Is Brexit Britain David Cameron’s famous “broken Britain”? The bitterness of the referendum campaign and the divides it has revealed within the Conservative Party and between the Labour Party and its core supporters might certainly suggest so.
Deep rifts now run between old and young, London and England, England and Scotland. The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence is now firmly in play.
The Remain camp argued for a Britain playing its full part in Europe and accused Brexit of wanting a “little England”. Is that what we have all woken up to this morning?
“Little Englander” is a rather contemptuous term originally used by Victorian supporters of the Empire. It was used especially with reference to Britain’s role in the Boer War to denigrate their opponents and critics, who they accused of wanting to keep Britain small and ineffectual in a world of global European empires.
More recently it has been used by pro-Europeans to accuse Brexiters of much the same thing in a world of regional unions. Are they right? Has the electorate’s decision to back Brexit revealed Britain as a little country, a small island, inward-looking and parochial?
It depends firstly on what we mean by Britain. Modern little Englanderism hardly applies in Scotland. England and Wales may have turned their backs on Europe but Scotland, true to its continental links dating back to the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) emphatically did not. The fear of Scottish independence made not a jot of difference to voting intentions in England or Wales on Thursday. Did English and Welsh voters realise they were clearly turning their backs on Edinburgh as well as on Brussels? Maybe, but didn’t care. Perhaps they hate the EU even more than they value the Union.
Disraeli spoke of England as “two nations” – the rich and the poor. Modern England is just as divided but along a different faultline. This referendum was a revolt of the provinces against the domination of the capital. Not since London rallied to the side of parliament and drove out Charles I have capital and country been so much at odds.
For all the talk of immigration – and this was par excellence a vote about immigration – there is a certain irony that the most immigrant-rich part of the whole country voted overwhelmingly to remain.
Young people, unhindered by memories of World War II or the immediate post-war period, are much more European in outlook than the older generation, who voted for a nostalgic “golden age” when, they assume, Britain was Great.
The Brexit campaign’s “take back control” slogan was a canny exercise in nostalgia politics. It suggested that there was a time before 1973 when Britain was fully in control of its destiny. But was there? Britain had twice sought entry to the EEC before 1973 precisely because it felt so economically and politically powerless in its post-imperial role. Is it now about to return to that state of impotence?
Two years after Edward Heath took Britain into the EEC he was himself thrown out of office in a general election fought on the question “Who Rules Britain?” David Cameron has now been brought down by a referendum fought on much the same question. As we survey the ravaged political landscape that has resulted, the question must now be: what sort of Britain has Brexit left his successor to govern?