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What the West should know about Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao

In the two years since he took China's most important job, Xi Jinping has strengthened his grip on the state.

In the two years since he took China’s most important job, Xi Jinping has become the most powerful national leader in the world. He has assumed seven top positions spanning the Communist Party, the state, the economy and the military. He has also displayed an activism that contrasts sharply with his predecessor Hu Jintao, and has promulgated a tough ideological line.

At home, his big anti-corruption and frugality campaign is attempting to strengthen the 87-million-strong Communist Party by bringing the cadres closer to the people. Abroad, Xi has forged a foreign policy to dispense hundreds of billions of dollars to countries from Asia to Latin America while confronting Asian neighbours and seeking geopolitical parity with the United States.

Projecting a folksy image domestically as “Xi Dada” (Uncle Xi), he appears popular, as a leader with ambitions that match China’s economic weight, the strongest chief of the world’s most populous nation since Mao Zedong. Like the Great Helmsman, Xi knows how to play to perfection the front-line role in his country’s political system – Leninism with Chinese characteristics. (Though paramount leader after winning the power struggle that followed Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping preferred to operate through others.) With his tenure stretching to 2022, Xi does not have to worry about elections or obstructive legislatures; what matters is controlling and strengthening the monopoly movement that has ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. After taking over the Party leadership at the end of 2012, he swiftly pursued the centralisation of authority and set up four top-level national bodies under his chairmanship to add to the usual top three posts of Party general secretary, state president and chair of the Central Military Commission. He has no rivals and has ensured control of a vital power base by reshuffling top commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to promote generals close to him.

Xi has also put his name to an ambitious seven-year programme of economic reform. The growth rate has fallen below the government target but it is projected to be 6.8 per cent this year, strong by global standards. Inflation is low; deflation, boosted by excess capacity, is the big problem. Foreign currency reserves, feeding off the PRC’s position as the world’s biggest exporter, stand at $4trn, as much as the next seven biggest reserve holders combined. (Although this is an enviable position, China is in a “dollar trap”: it cannot sell much of its US assets for fear of provoking a wider sell-off of the greenback, reducing the value of its remaining holdings.)

Internationally, Xi has displayed ever-increasing confidence, discarding Deng’s advice for China to “hide its brilliance and bide its time”. For him, the time has come. The PRC’s huge aid programme includes the “One Belt, One Road” plan, to pay for infrastructure, transport routes and energy generation plants along the maritime passage from China to the Gulf, and also across central Asia to Russia and Germany beyond. China has offered large sums to governments in Latin America to gain influence, buy in to companies and promote infrastructure projects that would provide work for PRC firms. Its firms have been investing in Europe, North America and Australia as well as the old natural-resources-hunting ground of Africa. The Beijing government has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and had the satisfaction of more than 50 countries, led by the UK, joining despite warnings from Washington not to do so – a telling sign of how strong is the ­desire to get on with China.

Xi’s body language at the summit in Beijing of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) organisation towards the end of 2014 told a clear story. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and Barack Obama were both put at a disadvantage by the staging of meetings with him by being made to appear like supplicants, Abe receiving only the most distant of handshakes and no small talk. Xi, who is broad-shouldered and nearly six foot tall, trumped the feline figure of Vladimir Putin, who committed the overeager faux pas of putting a shawl around the shoulder of the Chinese leader’s wife: it was swiftly removed. Xi looked, and acted, like an emperor.

Both Obama and David Cameron will have occasion to savour the Xi style when he visits the US and UK this autumn. Britain has already felt the impact of the tougher Xi approach over Hong Kong with the refusal late last year to allow a Commons select committee to visit the former colony and, in January, the snubbing of the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire by the two most senior Hong Kong officials. But the Cameron government has accepted such ­rebuffs in the hope that Xi’s visit will result in contracts for British companies.

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Confounding non-Chinese commentators who see the PRC as defined by its Confucian civilisation, Xi belongs to the other philosophical stream, of legalism, dating back to the First Emperor 2,200 years ago. This puts its faith in top-down autocratic rule, with the law frightening citizens into obedience. There is no room for retreat or compromise. The way in which reform is perceived to have brought down the USSR is held up as a terrible example of weakness.

Xi’s wide-ranging war on corruption is a perfect example of the legalist approach. Its cutting edge, the Communist Party’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, can hold people for as long as it wants without charge in a secret location before the Party rules on whether to expel them. Only then are they handed to the courts for sentencing.

In targeting high-profile “tigers” such as the maverick Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013, and the former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who was given a life sentence on 11 June, Xi has shown that nobody is safe though powerful vested interests are bound to oppose him. (Besides being found guilty of corruption, Zhou was accused of divulging secret documents to his spiritual guru, who claims supernatural powers. A brief video of his sentencing showed a man who was once one of the PRC’s most powerful figures, his previously black hair turned white, evidently from having hair dye denied to him in detention.) Close associates of Hu Jintao and his immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, have been detained; the campaign has also swatted tens of thousands of less eminent “flies” and induced a widespread atmosphere of fear.

