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Fiercely unconventional and rampantly seductive: Lorna Wishart, the muse who made Laurie Lee

In her youth, Lorna was Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp rolled into one captivating and maddening creature. 

Luminous blue eyes: Lorna Wishart in the 1940s. Photo: Francis Goodman/NPG

Few novelists today would dare to invent a heroine as seductive as Lorna Wishart. In her youth, she was Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp rolled into one captivating and maddening creature. Visitors to the British Library exhibition “Laurie Lee: Memories of War” – the first of several events this summer celebrating the centenary of Lee’s birth – will come across her name in a recently discovered diary from 1936-37, covering Lee’s rescue from Spain by a British destroyer at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and his return to the country the following December. What happened in between was that he met and fell in love with the bewitching Lorna.

I first heard of her when I was researching Lee’s biography shortly after he died in 1997. At that time, the much-rehearsed narrative of his life derived chiefly from his three books of memoir: Cider With Rosie (1959), about his childhood in the Gloucestershire village of Slad; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), on how he left home and fiddled his way across Spain in 1935-36; and A Moment of War (1991), on his return to Spain to take part in the civil war. In the last two, he referred to the (unnamed) married woman – “rich and demandingly beautiful, extravagantly generous with her emotions but fanatically jealous” – who turned up in France to bid him a passionate farewell when he went off to the Spanish war and was waiting when he got back to take him to her flat, with “the flowers on the piano, the white sheets on her bed, her deep mouth, and love without honour”.

For six years they were together. She gave birth to his daughter, inspired his poetry, got his verses published in Horizon, launched him into the BBC – and then left him in 1943 for the “sinister boy” who was infatuated by her: the enfant terrible of the art world Lucian Freud.

When Lorna’s magnificent blue gaze first fell on Laurie, one morning on a lonely beach in Cornwall in 1937, he was playing his violin, penniless and unknown. He was 23 – “thin, hungry and gorgeous”, in his own words – with a lock of fair hair falling over his forehead like Rupert Brooke. “Come here and play for me,” commanded Lorna. Laurie was instantly smitten, recalling one of Browning’s lines:

She should never have looked at me
If she meant I should not love her!

Lorna’s luminous eyes were a key to her charm. She was the youngest and by common consent the most beautiful of the seven Garman sisters, daughters of Dr Walter Garman of Oakeswell Hall, Wednesbury, in the Black Country. When Dr Garman died in 1922, the two eldest girls had already launched themselves into London’s artistic and bohemian society: Kathleen was the model, mistress and later wife of Jacob Epstein and Mary married Roy Campbell, the South African poet. Lorna was their precocious little sister, who had jumped over the tennis net at school when told of her father’s death, as it meant freedom. She was still only 14 when their brother, Douglas, an undergraduate at Cambridge, brought home his friend and fellow communist Ernest Wishart, son of Colonel Sir Sidney Wishart, a rich Sussex landowner.

Already a beauty, with a perfect heart-shaped face and velvety voice, Lorna seduced Wishart, almost ten years her senior and known to all as Wish, in a hayrick. As soon as she was 16, they married and shared a house in Bloomsbury with Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle. Wish founded London’s only Marxist publishing company, Lawrence & Wishart, and among its authors Lorna made further conquests. In August 1937, the Wisharts were on holiday at Gunwalloe in Cornwall with their two young sons when Lorna, striding out early one morning as she always did, spied Laurie.

A favourite of grand ladies: Laurie Lee in the 1940s

Bizarrely, by a Dickensian coincidence, Lorna was not the first of the Garman girls Laurie had met. Two years earlier, when he was still travelling through Spain, he had been sawing away at his fiddle in the main square in Toledo when he caught the eye of Lorna’s sister Mary and her husband, Roy Campbell. Mary asked him in French if he was German and he replied in Spanish that he was English. He was promptly swept up by the Campbells and stayed at their house for two heady weeks of poetry and rough red wine.

