Before even writing this I know what response it will meet. Some who fought for Leave on 23 June will be contemptuous. ‘Bad loser’, ‘diddums’, ‘suck it up’, ‘go and live somewhere else’. From the online Leave brigade who stalk the readers’ comments section beneath media columns I’m already familiar with the attitudes of the angry brigade; but aware that there were also plenty of perfectly sane and nice people who took a considered decision to vote for our exit from the EU. To what I shall say, such people can reasonably reply that their side have beliefs too, and Remain can claim no monopoly on reason or conscience.
What follows, however, is not an argument, but a report. I would not trouble you with it if I thought my feelings untypical of many others.
For the first time in my life I have felt ashamed to be British. Something in my relationship with my country has gone.
I have often disagreed, sometimes profoundly, with things that my country or countrymen have done; often been horrified at democratic decisions we’ve taken at elections. But these (to me) mistakes have never undermined a basic pride in our country, with all its faults and false turns. I’ve sometimes regretted what we do but never hated what we are. Foibles, yes; miscalculations, yes; selfishness and silliness — well, which of us is immune?
But these last few months I’ve seen a Britain, specifically an England, that I simply do not like. I’ve seen a nasty side, and seen colleagues and friends pander to it in a way I never thought they would. It has made me feel lonely in my own country, and the experience has touched me irreparably.
The reliance of the leaders and opinion leaders of the Leave campaign upon resentment of foreigners, dislike of immigration and — in many cases — hatred of immigrants, has been absolutely disgraceful. It should be a stain upon our conscience.
Anti-immigrant feeling won it for Leave, and they know it. They used it, rode it and are complicit in it. I’ve been dismayed to see people I’ve respected descend to this. I never thought either that the reserves of xenophobia in England were so strong, nor that people who should know better would play upon them with such careless cynicism. I was doubly naive.
And before you say ‘Oh, easy for you — you don’t live among immigrants’, let me tell you I haven’t spoken to a single colleague or voter here in Derbyshire who lives among immigrants. My fellow constituents are 99 per cent white and most are not poor. Yet the instinct to hate or blame immigrants is stronger than in multi-ethnic London. It has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with xenophobia and the urge to blame other people.
The day of the referendum result, I was waiting outside the tent where CNN were filming on College Green near Parliament. In front of the camera I saw two people shouting at each other and sensed the argument was out of control. Next up for interview, I sat down to watch. The interviewer was Christiane Amanpour, her interviewee the MEP Daniel Hannan.
I have never seen so violent an argument on TV. Nobody won but both lost their tempers. Amanpour indirectly* accused Hannan of trying to win the Leave campaign by inciting hatred of immigrants; Hannan insisted he had never done so, had never even argued against immigration, but simply for Britain to ‘take back control’. Shouting, he challenged Amanpour to cite any example of anti-immigrant language he had ever used.
I’m sure the record will bear Daniel out. I doubt he’s a racist or wants sharp reductions in immigration. He will have been fastidious in his language. But his rage was instructive. Beneath the furious denials and the angry demands for chapter and verse was the rage of a man in acute personal discomfort about the company he has kept and the currents in society whose cause it has become his lifetime’s work to champion, while carefully disavowing what drives them. Amanpour hardly landed a blow on Hannan because she did not put the most wounding charge: that he has ridden a tiger, and knows the tiger he rides. He — and I use him only as an eloquent example — raises his hands in repudiation of the destination he hears his followers bawl for, yet offers to take them halfway there. He has only argued (as he shouted at Amanpour) for people to ‘take back control’.
It won’t wash. Not when you know why they want to take back control. They are not arguing to take back control of our military policy from Nato, because they are content with it. I realise that to democratic theorists ‘control’ may be a pure and overriding good in itself. Most people, though, want it for what they can do with it. If millions of my fellow Britons had not wanted to stop immigrants coming here, Leave would never have won. We may argue the toss as to whether the crowd is using the intellectuals to clear a path for them, or the intellectuals are using the crowd to carry them aloft. I’d call the relationship symbiotic. Both know what’s going on.
I once asked Enoch Powell whether, no racist himself, he ever felt squeamish about some who cheered his speeches. He replied — to laughter from our audience — that in politics you take support from wherever it comes. The reply diminished him.
Over the last few months a poison has been seeping through our national life. My faith in my fellow English, in our democracy, and in those who serve it in high places led me wholly to underestimate its potency or its capacity to spread.
‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ Brexiteers have crowed to me: ‘You’re out of touch.’ They are right. I was. I did not know my own country. I do now. And I like it a little bit less.
* Christiane Amanpour’s producers at CNN have contacted The Spectator to say that she did not accuse Daniel Hannan of stirring up racial hatred. We encourage readers to watch the interview and judge for themselves.
The Spectator Podcast
Matthew Parris on the future of the Conservative party. In conversation with Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.