Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time. Photo: Getty Images.
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Where were you when she left Downing St?

Piers Morgan, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and others tell us where they were on 22 November 1990.

Malcolm Rifkind

The day before she went she had a meeting individually with each member of her cabinet. We knew as a result of that discussion that she was considering stepping down before the second ballot, but I only knew her decision the following morning.

We had gathered in the anteroom outside the Cabinet Room for a cabinet meeting as we normally would, and at that point we still did not know if she was going to stand for the second ballot. She arrived in the anteroom and then went through to the Cabinet Room, and we followed. Normally the cabinet meeting would start with the formal business, but on this occasion she said she had a statement that she'd like to share with us, and that's when she announced that she was stepping down.

In making that statement she actually broke down – just for a couple of seconds, and I think it was Willie Whitelaw who passed her her glass of water and she collected herself and then carried on. She was really remarkable. Having made her statement, she began the cabinet meeting as normal, and for the next hour or hour and a half, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world.

At the end of formal business, we would normally have gathered our papers and left immediately, but because it was the final occasion, we sat around chatting informally.

I was one of those who – I didn't say, "You should step down," but that was the thrust of what I was saying. She asked, "If I stand again, will you support me?" I had voted for her in the secret ballot in the first round. But I said to her, "I can promise that I will never vote against you," meaning that I would abstain. She says in her memoirs that what I said was "some small comfort", rather sardonically.

Like many people, I had mixed feelings about her resignation. I feel she was the best peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, and at most times I'd have gone to the ends of the earth for her. But she was sometimes very difficult, and towards the end, in those later years, those times became more frequent. So I think the decision to step down was the right one.

Paddy Ashdown

I was walking through Glasgow Airport when it was announced over the Tannoy. The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well. People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup.

Helena Kennedy

I was at the Old Bailey, acting for a gangland boss in a series of armed robberies. At lunchtime someone came into the Bar mess and announced that Mrs T had resigned. There was wild jubilation, a cheer went up and wigs were tossed in the air. Even Conservative lawyers felt she had finally lost her purchase on reality and had to go. I was exhilarated. She had become such a hate figure.

Even police and prison officers were expressing pleasure to see the back of her. But there was my client, sitting with his head in his hands. "I'm gutted, sheer gutted. That woman put the Great back into Britain. She was tough. You 'ave to be. She didn't put up with all them slackers and wasters on the dole. Them immigrants. She loved this country, just like Churchill did. They've stabbed her in the back, that shower of nonces in the cabinet. You have to watch yer back when yer at the top."

He ranted on about the absence of testosterone in male Tories and the size of Mrs Thatcher's balls until we were called back to court. "'Elena, always remember to watch yer back. It's yer mates that always do for you in the end."

Roy Hattersley

All I can remember is that I did not believe it. I was driving into the House of Commons and a television journalist, complete with camera, seemed to shout, "She's gone." Who could she mean? Not Margaret Thatcher – or at least not gone permanently. I had seen her on television, the night before, saying she was staying. Surely her going to Brussels, Washington or Grantham would not be worth the fuss. I assumed the journalist had got it wrong. It sometimes happens. Then, in Neil Kinnock's office, one of his people told me it was true. I rejoiced – which was a mistake. Had Margaret Thatcher (and the poll tax) remained, Labour would have won the 1992 general election.

Piers Morgan

I was running the Sun's Bizarre show-business column at the time, and the newsroom was absolutely explosive all day long. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor, and always loved Margaret Thatcher, as did his boss Rupert Murdoch, so there was a real sense of sadness and anger. I felt curiously disengaged from the whole thing. My professional world was gripped by far more important things, like whether Bros were going to break up or not. But, on a personal level, I felt sorry for her that she was leaving in such demeaning and treacherous circumstances. I think she later went slightly power-mad and bonkers, but that should not negate the good things she did, the real sense of pride she brought back to the stamp "Made in Britain".

David Owen, from Time to Declare, 1991

Margaret Thatcher . . . had been brought down over the European Community, not the poll tax. She had beaten me in the 1987 election and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due, and in my case genuinely felt. I sensed at times we were partners in the counter-revolution and I shared some of her convictions. Nevertheless, I did not share her attitude to a whole range of social and civil liberty issues.