Nor was Lorna the first woman who tried to guide Laurie’s career as a poet. While in Spain, he had been taken in by Wilma Gregory, the middle-aged wife of Professor Theodore Gregory of the LSE. A former suffragist, a friend of Rebecca West and a formidable busybody, Wilma virtually adopted him, astonished by his gifts for music, poetry and drawing. It was Wilma (never publicly acknowledged by Laurie) who engineered the rescue of Laurie and herself by a British warship, when they were stranded on the Andalusian coast as the Spanish civil war broke out. Back in England, Wilma rented a comfortless cottage in the Berkshire woodland so that Laurie could study art at Reading. After his first year, when his tutors declared him to be “the English Picasso”. Wilma enrolled him in the École des Beaux Arts in Montpellier. But first she enabled him to go to Cornwall, where he encountered the woman she described as “the most beautiful, aggressive and . . . dangerous of his mistresses”.

At 30, Lorna was fiercely unconventional and rampantly seductive. Laurie referred to “her panther tread, voice full of musky secrets, her limbs uncoiling on beds of moonlight”. Others described her as a tiger woman, who stalked and prowled, sylph-like, feline, physically fearless. She drove fast, rode her horses at the gallop at night, drank gin, smoked, swam in icy seas in winter. Witty, intimidating, magnetic, she bestowed aesthetic esteem on anything her eye approved, illuminating everything around her. An old girlfriend of Laurie told me, “She gave off a flavour of strength, or concentration – like a strong whisky.” And she loved Laurie “with fierce abandon”.

Her son Michael described in his memoir, High Diver, how his mother, a mermaid-like figure with “ultramarine” eyes, dressed for dancing in clinging sequins, would lean over his bed before speeding off in her chocolate-brown Bentley, heading for some pleasure-dome nightclub, leaving a lingering scent of Fleurs de Rocaille.

It was the “satiety and indulgence” of Laurie’s affair with Lorna in that summer of 1937 – and his guilt about having fled Spain – that prompted him to accompany Wilma to France. From there he secretly planned to make his way over the Spanish border to enlist. At the end of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he admits his desire to impress the girl with whom he had suddenly fallen in love, an experience that “went deeper than anything I’d known before”. Despite her left-wing associations and instincts, Lorna told him that such heroics were meaningless: if he wanted a cause, she would provide one. Wilma, a staunch anti-fascist, admired his determination to join the International Brigades but had a mother-hen concern for his health, as he was epileptic. She even typed out Laurie’s poems and sent them off from Montpellier to T S Eliot at Faber, eliciting a model letter of polite rejection.

Laurie had already left town – to meet Lorna, who was now in Martigues, where her sister Helen Garman lived. So Laurie and Lorna indulged in a week’s passionate farewell in Provence before he went off alone to cross the snowy Pyrenees on foot, telling the Spanish guards, “I’ve come to fight.” The ensuing war-torn nine weeks, his account of which has been much argued over since his death, ended in his repatriation in February 1938.

Lorna, who had sent him Chanel-soaked pound notes while he was in Spain, waited for him at Victoria Station: “She drew me in with her blue steady gaze,” he wrote of their reunion. The couple set up home in a Bloomsbury flat, Lorna having left her husband and children, and within two months she was pregnant. That year she sent Laurie off on his travels again, to Greece and Cyprus, but he was home in time for the birth of their daughter in February 1939. They named her Yasmin after a poem by James Elroy Flecker and because the letter Y can be seen as two conjoined Ls. “I wanted a poet’s child,” Lorna said, “and I got one.”

Although Lorna returned home to her husband, a thoroughly good and noble man who agreed to bring up the child as his own, Lorna and Laurie continued their affair, first in his London digs and then in Sussex. In 1941-42, Laurie rented a green caravan near the Wisharts’ home, Marsh Farm in Binsted: he lived like a gypsy at the castle gate, scratching a living from his poems. Lorna would arrive daily in her Bentley, tearing down the country lanes, clothed in fabulous frocks and furs, bearing bounteous gifts – champagne, farm eggs, steaks, fresh game and poultry, classical records, books, paintings and flowers – and cooking him aromatic feasts.

He wrote rapturously in his diary of her fine-boned beauty: “like a rare jar decorated with vivid designs of eyes and lips, slashed with brows and shadows, dreaming & overflowing with the warm wine of hair”. He could not resist drawing her naked form. In summer their lovemaking took place outdoors under skies riven by bombers, the earth trembling beneath. Lorna inspired lines such as:

Your lips are turreted with guns
and bullets crack across your kiss,
and death slides down upon a string
to rape the heart of our horizon.