Not content with the Party’s 66-year-long monopoly of power, its Politburo ruled last month that all social, cultural and economic organisations must have a Communist cell, as is already the case in most companies. A legal programme launched last year aims to use the law to buttress central control; judges already had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Party. Liberals who, having given up on canvassing for democracy, ask merely that the constitution be respected, are denounced as foreign agents out to undermine the PRC. Anybody trying to operate outside the system is in danger. An anti-corruption campaigner who called for party and state officials to be required to declare their assets has been jailed for disturbing public order; his real sin was to have operated on his own.

After being abolished officially in 2002, class warfare has reappeared as a mantra in state media, along with Mao’s “mass line” – to ensure conformity under the leadership – and denunciations of “western values”. Repression of dissent, officially equated with subversion, has increased; Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, remains in jail, where he is serving an 11-year sentence for having circulated an online petition in favour of democracy.

Beijing has also toughened its hold on Tibet, where more than 100 Buddhist monks and nuns have burned themselves to death in the past five years to protest against Chinese rule, and on the huge western territory of Xinjiang, where the state faces increasingly violent action by Muslim Uighurs who oppose the Chinese rule imposed by military force around 1950. Mass immigration by Han Chinese, who get most of the benefits of the cash being poured in by the central government, is changing the population balance in both territories.

Xi’s persona as a strong leader with populist characteristics is nurtured by events such as his 2013 visit to a neighbourhood restaurant for a lunch of vegetables, steamed buns and pig-innard soup. His liking for football is reported in the Chinese media, along with his desire for the People’s Republic to improve on dismal performances and become a World Cup challenger. In 2013 he was photographed on a dockside in a downpour holding his own umbrella and with his trousers legs rolled up, like a holidaymaker caught in the rain at Blackpool – though the snap disappeared from mainland websites after Hong Kong democracy protesters took the umbrella as their symbol.

His wife, Peng Liyuan, has become China’s most prominent first lady since Madam Mao – Jiang Qing, who led the extremist Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently died in jail – if a good deal less scary. The handbags Peng carries on foreign visits quickly sell out on e-commerce sites. She was a well-known folk singer with a big voice before she stopped performing when her husband rose to the Politburo Standing Committee (she sang in the PLA entertainment corps and holds a rank equivalent to major general). A schmaltzy ballad, “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama”, even went viral last winter, with tens of millions of internet downloads in China.

 

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Xi, 62, has radiated a sense of entitlement from his youth, somebody who knew him in those days told me. The son of a first-generation Communist leader, he was sent to live in a cave and look after pigs when his father was purged in the Cultural Revolution. He then worked his way up through provincial posts, including senior positions in two high-growth provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, before being put in charge of Shanghai in 2007. That same year he was elevated to the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, marking him as the man to succeed Hu Jintao at the following congress, in 2012.

He stands at the top of the “princelings” group of offspring of first-generation Communist chiefs, though the leadership factions apparent before Xi became general secretary appear to have dissipated. Other Standing Committee members seem to have accepted his power play. Premier Li Keqiang, the leading member of the “Youth League faction” of Hu protégés, lines up loyally, but knows that if the economy falters seriously he will be the fall guy. Any ambitious younger politician aiming to join the Standing Committee at the next congress in 2017, and so position himself in line for the post-Xi leadership, is likely to hunker down in the leader’s tent.

For all his power, Xi confronts a long string of challenges; indeed, he has indicated that he feels he needs great authority because of the scale of problems facing the regime. China has major economic imbalances. The leadership has to manage slowing growth, deflation, excess industrial capacity and a mountain of debt incurred by local governments for projects unlikely ever to provide a decent return on ­capital. To ensure sustainable growth, it needs to reduce the dependence on exports and fixed asset investment and to increase domestic consumption – but the rate of consumption growth remains weak. Prices have fallen on the property market, into which many Chinese poured their savings. The recent stock-market boom has run ahead of itself and international investors showed what they thought early this month by declining to include in the benchmark global MSCI Emerging Market Index stocks that are listed on the mainland, rather than in Hong Kong. For all its adaptation of inventions from abroad, China is not good at original innovation. It also faces competition from lower-cost producers and needs to move up the value-added chain of manufacturing.

The second generation of the urban middle class, which holds the key to the PRC’s future in many ways, and which has never known anything but strong growth, is more questioning than its parents. Social media has introduced conversations that are outside the range of the official channels, and too numerous for the censors to keep track. Chinese citizens make more than 100 million trips abroad each year and see the liberties democracy can bring.

There is a grave environmental crisis in air quality (life expectancy in polluted northern cities is five and a half years lower than in the cleaner south), water and soil (one survey showed that 10 per cent of arable land was unsafe to grow crops on). Food safety is a constant concern. Differences in regional and personal wealth have soared. As the scale of the current anti-corruption campaign shows, graft is deeply embedded. Public trust in officialdom is low. The hukou registration system that ties people to their place of ordinary residence deprives migrant workers of rights to welfare, education or property, and prevents them from launching businesses in the cities, where they are treated as second-class citizens.