Margaret Thatcher's downfall was due to hubris. Her excessive self-confidence was by then being flaunted day by day in the face of friend or foe alike. The tragedy that the Greeks identified followed: Nemesis.

A N Wilson

I was working as a journalist on the London Evening Standard when Margaret Thatcher fell, so I was able to get into the House of Commons gallery and watch the drama of her final Commons appearance before she left office. I had never voted for her, but she struck me as truly magnificent on a human level. Her qualities of personal greatness outshone what you might think of her "policies".

Peregrine Worsthorne

My immediate reaction to the news – which I heard while sitting at the editor's desk in the Sunday Telegraph – was to write a piece saying that this act of modern "regicide" would rightly put the Tory party out of office for a generation. Almost certainly she would have lost the next election, but that would have done much less long-term damage to the party than the horrible spectacle of her treacherous colleagues, one by one, stabbing her in the back.

As it happened, I think I may have been the last person – outside of her family and staff – to visit her on her final night. It was a painful experience. Normally it was she who brought the proceedings to a close. Not on that night. I thought the long silences would never end. Finally, walking down the grand staircase after a farewell photograph, I ran into Carol coming up, carrying a string bag, which, she said, contained "Mum's cold chicken supper". The servants, it seemed, had already decamped.

Will Self

Sorry, can't remember – it was during the lost years (mine and hers).

Tony Benn

I was in London. My diary describes the occasion as follows:

"I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for Dispatches on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Absolutely dazzling news and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that.

"To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock's speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked. I spoke myself but the House was empty."

Lady Carla Powell

I was not very surprised when Margaret Thatcher resigned – Charles had been with her in Paris when the news came through that she had failed to get the majority she needed in the Conservative Party leadership election. The night before her resignation Charles came home from No 10 well after midnight and told me he thought it was all over, although she was going to sleep on her decision. He went in at 6am the next morning and rang to tell me she had made up her mind to go. He was pretty emotional about it for a normally buttoned-up Englishman.

I found it hard to believe that someone who had towered over British politics for so long could so easily be toppled by a cabal of frightened Lilliputians. It taught me that politics is as much of a dirty business in Britain as in any other country.

A L Kennedy

When Margaret Thatcher finally fell off her perch – or rather was pushed – I was out of the loop. At that time I was working as a writer with groups in hospitals and prisons and various types of centre, or visiting isolated writers with disabilities in their homes, so every day I saw people being ignored, bewildered, defrauded, bullied and humiliated by the benefit system, failed by what was left of the NHS and the welfare state.

I was helping people to write – which allowed them to vent, claw back a little dignity, maybe start making more demands, maybe have the satisfaction of creation – but it also woke them up and made them more aware of their grim situations. The days were long. And badly paid. And I had the least of the problems in any given day.

On the day she went I was getting a lift home through Glasgow and I noticed that people on the pavements were all smiling – laughing – folk were, in fact, dancing. They were making a point of dancing in the street. Literally. With strangers. Angry, on-your-grave dancing. Still here and you're not dancing. And in the car we turned on the radio and heard the news. Those people were still dancing, even in the early evening. And it did make me feel happy, but not that happy. I didn't think anything would be different in the morning . . . and it wasn't.

James Naughtie

I was in the editorial meeting for The World At One. Just after 9.30, someone noticed a strange piece of copy on the Reuters financial wire, of all places, and tentatively interrupted the meeting to say that the prime minister seemed to have resigned. Panic, excitement, adrenalin rushes . . . and then the ruling that Radio 4 couldn't mount a special programme at 10am because we wouldn't have enough to go on! So the news bulletin told listeners that the Thatcher era was over, and they then listened to a programme about birds until we were allowed to hit the airwaves at 10.30.

Looking back, it still seems inexplicable, and would strike producers today as utterly barmy. Even then it was bizarre, though we soon got into our stride, decamping to the green off Parliament Square and rolling interviews that went on all day, it seemed. But I still remember not getting on the air quickly enough . . .

Kitty Ussher

I was at my desk in my tiny little room, in my first year of university. I was trying to read something very complicated when a friend burst in shouting: "She's gone, she's gone!" I had Radio 1 on and there was a terrible 20 seconds, trying to find Radio 4.

