Mexico's drug war: the victim of an apparent drug-related execution in Acapulco in February 2012. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Beheadings, torture, shootings uploaded to YouTube – the “war on drugs” has ravaged Mexico. But as the US considers treating the cartels as terrorist threats, the one solution it won’t consider is decriminalisation.

The bald, middle-aged man slumps against the wall in the yard. The blood from his companion’s head splatters his shirtless chest. He looks to his left, at the headless corpse lying next to him. The chainsaw continues to roar. The bald man rests his head against the wall once again. He awaits his turn.

The horrors of Mexico’s drug war, which has raged since December 2006 and the start of President Felipe Calderón’s administration, know no bounds. More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since, and there is no sign of the bloodshed diminishing. In 2006, shortly before Calderón deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to combat the violence, a group of armed thugs rolled five heads on to the dance floor of a nightclub in central Mexico as a warning; by 2007 and 2008, beheadings had become commonplace.
 
In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football. Dozens of mass graves were discovered throughout the Latin American nation last year, many of them in Tamaulipas, a north-eastern state notorious for its hazy fug of lawlessness and for the terror tactics of Los Zetas, a group of former paramilitaries who now run their own drug trafficking syndicate.
 
Videos of some of the atrocities have been disseminated over the internet. In the most recent one, described above, members of the Sinaloa cartel are put to death.
 
In Mexico, and in other countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan, the war against drug trafficking and organised crime is a fight for social and political progress – 12 years ago, Mexico became a full-fledged multiparty democracy, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was ousted from 71 years of uninterrupted rule. It is also a battle to root out official corruption that for decades – in some cases, centuries – has allowed drug trafficking and other illicit activity to flourish. The violence will not end soon; even Mexican officials admit that it is unlikely the bloodshed will ebb for another six years or so, and the Mexican electorate is largely in favour of state execution for drug traffickers (polls show that about 70 per cent of Mexicans want the death penalty reinstated for narcos, as traffickers are commonly known). In July, the PRI was re-elected democratically, in spite of critics’ fears that it would again turn a blind eye to organised crime.
 
The drug war is also a war between rival cartels fighting for control over lucrative smuggling routes while trying to maintain their structure as the authorities crack down. The war between the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas – and that of the authorities against them – is a game-changer in a long, grinding process of attempting to manage drug trafficking and consumption, one that has cost US taxpayers $1trn since it was launched in 1971 by the then president, Richard Nixon.
 
The Sinaloa cartel – led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, son of an opium farmer from the mountains in the north-western state of Sinaloa – has expanded in recent years to become the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world. Under the reign of El Chapo (meaning “shorty”), the cartel has reversed the previous business arrangement with Colombian cocaine producers, which shipped the product through the Caribbean until a law-enforcement crackdown in the 1980s made Mexico a more attractive option. The Sinaloa cartel now buys cocaine from the Colombian cartels and takes full responsibility for distribution.
 
The Sinaloa cartel produces its own marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine; it imports chemical precursors used to make methamphetamine from Asian nations such as India, Thailand and China. The authorities have spotted Sinaloa cartel operatives and scouts (conejos, or rabbits, in Spanish) on every continent; the Australian authorities believe the cartel is responsible for delivering as much as 500 kilogrammes of cocaine a month on to their shores.
 
In the spirit of globalisation, it is thought, El Chapo has bought properties in eastern Europe and throughout Latin America in an effort to launder his dirty money. In 2010 the US-based Wachovia Bank admitted to having handled $378bn for Mexican currency-exchange houses between 2004 and 2007, roughly $13bn of which was confirmed to belong to the Sinaloa cartel. (The US department of justice slapped sanctions of $160m on the bank for “wilfully failing to maintain an anti-money laundering programme”.)
 
Last month, executives of Britain’s HSBC confessed that a large portion of $7bn transferred by its Mexican subsidiaries into the bank’s US operation between 2007 and 2008 probably belonged to Mexican drug cartels. “In hindsight,” said David Bagley, head of compliance at HSBC, just before resigning in front of a US Senate investigative committee, “I think we all sometimes allowed a focus on what was lawful and compliant rather than what should have been best practices.”
 
“Forget hindsight,” admonished Senator Carl Levin. “Is there any way that should have been allowed to happen?” The obvious answer is no, but the Sinaloa cartel is big business and has exploited loopholes in the global banking system on unprecedented levels. Some officials warn that mafias such as the Sinaloa operation have capitalised on the global financial crisis in ways we have yet fully to understand. “The illiquidity associated with the banking crisis, the reluctance of banks to lend money to one another . . . offered a golden opportunity to criminal institutions,” Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in April. “The penetration of the financial sector by criminal money has been so widespread that it would probably be more correct to say that it was not the mafia trying to penetrate the banking system, but it was the banking sector which was actively looking for capital – including criminal money . . .”
 
