This catastrophe has had a thousand causes. Here are some.There is our country’s post-imperial reluctance to let go of the idea that we are a great nation, combined with our post-second-world-war delusion that we were still a great power.
That was why we refused the chance to join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and our infatuation with our own greatness was sufficiently undamaged by Suez in 1956 to make us refuse to join the EEC when that got going with the Treaty of Rome in 1958. If we’d committed ourselves to Europe early, with everyone else, we’d now have a much deeper understanding of our real relationship to the continent, namely that we belong there.
Then there was General de Gaulle’s double “Non” in 1963 and 1967, which kept us out when we finally thought it might be a good idea to join. Goodness knows what the source of his hostility was, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if his notoriously prickly character was still harbouring some ancient resentment from his treatment by this country during the war.
But if we’d had the chance to join early, we could have had a much greater influence on the way the European project developed, and we’d feel much more at home in it now. Instead, we were bewitched (some of our leaders still are) by the fantasy of the “special relationship”, invented by Winston Churchill and entirely ignored by the other party to it, the US. Caught up in the glamour of this imaginary nonsense, toadying, deluded, we’ve been facing the wrong way for the past 70 years.
Combined with that, there is the folly of allowing a billionaire from Australia to corrupt our press. A good deal of it was already corrupt (the Zinoviev Letter, for instance, a forgery published by the Daily Mail to ensure a Conservative victory in 1924), but the depth to which the bulk of our newspapers have sunk, the extent to which they are nothing more than mouthpieces for spittle-flecked xenophobia (“Up Yours Delors”, from the Sun, 1990), is a wonder of the civilised world.
Then there is the bone-headed obduracy of the Labour party. Outraged by Thatcherism, I joined in the 1980s, and tried to urge the local party to join forces with the Liberal Democrats to displace the sitting Tory. Nothing would shift them from the conviction that it was better to lose on their own than win in collaboration with someone else.
When Charter 88 brought out its superb analysis of our constitutional crisis later in the decade, once again the Labour party knew better than to take a step towards the light, and refused to support the obvious need for, for instance, electoral reform. Because in its sclerotic complacency it never learns anything, it went on in due course to lose its base in Scotland and then elect Jeremy Corbyn, whose performance during the referendum has been a masterclass in lacklustre, moribund, timid, low-wattage helplessness. You cannot take someone formed by nature to be a safely maverick backbencher and expect him to project any kind of clear determined leadership.
Instead of a proper constitution, we have a diseased, decaying mess of a patched-up stinking hulk. Then there is the tendency of our broadcast media to be seduced by strong personalities. The oafish saloon-bar loudmouth Nigel Farage was indulged with far too many appearances on Any Questions and Question Time. Producers seem to have felt his dog-whistle racism to be amusingly transgressive.
Similarly, Boris Johnson, a liar, a cheat, a man said to have betrayed a journalist to someone who wanted to beat him up, a shameless opportunist, an idle buffoon, to name but a few of his disqualifications for high office, was flattered over and over again by programmes such as Have I Got News For You. Without the completely needless exposure these two gained from the generosity of TV and radio, they would have found it harder to spread their lies and not-even-quite-covert racism during the referendum. They’d have been starting from a different place.
But the most immediate cause of the disaster this country suffered last night was the flippant, careless, irresponsible way David Cameron tried to buy off the right wing of his own party by offering them a referendum. I don’t think that device should have any place at all in a parliamentary democracy: it slips far too easily into a sort of raucous populism. We elect MPs so that they can have the time and the resources to make important decisions. That’s what they should do.
But then, if we had a properly thought-out constitution instead of a cobwebbed, rotten, diseased and decaying mess of a patched-up, cobbled-together, bloated, corrupted, leaking and stinking hulk, we wouldn’t have come to this point anyway. We desperately need fundamental change. But who can bring us that now?
25 June 2016