After that we went out on to the streets in Oxford, normally a very reserved place, but that day there were just gaggles of people standing on the street talking to each other and celebrating.

All the day in the TV room we watched the news unfold. Someone placed a Thatcher Spitting Image candle on top of the TV and as the day wore on it just melted all the way down. We all had a great day, except one of my Tory friends who just stayed in her room and cried all night.

Iain Dale

I remember having had rows the night before the resignation with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn't surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before, my three-year-old niece, Emma, had asked: "Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?" We were about to find out.

Peter Preston

I was standing in the Guardian newsroom when John Cole told me she was out. I thought that the long Downing Street deep freeze could finally be over for the paper. I'd been inside No 10 only twice through the Thatcher years, once because the president of Italy, an ex-journalist, wanted to meet me, once because Bill Deedes got to choose who went to his farewell dinner. Now, maybe, normal relations might be back on the menu. That would make an immense difference to what we wrote, and how we thought – because, simply, we'd have to stop to listen more.

She'd only been to my office once, too, as it happened, a staff conference meeting while she was still opposition leader. "This room could do with an element of defenestration," she'd announced, bafflingly. It turned out to mean she was too hot and wanted a window open.

Simon Heffer

I was in Brisbane awaiting the start of the first Test match between Australia and England of the 1990-91 tour. With great foresight, my then editor had decreed that nothing much would happen in politics that winter and that I could spend part of it, therefore, writing about cricket.

I recall eating a room service dinner (I was trying to write a preview of the Test match) in a state of shock, watching on television film of Wapping, the miners' strike and the poll tax riots. I knew the rest of the Tory party, and I knew what was coming. I was not disappointed. The Australians I met were in disbelief, and mostly asked if she could have a retirement job running Australia.

England were thrashed in the Test match. I arrived home on the morning she left Downing Street in tears, and the man we now call Sir John Major left No 11 for the Palace.

Lynsey Hanley

I was in a history lesson at secondary school. Our teacher, Mrs Green, came in and said: "I don't know if anybody's interested, but Mrs Thatcher's just resigned." And the whole place just erupted. It felt like the end of this huge oppression, which sounds ridiculous – we were only 14. But it really was this massive feeling of relief, as big as when the Berlin Wall came down. The funny thing was, a lot of the parents loved Mrs Thatcher, because they were able to buy their council houses.

Michael Portillo

I was in the thick of things and I think my recollections might be worth something, so I think I will save them. Sorry!

Charles Kennedy

I was relaxing in the bath at my London flat when the newsflash announced the dramatic news. Before I'd had time to digest the enormity of what had happened, the phone rang. It was one of my closest friends – an ardent Scottish Nationalist – who was happy enough, but amazed by the perfidy of the Tories. We speculated about who would now emerge as her successor, agreeing that this would probably be an Alec Douglas-Home moment. So, step forward Douglas Hurd. That chat, looking back, was proof positive of how many of us Scots have never really understood the Tory party.

I had resigned as editor of the NS and saw the television news pictures at home after shopping. I actually felt sorry for Mrs Thatcher, watching the stricken old woman scuttling into the large black car, her power apparently over. So I was not sorry to miss Charter 88's impromptu celebratory party that night, I didn't even know about it.

Stuart Weir

I was teaching at a primary school in Kilburn. One of the teachers ran into the staffroom waving the Evening Standard with the headline that Thatcher had resigned. I suddenly noticed smiles on faces that I had never seen smiles on before. I rejoiced, too, just to stay in the vibe, but I had mixed feelings. To my mind – and I still feel this way – Thatcher should have faced the people, not be dragged offstage by a bunch of guys trying to hang on to power. Like her or loathe her, Mrs T gave Britain its groove.

Bonnie Greer

I remember coming up out of Westminster Tube station holding the Evening Standard, and it was the front-page story. I was looking at the back page and holding it out in front of me, and this group of women was looking at the front of it – a group of grannies from the north of England down for a day trip, as it turned out.

One of them came running up to me and said, oh, is it true, is it true? And I said yes it is. They were all whooping and beaming. Then at that moment a black car went past, and in it was the Queen Mum. So they went from whooping about Thatcher to whooping about that – I think it must have been the best day of their bloody lives. Then I was doing something on parliament green, and it was like a television studio, with cameras everywhere and MPs popping up to give their tuppence worth.

