Alex Massie

Has England gone mad?

Has England gone mad?
Text settings

In the final, frenzied, all-things-seem-possible days of the Scottish referendum on independence - the days when it seemed there was something in the air and perhaps the water too - some people outside Scotland began to ask a disconcerting question: Has Scotland gone mad? 

Scots, whether Unionist or Nationalist, disliked the question but while their huffiness was both predictable and understandable, not least because the question was often posed in ways that didn't exactly flatter the Scots, the question itself was not as lunatic as it might have seemed. Or, rather, it was a telling question. Because, while Scotland thrilled to the drama of a referendum that was one part national awakening and one part battle of big and important ideas, most of the outside world wondered what the hell we were thinking. It was exciting but also, you know, baffling. Are you really going to do this? Really?

Fraser Nelson and Nick Cohen discuss The Spectator's decision to back Brexit:

Because the outside world struggled to understand, far less appreciate, why anyone would wish to leave a country as evidently successful and fortunate as the United Kingdom. What was the great grievance, the great failure, that justified Scottish independence? Was there not, in truth, something a little McRuritanian about the entire enterprise? Even those people who might, on an individual level, have some sympathy for the project (such as the Irish) were, on a governmental level (as in Dublin) resolutely opposed to the idea. Too much risk, too much uncertainty, too many known and unknown unknowns. It was all but unthinkable and therefore it was better not to think about it.

Besides, some folk scoffed, what kind of struggle for national liberation leaves you with the same head of state, the same central bank, the same currency, and a hundred other pieces of cross-border continuity? Was it for this that so many patriots toiled in so much obscurity for so long etc etc?

Well that was then and this is now. Just as few people in England paid very much attention to the Scottish referendum until it was almost over, so few people in Scotland have dedicated much thought or attention to an EU referendum that seems, largely, to be taking place elsewhere. Scotland will vote to Remain, though probably not by as large a margin as might have once been thought. A third of SNP supporters, after all, seem minded to vote for Leave.

Still, the question lingers but with a twist this time: Has England gone mad? After all, with the ignoble exceptions of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, almost every other international statesman, multinational organisation, and friend of the United Kingdom thinks Brexit would be an act of lacerating self-harm. So much so, in fact, that the unthinkable has barely, at least until now, been needed to be thought. Every serving Prime Minister since Macmillan has been convinced Britain's interests are best-served by membership of the european club; the great majority of British business thinks so too. Perhaps they are all mistaken; perhaps Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are right. But, you know, come on.

The sense of constitutional deja vu is hard to ignore. When you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. So just as Scottish independence would make everyone a winner, so Brexit will do the same. Don't worry about the details; feel the sweep of history. We will be richer and only people who lack faith in our own abilities would dare question any part of the prospectus. Because, come on, believe. Stop talking Scotland/Britain down.

Never mind that Scotland could, quite plainly, not borrow less, spend more and tax the same in the manner Alex Salmond promised. Never mind too that, post-Brexit, Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage can't both be right about the kind of Britain they imagine. Never mind that Leave are promising you can keep everything you like but jettison everything you don't, just as the Scottish Yes campaign promised shortbread and whisky for all and a Unicorn to graze in every garden.

There are differences, of course. Pro-Yes campaigners realised long ago that talking about freedom was a nonsense. Britain is a free country and Scots, or at least most of them, appreciated that. There was no yoke - of the colonial or any other kind - from which to escape. Life might be full of grumbles but it was hardly intolerable. The Braveheart and bagpipes bullshit did not win votes for independence, it lost them. (Not everyone who supported independence was a nutter, but most of the dreamers supported independence and their nutters were undoubtedly louder than the nutters on the pro-Union side.)

Something different seems to be happening in England. There has been more talk of national liberation in this referendum than there was in Scotland in 2014. And that talk has undoubtedly come from higher up the campaign food chain than was the case in Scotland too. We must take our country back is the order of the day. I hadn't realised it had been stolen, but there we have it. But then we are each of us products of our own experience and I cannot, do not, think of the european project as a threat or even an impingement upon my sense of identity. We've been pooling sovereignty in Britain for 400 years and if the English haven't noticed that it's because they've not needed to. Nevertheless, that's the way it has been.

Still, I can understand why so many people chafe so loudly against the perceived constraints imposed by an out-of-touch and untouchable "elite" in Brussels. After all, many people feel the same way about Westminster (and not just in Scotland either). So, another irony: the Leave campaign is about 'restoring' democracy and power to an out-of-touch and untouchable institution many, perhaps most, voters hate. And I'd wager a higher proportion of Leave voters than Remain voters loathe the Palace of Westminster and all those who work in it. These are the people who nurture the suspicion someone, somewhere else, is secretly profiting at their expense.

Be that as it may, the freedom argument evidently works better in England in 2016 than it did in Scotland in 2014. It taps into something deep within the English psyche (this, remember, is a very English referendum, not a British one). There is something spirited about this even if I cannot also banish the thought it's often also soaked in nostalgia for a world gone by. The world's gone to the dogs, you know. Even the positive vision for Brexit rests on deeply negative foundations.

Certainly, it is hard to see how all the most dedicated leavers can be right about our post-Brexit future. Leave the economic forecasts to one side, there's no way leftist Leavers who deplore the 'neoliberal' excesses of the EU and dream of one future outwith its clutches can be reconciled with the actual neoliberals - such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan - who have provided so much of the intellectual ballast for the Leave campaign. Then again it's hard to square Hannan, who thinks current levels of immigration are roughly appropriate, with a Leave campaign whose central message is, in essence, If you want a Turk for a neighbour, vote Remain. (Sometimes this, it is true, gets a more nuanced presentation: we don't want unskilled Poles but we do want skilled Pakistanis. If you believe this, then you'll believe anything.)

