of us gathered to remember another great man we have lost. The memorial for George Weidenfeld was in the same room at the V&A where last year we celebrated his 95th birthday. As well as speeches and tributes it was an evening of the finest music: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. Several speakers asked what George would have thought of the result. They agreed he would have analysed the causes (weak leadership across the EU) and then swiftly said, “Now — how do we save Europe?” It behoves us all to ask the same

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