How did I feel about it? Wonderful! Not quick enough, in my view.

Peter York

Newsnight had convened a round table of the usual suspects to give their thoughts on the lady's political passing. I composed what I thought was a rather good conceit. Thatcher wanted a revolution within a revolution; she was always saying, "Let's redo this, let's not rest on our laurels." So I said, "Mrs T was a Maoist" – the kind of sarcastic soundbite I prided myself on.

Back in the green room, musing on what a clever chap I was, I was set upon by a rather attractive, clearly very right-wing American woman. She berated me for my sarcasm and told me, in a roundabout way, that I wasn't fit to lick the hem of the Great Lady's robe. Throughout this she was supported by a stern woman who looked to me like a classic north London left-winger.

It turns out that the "American" lady was the very Canadian Barbara Amiel – not yet Lady Black – and the stern north Londoner was Melanie Phillips. Shamefully, I can't remember who else was on the panel. But I do remember those two women and how the rest of the panel were entirely obliterated by their force field. Fitting, when you think about the circumstances.

Niall Ferguson

In 1990 I was a fellow of Peterhouse – one of the few bastions of Thatcherism in British academic life. The night she resigned the mood at High Table was despondent. Rather a large amount of Château Batailley was consumed and then I and John Adamson sat slumped in my rooms and listened to every single recording we could find of the "Siegfried Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung. As far as I was concerned, that was the night that Britain gave up any hope of seriously reforming its postwar institutions.

Stephen Pollard

I was in a tiny room with three members of the then shadow cabinet (I was a researcher for a Labour MP at the time), watching a tiny black-and-white TV. They were ecstatic, as if a dictator had been overthrown – although one had the perspicacity to say a few moments later that the next election was no longer in the bag.

My own view was less exultant. Far from hating Mrs Thatcher, I always felt that she had been a blessing for the country: a leader who had done exactly what was necessary, and which no patrician Tory or, even less, Labour PM would ever have been capable of.

Billy Bragg

I was in bed in a hotel in Dublin called Blooms. A friend of mine rang from England and said, "Switch on the telly," so I leaned over and switched it on. And there she was, tearfully resigning. And I must say that cheered me up no end. So I got out of bed and went round the corner for a celebratory fry-up, a full English – or a full Irish, I suppose.

The best thing was that I had a gig that night in Belfast. I came on stage holding the Belfast Telegraph above my head, and said, "She's resigned" – and the place just went mad. The adrenalin running through me, I think I could have done ten rounds with Mike Tyson if he'd been in the dressing room.

Belfast was a great place to be that night – people were literally dancing in the streets. It had an incredible vibe; I just don't think a gig in London would have been the same.

David Lammy

I was at SOAS, reading the first year of my law degree. I remember coming out of a lecture, when a real buzz started going around. A huge group of us ran down to a room with a TV to a really powerful scene: friends of mine, students and professors, crying tears of joy.

I had grown up in Tottenham just a street away from the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and had been involved in campaigns against the miscarriages of justice that convicted the Tottenham Three. By the time Maggie resigned, my friends and I at SOAS had been marching against the poll tax, campaigned for retrials for the Birmingham Six, had gone to the Court of Appeal when the Guildford Four were released. When Thatcher vowed to "fight on and fight to win" we thought we might never be rid of her – which is why we were so emotional when she finally went.

Anthony Seldon

I was teaching a lesson on Hitler when it happened. Somebody burst into the room and said: "Thatcher is gone." Everyone was completely silent, even though we knew it was on the cards. I said something pathetic like: "You'll remember this moment for the rest of your lives." I felt strangely moved – I thought she was beginning to get it right, beginning to cut free from many of the people around her and beginning to articulate what she truly believed in.

David Peace

I was a student at Manchester Polytechnic and I was living in Rusholme, in Manchester. I am pretty sure we went to the Hacienda and I am pretty sure Dave Haslam played "Bye Bye Badman" by the Stone Roses and "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey, and I am pretty sure we cheered and danced and partied like 1979 had never happened. And perhaps there will be similar scenes when she dies.