Most of his early poems, collected in the first slim volume, The Sun My Monument (1944), with a dedication “to Lorna”, reflect their ecstatic al fresco interludes. Lorna sent his poems to her friends Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, who published him in Horizon. This contact led him to the publisher John Lehmann, then to his important friendships with Cecil Day-Lewis and Rosamond Lehmann. In the one letter that remains from Lorna (Laurie threw the rest off Battersea Bridge) she addresses Laurie as “violently dearly beloved” and berates him for being in Slad with his mother: “What’s the good of you being there if you can’t even think of anything to write for Penguin 12, you’d be much better off with me or near me – at least when you were you thought of some poems for Poets of Tomorrow.”

In 1943 Laurie left his caravan and returned to London. He was pursued by Lorna, who now confessed to her new infatuation with the pale-eyed, German-born Lucian Freud, referred to by Laurie as “this mad unpleasant youth”, “dark and decayed-looking”. Lucian, too, fell headlong for Lorna. His earliest, primitive portraits were of Lorna and she again became a muse, fetching things he could paint, including a heron (Dead Heron, 1945) and a stuffed zebra head (The Painter’s Room, 1944).

She flaunted Lucian before Laurie. One night in Piccadilly the two men almost came to blows. Laurie was suicidal. He wrote Lorna a letter vowing that he would never give his heart again and he wore her signet ring until the day he died. Lorna had changed his life: she was the reason that a country boy without money, social status, education or contacts (but possessing artistic gifts and boyish charm) came to mingle on equal terms with the foremost poets and artists of the 1940s and 1950s.

Woman with a Tulip (1945) by Lucian Freud

Of all the many stories that make up Laurie Lee’s life – and he soon became a favourite of grand ladies (and their equally admiring husbands) in exotic villas and exquisite country houses – the episode starring Lorna Wishart is undoubtedly the most romantic. But in a stranger-than-fiction denouement, the two broken-hearted young men, Lee and Freud, embarked – encouraged by Lorna – on a quest to ensnare one of her nieces.

There were three living in the Epstein house on the King’s Road: Kitty and Esther, daughters of Kathleen Garman by Jacob Epstein, and the 14-year-old Kathy, daughter of Helen Garman, from Martigues. Laurie took out all three in turn; he deflowered Kitty, who in 1948 became Lucian Freud’s first wife (and later the wife of the economist Wynne Godley). She was the girl in Freud’s portraits Girl with a Kitten and Girl with a White Dog. The painter John Craxton, Lucian’s friend, told me that after Lorna, Lucian “was determined never to love any woman more than she loved him. Marrying Kitty was his revenge on the Garman family.”

In 1950, as soon as Kathy turned 18, Laurie married her. (And readers wishing to pursue the serpentine aftermath – in which Lucian Freud’s mistress Anne Dunn went on to marry Lorna’s artist son Michael Wishart, who had also had an affair with Lucian – should read Geordie Greig’s Breakfast with Lucian, which details with admirable clarity what he calls “the mind-boggling merry-go-round of liaisons with [Lucian] at the centre”.)

While I was writing my biography in 1998-99, I realised that Laurie’s most spontaneous writing was contained in the Second World War diaries, explaining so much about him in love, in Spain, in the literary world. Lorna was still alive then but in a fog of dementia that had descended in 1996 when she crashed her car, breaking many bones, the day after her son Michael’s funeral. Lucian was still in his threateningly litigious and reclusive stage, so I sent the relevant chapters to his biographer William Feaver and, as my notebook records, “14 October 1999: Wm Feaver rings to say Lucian is not going to sue, and is actually rather tickled.” Lorna died on 12 January 2000, aged 89. Her obituaries hymned her as the first muse of Laurie Lee and Lucian Freud.

A revised and updated edition of “The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee” by Valerie Grove will be published in June by Robson Press

“Laurie Lee: Memories of War” is at the British Library, London NW1, until 20 July Lee’s art is published in “Laurie Lee: a Folio” by Jessy Lee (Unicorn Press, £24.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt