Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 30 June 2016

They don’t care whether they control their country; they don’t even know what country they are in

Long life | 30 June 2016
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The Brexit vote has thrust this country into chaos. It has left it with neither a government nor an opposition and no clear purpose in the world. And if our country has been freed from the control of interfering continental bureaucrats, as the Brexiteers wish, the likely price of this achievement is the United Kingdom’s own tragic dismemberment. We also face years of wrangling negotiation and of endless parliamentary work breaking our legal ties with the European Union. Soon, I suppose, we will all have to be issued with freshly designed passports and driving licences. Can it all really be worth it?

It can be said, however, that Britain hasn’t made such an impression on the world since the second world war. Brexit hasn’t only caused turmoil here; it has made a lot of other countries jittery as well. It is seen as the first breach in the dam that has been containing the forces of right-wing nationalism and popular unrest across the continent that would like to destroy the European project. But even in the United States its influence is being taken seriously. The State Department is worried about losing in Britain the main conduit through which it traditionally exercises its influence around Europe, and Brexit is even having its effect on the presidential election.

‘Brexit Revolt Casts a Shadow Over Hillary Clinton’s Cautious Path’ read one headline last week in the New York Times, which said that the Democratic candidate feared that the same kind of populist victory over establishment politics that occurred in Britain could threaten her own prospects in the presidential election. Mrs Clinton, it said, not only had a similar slogan to Britain’s Remain campaign — ‘Stronger Together’ — but also ‘offers reasonableness instead of resentment, urging voters to see the big picture and promising to manage economic and immigration upheaval, just as Mr Cameron did’. Her fear, it said, was that she was out of tune with the public mood and that her Cameron-like messages ‘were far less compelling to frustrated voters than the “political revolution” of Senator Bernie Sanders or Mr Trump’s grievance-driven promise to “Make America Great Again”’.

The lesson of the referendum here is that we should stick to our own representational democracy instead of resorting to referenda. In this case, the majority of elected members of the House of Commons are preparing to go against their beliefs by voting Britain out of the European Union, which is not what MPs are supposed to do. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn may remain the leader of the Labour party against the will of its MPs because its activist members in the country so desire. MPs are becoming just tools of popular opinion instead of following their consciences. Part of their function should be to protect the country against wrong popular decisions, not to implement them.

One of the odd aspects of the EU referendum is the way that Remainers predominated among the young and Brexiteers among the old. I would have expected it to have been the other way round — the older fearing dramatic change and the younger more ready for an adventure into the unknown. As an old person, my reasons for being a Remainer certainly included fear of the convulsions I feared that Brexit would involve.

Certainly, the vote has left me feeling quite depressed. I have thought of emigrating, but perhaps it would be best to stay alone in the country in Northamptonshire with the poultry and my dog. They get on with their lives in blissful unawareness of such issues as Brexit. They care not what is happening in the world, so long as they have enough to eat and enough space in which to peck and play. They don’t even care if Iceland beats England at football. Birds and animals just get on with their lives as best they can, whatever circumstances they find themselves in. They aren’t given to moods. They don’t care whether they control their country; they don’t even know what country they are in. All that matters is that their surroundings are agreeable and they are well looked after. I will aspire to their state of mind and try not to give a fig if the European Union implodes.