Low fertility, the one-child policy and the cost of raising children in a system without adequate maternity facilities have all caused the birth rate to fall just as more old people are living longer. The result is a demographic time bomb in a nation without a proper pension system and sparse state care for the elderly. Confucianism is fraying, and despite the new, Mao-tinged ideological campaign the “ism” that most marks out China today is materialism. The government wants people to spend more and thus boost growth, but the inadequate welfare system obliges Chinese citizens to save a lot.

Abroad, some of the rulers with whom Beijing has formed close relationships have come unstuck – as in Sri Lanka and Venezuela. The PRC’s project to build a highway and railway from the Arabian Sea through Pakistan to China’s westernmost territory of Xinjiang has problems with both topography and the Taliban. There are serious doubts about the transcontintental railway proposal for Latin America. Moscow may resent China’s push into central Asia and Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas have drawn Japan, the Philippines and other countries closer to the strategic umbrella of the United States. Tokyo has launched its own aid programme in response to Beijing’s initiatives. America has critical allies in the region; Beijing’s only formal alliance is with North Korea. Despite its military spending, the People’s Republic lags behind US military power in east Asia.

As for soft power, the idea that Chinese civilisational values will spread to match those of the west looks good only on paper. Since 1949 the Communist Party has presided over extensive destruction of Chinese traditional culture. Apart from the Forbidden City and a few temples, Beijing is now a city of modern towers and ring roads, of shopping malls and mobile phones.

There are far more signs of western influence in China than of Sinicisation in cities of the west; the latest film in the Avengers franchise did far better at the box office in the PRC this month than a popular cartoon biopic of Deng Xiaoping. Despite the success of Chinese enterprises such as the internet giant Alibaba, the US remains well ahead in innovation and China usually adapts novelties from elsewhere rather than invents things itself. When it comes to politics, demonstrators in Ukraine or the Middle East call for western democracy but nobody marches to demand a Chinese political system. While universities in China are told to repel foreign values, any Chinese parents who can afford it send their children to be educated abroad. Xi’s own daughter went to Harvard (under a pseudonym).

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The greatest problem facing the Chinese leadership is simple. What is the Communist Party of China for and where does it derive its legitimacy? That raises some very knotty issues.

Is this movement that has never run in a national election – let alone won one – the deliverer of material progress, extending Deng Xiaoping’s insight that going for growth was the path both to restoring the PRC’s global status and to giving the Party a source of popular legitimacy? If so, what will happen if growth drops more sharply than Xi and Premier Li Keqiang plan and if the aspirations of the second generation of the middle class reach beyond money? What impact will the anti-corruption campaign have on the Party’s patronage networks and its poorly paid cadres, who live by rent-seeking?

Does the Party still have an ideological message as Xi’s invocations of Marxism and Maoism would suggest? If so, how does that chime with a rapidly evolving but still materialist society whose leaders cannot bring themselves to deal with the reality of China’s past? Mao is officially seen as “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, but his record is still shrouded in myth. The story told at the grandiose National Museum in Tiananmen Square of how the Party saved China and is leading it towards “rejuvenation” is far from reality. Can a regime that cannot confront its own past command credibility?

For all the rampant growth and the praise some commentators heap on China’s supposedly meritocratic system rooted in thousands of years of history, its ruling class has a spotty record. The country’s economic success, which may be the most important global event since the end of the cold war, was buoyed by a combination of low wages, cheap credit and strong demand for exports. None of those factors now applies. The vast stimulus programme launched at the end of 2008 to counter the world financial crisis restored growth but led to wholesale misallocation of capital into wasteful projects that earn scant returns, the vast debt problem affecting companies as well as local governments, and also created soaring excess capacity in sectors such as steel production. In 2007, the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, called the economy unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable, a situation that was exacerbated by a £400bn expansion of credit and stimulus spending the following year.

The seven-year reform programme laid out in a Party plenum document at the end of 2013 was the response to that. It was limited to the economy; political change is unthinkable. Yet there is still a core problem. The plan aims to use market mechanisms to buttress the state and build “national champions” in a modernised system, but there is no mention of the main driver of growth and jobs: the private sector. If they are to be effective, China’s economic reforms must involve structural liberalisation, which has inevitable political implications and will reduce state power.

If he faces a choice between economic modernisation and party control, Xi is likely to choose protecting the second – in line with his condemnation of the Gorbachev experiment in the Soviet Union – as he steps forward as the strongman who defends the PRC’s Leninist form of bureaucratic state capitalism. But that in turn would cramp the development and modernisation necessary to perpetuate the Communist Party’s claim to rule. Such contradictions will shape China in the coming decade and, given the country’s global impact, will weigh heavily on the world.

Jonathan Fenby’s most recent book is “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” (Polity). He is also the author of “Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Why It Has to Change” (Simon & Schuster) and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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