I did not mourn her resignation and I will not mourn her death, but nor will I celebrate and cheer in blame and hate. For it is much too late now and, to quote Chateaubriand, one should only use contempt with economy, because of the large number of people who deserve it. So I reserve my contempt for those who came after, for those who should have known better.

Roger Scruton

I learned of Margaret Thatcher's resignation in the same way as most: from the news. I was in England at the time, just beginning a new way of life which involved leaving the university and branching out as a self-employed writer and jack of all trades. Mrs Thatcher had not a little to do with this since, as one of her vocal supporters, I had in effect ruined my university career, and as a result of her policies I had discovered how to live outside the university in any case.

I was naturally upset by her resignation, but it convinced me that the old farts who ran the Conservative Party were just as chronically self-interested and anti-patriotic as the yuppies who were wrestling for control of the Labour Party. It was a great time to say "A plague on both your houses", and to recycle the Thatcher idea as a cherished memory rather than a pious hope.

Bel Mooney

I'd just got back from a meeting at my daughter's school when my then husband, Jonathan Dimbleby, rang to say Mrs Thatcher had resigned. It would be false to say it came as a total shock. We knew of rumblings.

I remember feeling first that it was time she went and that to resign was the right thing. A brave thing. But I never shared the visceral hatred of her which poisoned rational political discourse, so I did not share the mood of vicious glee on the liberal left.

As a feminist, I could not help but admire her. I could feel compassion for this woman who had outlived her time and pushed loyalty too far. Not everything that went wrong could possibly have been her fault.

John Harris

I was a 21-year-old undergraduate and part-time music journalist at the now-defunct weekly Sounds. What I most clearly remember is Cathi and Trish, the paper's two in-house Goths, giggling maniacally and singing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I was a bit less thrilled. My hope had been to see Thatcher – and Thatcherism – beaten in an election, and this end to the story made me quietly feel cheated.

Brian Walden

I was nowhere exciting, unfortunately, I was just at home. I switched on the television news and there she was. I wasn't surprised by that stage, although in a sense it was extraordinary – she'd stood for three elections and won them all. But by then there was growing hubris, and of course the poll tax, and she'd just become so unpopular. It wasn't anything to do with Europe, which is often cited as the reason. The Tory party wanted to win the election, which is why they got rid of her.

My overwhelming feeling was that there was bitter civil war within the Tory party. And that went on for a long time afterwards, for about 15 years – and that's a high price to pay. Less so now, but it's taken a long time to put out the fire. And that's because Cameron is going to win: the prospect of victory puts a stop to civil war, doesn't it?

Lady Annabel Goldsmith

I found out that Margaret Thatcher had resigned when I came home from walking the dogs and switched on the news. I was deeply upset for three reasons. First, she was an inspirational leader who was driven by ideals and her unshakeable determination. Second, I knew her personally through my husband, Jimmy Goldsmith, and beneath the armour was a kind and decent human being. Third, it made me so angry to see a strong woman brought down by a bunch of scheming, second-rate men.

David Aaronovitch

In the autumn of 1990 I was the BBC's head of political news, shuffling between the news centre in White City and the Westminster operation. So I was in a Tube train carriage when my pager went off with a loud buzz, and supplied me with the two words "Thatcher resigns".

I couldn't just sit there and say nothing. "She's gone," I told the seven or eight people sitting round me. A young black woman opposite looked serious, and then asked, shyly: "She can't come back, can she?" "No," I told her. Only then did she allow herself a smile.

Roger Law

I was at work at Spitting Image, on the modelling bench. I had a phone call from my producer Geoffrey Perkins, who is sadly now dead. He said: "We finally got rid of her. She's finally stepped down."

It was a kind of relief because everybody was sick to death of her. But you knew that she'd dismantled the whole fucking lot. I grew up in a mixed economy, where you paid higher taxes in return for services, and she just dismantled the whole fucking thing. It's abundantly clear that you can't just have expansion for ever.

To celebrate when she'd gone, we had an exhibition at the Barbican called "Cutting Edge". We had a tableau based on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and we had all the cabinet members there who'd brought her down. We had all the puppets. And Denis Thatcher was there, drunk under the table.

The irony is that all the shit we're in now started with Reagan and Thatcher – and now she can't remember a fucking thing.

Interviews by Kate Ferguson, Alyssa McDonald and David Patrikarakos.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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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.

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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