The new guard of the Mexican drug trade are Los Zetas. Originally a tight-knit paramilitary-style unit of deserters from the Mexican army special forces, they have formed independent gangs – consisting of perhaps thousands of members – that have metastasised throughout Mexico and central America in recent years, and have seized on any business opportunity that has come their way. The Zetas gangs engage in CD and DVD piracy, human trafficking and extortion. Anyone with a weapon, tattoos and a crew cut can call himself a Zeta and immediately instil a sense of terror.
Their modus operandi: enter a small town, behead a local business owner and declare the territory theirs. It was members of Los Zetas who indiscriminately massacred 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in August 2010; it was members of Los Zetas who were responsible for the killing of a US special agent in the state of San Luis Potosí in February 2011. There are worrying signs that, in the cartel’s new incarnation, these gangs are consolidating. Last December, in an arrest operation spanning four north-eastern Mexican states, the security services seized nearly 1,500 radios and the same quantity of mobile phones belonging to the cartel; clearly, it had a communications network in place. In the past year, several leading Zetas have been captured or killed in far-flung parts of Mexico, evidence that they were trying to instil order in branches of the cartel operating in those parts.
 

Power, corruption and lies

 

More than $1m US dollars and more than 41 Million Mexican pesos seized from Zetas in June 2012. Photo: Getty
 
Though the Mexican drug cartels have long been considered a threat to US national security, rarely has aggressive action to counter their growth been such a popular option. In Washington, calls to designate the cartels as terrorist groups have ratcheted up. On 13 October 2011, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman for Florida and the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, declared that “we must stop looking at the drug cartels today solely from a law-enforcement perspective and consider designating these narco-trafficking networks as foreign terrorist organisations”. She added: “It seems that our sworn enemy Iran sees a potential kindred spirit in the drug cartels in Mexico.”
 
On the same day, in written testimony to Congress entitled “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere: Next Steps for US Policy”, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Daniel L Glaser, highlighted the problem of the drug cartels and mentioned El Chapo by name.
 
The view that there is a link between the cartels and terrorism (some expressions of this are unabashedly hyperbolic, especially the attempts to label alternative Mexican faiths a “spiritual insurgency”, in line with the theories of the US Army War College’s Steven Metz) has grown amid several topical developments as well as vastly improved US-Mexican co-operation in the drug war. The two countries – Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the US – have a long, often troubled history with regard to security and intelligence-sharing.
 
Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), still refuses to acknowledge that anyone besides the Mexican authorities is to blame for the failure to combat drug trafficking. “The culture of corruption that has developed in Mexico, the failure of the rule of law in Mexico, is one of the largest contributing factors to the violence we see today,” he says. “Mexico has allowed itself to be a major transit and source country. They resisted US help. In 1985, Kiki Camarena, a wonderful DEA agent, was tortured and murdered in Guadalajara, and there was a massive manhunt for the perpetrators, and Mexico [took the position] that we were infringing on their sovereignty. They have resisted any US assistance ever since. The cartels have operated with impunity, and that is not the fault of the United States.”
 
The DEA still works in Mexico, though Camarena’s ghost haunts its collective memory. In 1997, Mexico’s anti-drug tsar General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested for alleged links to the Juárez cartel. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 71 years in prison.
 
There have been setbacks during the outgoing Calderón administration, too. In 2008, two officials from Siedo, Mexico’s special organised crime unit, were arrested for being in the pockets of the Beltrán Leyva cartel. And in December that year, an army major assigned as one of Calderón’s bodyguards, Arturo González Rodríguez, was arrested and charged with feeding the cartels intelligence for $100,000 a month.
 
The allegations of corruption have hindered counter-drug operations: the Mexican military has had to fend off both credible accusations and propaganda disseminated by the cartels. While General Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy was stationed in Sinaloa and was in charge of local counter-drug operations, narco-mantas – banners made by drug traffickers – accusing him of protecting El Chapo were frequently found at crime scenes. Eddy insists that he fought the good fight. “Never did I make a pact! Never!” he told me, slamming his fist on his desk. “Others, I don’t know,” he added, quietly.
 
In January this year, General Manuel de Jesús Aviña was arrested and charged with ordering killings and torture and engaging in drug trafficking while stationed in the northern Chihuahua state. The Calderón administration had almost made it through its six-year term without a senior army officer being linked to traffickers. But since then, four other generals have been detained for alleged links to the cartels, including one who had served as defence attaché at the Mexican embassy in Washington, DC.
 