Despite that, the democracy argument in 2016 is stronger than its 2014 counterpart. The EU is a mess; it is more resistant to reform than it should be. The Commission is impervious to the popular will. No wonder that, almost every time in almost every country, when the people are given the chance to vote on something european they enjoy biffing the project on the nose. We are the quiet people of europe, they say, and you ignore us at your peril. And yet the ignoring goes on. The leaders of the european project are sent home to think again only to return with just the same thoughts as before. At some point, perhaps as soon as next week, there will be a real and irrevocable reckoning. When, or if, that happens, it will be hard to say it wasn't, in some sense, deserved. Sometimes the people running things are just the people running things and the EU often seems stubbornly determined to illustrate that point.

Nevertheless, we are where we are in large part because of British successes. Savour the irony that the parts of the european idea people now object to most vociferously were the consequence of Britain getting what it wanted. EU enlargement was a British diplomatic aim and, yes, a British diplomatic success. We got what we wanted; now we hate what we got.

True, Brussels has been slow to wake up to the fact, far less accept the reality, that a superstate isn't going to happen. There may be greater convergence on some matters but that jig is up. The people won't wear it. There won't, in the future, even be a two-speed europe but, rather, a multi-speed continent with different countries enjoying different kinds of EU membership. That's already the case - Britain, remember, is already insulated from some of the worse parts of the project while continuing to enjoy the advantages of its better elements - but can only be even more the case as more and more countries join the club. The Junckers just haven't realised this yet. Expansion confounds federalist dreams; that's why Britain supported expansion. We got our cake and now we, or at least half of us, decide we don't want it after all.

But what of life after Brexit? Well, the bad news is it will go on. But the Leave side make the mistake their Scottish nationalist counterparts made in 2014. They assure us we will get everything we want without the tedious need to give up anything we prize. Everything will change except the things you like. Real life doesn't work like that. Real life negotiations don't necessarily follow the rules of enlightened, rational, self-interest. If they did, divorces would be easier than tends to be the case. And, as with Scotland, the people leaving the club are poorly positioned to dictate terms to those who remain members.

Of course Britain could manage and of course some, even many, of the direst predictions about a pestilential future post-Brexit, would not come to pass. There's no real reason to think this country's security would be seriously imperilled by Brexit, after all. Nor would Britain suddenly become a basket-case economy. But there would, plainly, be an impact. Poorer apart does not mean too poor to manage apart but it still means poorer. At least in the short to medium term and it's not ignoble, or talking Britain down, to think that something worth considering and taking seriously.

And sure, Brexit does not mean leaving 'europe' in a cultural or historic sense. We'd still have Goethe and Beethoven and Picasso and Fellini and all that. In this respect, Brexit is a much smaller thing than leaving the UK. That was, no matter how much Scotch nationalists insisted otherwise, unavoidably about leaving and repudiating a distinct place, country and culture. They said 'Britain' was just a geographic description, just a landmass to which we would remain attached. But of course it was much more - and understood to be more - than that. Europe is an idea, too, admittedly, but the political and technical intricacies of the european project are much less compelling, and less tangible, than those of its British counterpart.

Even so, Brexit would change things. A liberation for some, it would feel like a defeat to others. It might not be a trigger for another Scottish independence referendum but it would, I think, create still greater distance between north and south Britain. At the very least it would make another referendum more thinkable and, perhaps, more winnable even allowing for the added complexities of unravelling Britain in a post-Brexit environment. But then I don't think it a coincidence that the Leavers most sanguine about the break-up of Britain tend to be people in the Carswell-Hannan camp.

But, perhaps above all, it's the certainty I distrust. The idea that a country can, with a single swing of the axe, free itself from complexity and compromise. That everything comes down to one imperishable idea. That we can get everything we want without giving up anything we prize. That, once smashed, things are easily repaired and then improved. There is something revolutionary about this and I'm not sure I really trust revolutions or revolutionaries. As an intellectual game it works, but reality is more complicated than that.

And we've heard it all before, too. In 2014, I tired of being told by Alex Salmond and others that, sure, Unionists might say they love Scotland but they don't believe in Scotland. That was balls then and it's balls now we're treated to Leavers calling Remainers Britsceptics. As though one side had a monopoly on patriotism or decency or optimism or anything else you might think valuable. We weren't Uncle Tams then and we're not Oncle Thierry now. So, really, piss off with that.

But that's just my experience. As in 2014, so in 2016 plenty of people I know and like and even, sometimes, respect will vote on the other side. They have their reasons and those are not all ignoble, indecent reasons (even if they are cast in support of a campaign that often has been ignoble and indecent). Sometimes the reasons are even good. But I cannot avoid the thought that while many of them may have a coherent intellectual case against the EU, what really motivates so many other Leavers is something else: a much more narrow conception of Britain and Britishness than the one I find attractive. A conception that thinks Britain is broken, that she has been betrayed, that there is something dismal about the modern world, that something has been stolen from them, that so many of the things that make Britain a success - its relaxed and liberal internationalism - are instead signs of failure and national capitulation. I just don't think any of that is true. Nor do I ascribe Britain's successes to the EU - though I don't believe it has hurt - but I can't help thinking that Leave is a kind of Retreat. And an unnecessary one at that.

4Will Britain vote to leave the EU? Can the Tories survive the aftermath? Join James Forsyth, Isabel Hardman and Fraser Nelson to discuss at a subscriber-only event at the Royal Institution, Mayfair, on Monday 20 June. Tickets are on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here to join us, from just £1 a week.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyuk politics