The rush to Brexit could have been halted, argues AC GRAYLING. But instead of a sober, rational reaction to the Brexit vote politicians were caught in a flap
In the early hours of June 24, 2016 the broadcaster David Dimbleby, watching the results coming in from the EU referendum, said when the percentages of votes cast were clear: ‘The people of Britain have spoken. We are out of the EU.’
I believe this to be the single most influential thing said or written in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. I believe it influenced politicians and public alike, crystalising a monumental falsehood which explains the stupidity of the reaction to the referendum vote. David DImbleby’s throwaway remark was incredibly irresponsible. I wonder what he thinks of it now?
His remark was a falsehood because ‘the people of Britain’ had not ‘spoken,’ still less spoken a wish for the UK to leave the EU; only about a quarter of them had done so. It was a falsehood because we were not ‘out of the EU’ on the morning of June 24 , any more than we are out of the EU now as I write these words 16 months later, and there is a very good chance that we never will be.
But Dimbleby’s saying it, on television, was like a firecracker thrown among pigeons. Everyone flapped off in a rush, whether of despair or delight. The people who should have been sober and rational, who should have taken thought – I am referring to our political classes – flapped off with them. Instead of flapping off like brainless pigeons they should have said:
‘This was an advisory referendum, a consultative exercise. The result does not mandate anything either way. Only a little over a quarter of the population – 37% of the electorate for this referendum – voted to leave. Given that it is manifestly not in the interests of the UK to leave the EU – especially with the excellent deal we have for our membership – there is no question of our doing so.
Instead we should look at why a quarter of our population think (wrongly) that the EU is to blame for the decline and marginalisation palpable in some of our regions, and we should address that decline and marginalisation, which are problems very largely created by our own domestic policies of austerity. If we were not in the EU, things would be even worse for that quarter of the population.
But no, they did not do that. Instead of doing that – instead of doing the rational, sober, sensible thing – the majority of our politicians flapped off like brainless birds, startled by Dimbleby’s words. Recently in these pages I set out a long list of accusations against the government and most of our politicians in connection with this brainless behaviour. I have had not a single reply from any of them. The challenge to them remains. The trolls challenge me in turn, for having the temerity to accuse the government and most of our politicians, and for challenging them to justify themselves.
The answer to the trolls is that each of us is fully entitled to ask for an explanation, a justification, for the actions of our government and elected representatives.
There is a very trenchant answer to such trolling offered by history. Reading in proof Agnes Poirier’s excellent forthcoming book Left Bank about Paris in the 1940s I come across this passage quoted from the first edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Le Temps Moderne: ‘I hold Flaubert personally responsible for the repression that followed the Commune [of 1871] because he did not write a line to try to stop it. ‘It was not his business,’ people will perhaps say. Was the Calas trial Voltaire’s business? Was Dreyfus’s condemnation Zola’s business?’ Sartre is right: when things go wrong it is everyone’s business to put them right.
And it is everyone’s business now to recognise that when the Brexit nonsense has been sorted out and cleaned up, we have to turn attention to our democracy in Britain and the state of politics. Our politics is no longer fit for purpose. Our democratic and constitutional order has been befouled. We need reform: but note that the reform we need does not have to be very radical – it need only be quite modest and achievable to put an end to the dismally failing arrangements which have plunged us and our country into this present crisis. I set out the problems and the reforms needed in a book called Democracy and its Crisis.
The United Kingdom has to look to the future. The past, with its great mixture of good and bad in imperial times and since, has to cease being an anchor holding back our psychological modernisation as a country. One of the clearest and most dismaying diagnoses of our national psychosis is offered by Joris Luyendijk in Prospect magazine. Here was someone who came to live in the UK full of admiration and hope – and learned to think differently about our country, the hard way. If we do not have the guts to hear what others say, and see ourselves as others see us, we will not escape the myths we blind ourselves with. And escape we must; for that is how we can escape national decline.
Our choice is between taking a leading part in building one of the world’s greatest communities of influence and progress, or becoming an isolated offshore third-world-status minor player. We can be big in a Europe which is big in the world; or we can be nowhere: we can be tiny, marginal and over.
We forget the mighty empires of the Romans and the Spanish in history, long gone and now forgotten; we ignore the resurgent empire of China in today’s world; we are a small country that would fit into Hudson’s Bay in Canada if moved round the relevant line of latitude. So if we wish to live up to our history and have a real say in our future, we need to stop the insanity of Brexit, reform our democracy and our self-perception, and shape up. It is way past time.