There have been allegations against US officials, too, and the ensuing questions of trust have complicated intelligence-sharing. “We’re in the business of collecting information,” the DEA’s then chief of intelligence, Anthony Placido, told me in 2010. “The problem with trying to share it is that we have to make sure we don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. We have to make sure our foreign partners are trustworthy.”
Human rights abuses – children and innocent adults have been gunned down by the Mexican military and there have been allegations of torture and rape – have raised eyebrows at the state department, which has issued several scathing reports on Mexico during the Calderón administration. (The state department has also commended the country for making some much-needed improvements.) “Human rights are stupid,” a former Mexican general told me.
 

The next insurgency?

 
Diplomats continue to stress that US-Mexican relations, not to mention co-operation in the drug war, can survive the setbacks. “At 35,000 feet, the muscle tone and the strategic direction of the US-Mexican relationship are fantastic,” Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Saru­khan, told me late last year. “In many ways it’s like a Dickensian tale of two cities – it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. If you look at the formal diplomatic traction and relationship, it has never been better. But if you look at public perception on both sides of the border, [that] would seem to be thousands of miles from where the relationship is.”
 
So, co-operation has continued to increase with little opposition, as has US funding for the counter-drug Mérida Initiative, which was introduced in 2008 and will eventually channel $1.6bn in anti-drug assistance to Mexico and, to a lesser extent, central America. Through Mérida, Mexico has received Black Hawk helicopters and X-ray scanners for customs posts, as well as assistance in professionalising the police and training in the justice sector.
 
Last year, the Pentagon began flying drones over Mexican airspace in an attempt to gather intelligence on drug trafficking suspects. There was little public dissent. Global Hawk drones have been deployed; flying as high as 60,000 feet overhead, they are able to survey 105,000 square miles in a day. A second counter-drug operations centre, where US and Mexican agencies work together in the fight against drugs, has been opened in Mexico City. US military experts regularly visit the Mexican capital to consult with the security services and offer strategic advice. The DEA has a dozen offices in the country, out of which its agents now operate in a purely advisory capacity. In January, the new CIA director general, David Pet­raeus, the advocate and implementor of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq known as COIN, visited Mexico City and met with the national security adviser and the head of Mexico’s spy agency, CISEN.
 
Calderón, who will step down in December, has repeatedly urged Washington to halt the flow of guns and cash from drug sales into Mexico (estimates of how many guns used in drug-related crimes in Mexico come from the US vary, but it is believed that Americans supply most of them). On the US side, however, there has been little in response aside from rhetoric. A new Mexican president – Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI – was elected on 1 July, and has pledged to continue the fight against organised crime. Despite his promises, it is likely he will face suspicion from Washington because of his party’s long-standing “blind-eye” attitude to organised crime.
 

Move on, please

 
The question now is whether the US state department will take the step of designating the cartels as terrorist organisations. It has already done so with the Farc in Colombia. If Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are categorised as such, the US would probably have more jurisdiction to increase co-operation with Mexico. Barack Obama’s signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act on 31 December could also allow US nationals suspected of narcoterrorism to be detained indefinitely.
 
What is unlikely to happen, however, is any move towards drug legalisation. Advocates of the policy, who grew optimistic with Obama’s election and the appointment of R Gil Kerlik­owske as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (Kerlikowske has repeatedly said that drug consumption must be treated as a health rather than a criminal issue), continue to be marginalised.
 
A growing number of former Latin American leaders – and even some current ones, such as the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina – have begun to push for discussion of a fresh approach to the drug problem. Calderón, to his credit, took the risk of publicly acknowledging mounting calls for a debate on a change of counter-drug strategy; he decriminalised the possession of small quantities of almost every drug during his presidency.
American politicians are much more cautious. California, which has historically led the way on progressive laws, voted against the legalisation of marijuana in November 2010. Lacking support, the idea has been dropped from the ballot in this year’s election. The conventional wisdom is that if California doesn’t legalise it, no one in the United States will.
 
As for Mexico, the future remains unclear. Police reforms, which officials hope will instil a measure of trust in the authorities and allow state forces to maintain a semblance of security without having to resort to using the military, are slogging their way through a gridlocked congress. Peña Nieto has also proposed the creation of a national gendarmerie under civilian control. Judicial reforms, which introduced trial by jury in some Mexican states for the first time, have been enacted. However, most Mexican officials concede that it will be impossible to eradicate the drug problem entirely. Their best hope is to make Mexico so difficult for drug traffickers to navigate that they are forced to go elsewhere. Some hope indeed. 
 
Malcolm Beith is the author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord” (Penguin, £9.99)

 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Show Hide image

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