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Sorry, David, you’re not the man to lead Labour

The elder Miliband continues to defend an appalling breach of trust over Iraq.

The New Statesman editorial endorsing Ed Miliband for Labour leader described the decision to invade Iraq as "a great wrong, a moral failure". His brother's support for the war, it implied, was one of the reasons he does not qualify to be the change candidate that Labour and Britain needs. But the British voter is not an especially moral creature. If it was just a matter of right or wrong, however great, David Miliband might lose my vote as well as the NS's support, but he would certainly remain capable of winning an election.

What is summed up in the word "Iraq", however, remains a determining political issue. David's record on it will prevent him from winning a general election. I like David. I admire his energy and he seems to me to be more thorough, hard-working and professional than the other candidates, and to have a greater grasp of policy. These qualities have helped him gain a staggering range of endorsements across the UK media from the Financial Times to the Evening Standard, as the man they can do business with. But the legacy of the Iraq decision overshadows all this. It feeds into quite fundamental issues of trust and the role of the state. Labour will be forced to shape up on both issues to if it is to win back the decisive sectors of the electorate whose vote is not predetermined by party loyalty. David will be skewered.

First, trust. For Labour to win, its leader has to be able to give an honourable account of him or herself. The technical justification for the war was Saddam Hussein's possession of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, and his refusal to surrender his alleged stockpiles despite UN resolutions requiring him to do so. David said at the NS hustings that if he'd known then that there were not, after all, WMDs in Iraq, he would not have supported the war. Or, to put it another way, that he originally supported it in good faith and let's move on. This positioning -- the decision was wrong but personally he was not -- is hardly honest, even on the narrowest of grounds.

No one who followed it believed that the war was fought because Saddam had WMDs. Tony Blair, as is well documented, had decided soon after 9/11 to support George W Bush, whatever he did. And, as Michael Elliott reported in Time magazine, in February 2002 Bush put his head around the door of a meeting at the White House where three US senators were being briefed by Condi Rice, and told them, "Fuck Saddam, I'm taking him out."

A year later, after Saddam had indeed been taken out, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the war's architects, told Vanity Fair that they settled on WMDs as the casus belli "for bureaucratic reasons". Yes, many intelligence experts thought Saddam had kept some rusting weapons. But no one believed they represented a danger to the west. The exaggeration was worse than contrived.

Take just one example, still unreported because it exposes the Blair regime's clinical disregard for truth: the British government stated in the executive summary of its September 2002 report, "As a result of intelligence we judge that Iraq has continued to produce chemical and biological agents". Blair sexes this up in his foreword: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons."

In fact, it was impossible for Saddam to have been producing new chemical agents, let alone chemical weapons, without this being observed by surveillance. The toxicity of the vapours demands massive ventilation for any level of manufacture, and this would have been identified. (See the openDemocracy interview with Ron Manley, who oversaw the destruction of Saddam's chemical armoury after 1991, but was never asked to share his expertise, though still attached to the Ministry of Defence.)

In other words, it is not just that Hans Blix, the head of the UN weapons inspection team, should have been given more time. The UK government was not interested in investigating the seriousness of the alleged "threat" of WMDs. They were a bogey that was itself contrived. Saddam was overthrown because the US knew he was weak, not because he was a danger. For someone in David's position to suggest even now, in public, that had they known there were no WMDs in Iraq the invasion would not have been justified, perpetuates an untruth, namely that the motive of ridding the world of Saddam's WMDs was genuine. The government misled the public about its reason for the war. By pretending otherwise, David continues to justify an appalling breach of confidence.

Room for redemption?

It remains an abuse of trust that angers the principled right, which draws on Britain's military folklore. The Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Independent all supply readers with allegiance to this tradition and they are not going to allow Labour to forget it. Were he to become the party's head, David would be inescapably identified as an apologist and accomplice of the betrayal of Britain's military integrity.

We all make mistakes, especially in politics. People must be allowed to redeem themselves; otherwise, everyone gets trapped in sectarian shallowness. If David had said that the line on WMDs deceived him, he would at least have opened up a space between himself and the perpetrators of the concoction. More important, there was a decisive moment when he could have redeemed himself on Iraq.

On 12 November 2007, Gordon Brown made his first full-scale speech as prime minister setting out his approach to international affairs. He called for "hard-headed internationalism", opposed anti-Americanism and didn't mention Iraq. But as he went out of his way to regret that the international community had not taken action over the Rwanda genocide, the omission of the invasion of Mesopotamia was a clear signal that he wanted to distance himself from it. Typically, Brown did so while failing to be decisive.

The next day Brown's attempts at "renewal" were ambushed. His new foreign secretary was asked by the BBC whether the "same decision" on Iraq would still have been made under Brown's new direction. "Absolutely," David Miliband replied, and he insisted: "No one is resiling from the original decision."

Colin Brown's report in the Independent went on to say that Labour critics of the war were "disappointed". This is an understatement. At the time, David knew just as well as he does now that Saddam had no WMDs. But he didn't mention the fact as having any bearing; his support for the invasion was 100 per cent pure Blair and he locked his successor in to it.

Two points follow. First, a question: what has led David to change his mind between 2007 and 2010? Even his apparently low-key, technical positioning, that he would not have supported the invasion had he known there were no WMDs, is inconsistent and unsustainable. He backed it unconditionally well after he knew.

Second, he has a direct responsibility for the fact that Labour has not been able to put Iraq behind it. Earlier in the summer, he gave an eloquent Keir Hardie lecture. Looking back over the immediate past he said, "I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became prime minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture . . . But, it didn't happen."

One of the reasons it didn't happen is that David Miliband helped to prevent it from happening. He supported the previous celebrity prime minister when Brown sought change. In 2003 he was only a junior member of the team. By 2007, as foreign secretary, he shared responsibility for Labour failing to renew itself by backing the Iraq decision 100 per cent.

Talk versus walk

Jon Cruddas, who voted for the war, like so many of David's supporters, says the Keir Hardie address was one of the factors that persuaded him to endorse David. When James Purnell resigned from the cabinet in 2009 because Brown was sure to lead Labour to defeat, Cruddas gave a speech to a Compass conference. He ridiculed the arguments of the Purnell faction, who said they agreed entirely with Brown's policy but not his leadership. They were, literally, he mocked, "rebels . . . without a cause"!

It was a brilliantly funny rebuke. But was Cruddas demanding that they embrace different policies or was he telling them not to take a stand? For while Cruddas sets out his cause, where is the rebellion? From Iraq to 42 days' internment without trial, when push comes to politics, Cruddas, like David, has the rhetoric but not the will to strike.

Below the Plimsoll line of acting honestly, there is the great bulk of public opinion. Historically, Iraq was a unique war in terms of popular support. With appeasement in 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain had most of the public behind him, even though he was wrong. When Winston Churchill was defiant and far-sighted in 1940, he had wide public and cross-party backing. When Anthony Eden launched the Suez expedition (also dishonestly), the assault on Egypt was popular, even though the strategy was disastrous. Over the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher had public opinion on her side, whatever you thought about fighting in the South Atlantic. Throughout the cold war, the British overwhelmingly backed deterrence. But with Iraq, for the first time, the government committed the country to a major conflict while millions marched against it despite the leadership of both main parties and most of the press.

Britain's informal constitution has at least two abiding rules -- unwritten, of course -- that have ensured its longevity. The first is to ensure broadly speaking popular consent for the regime and its wars. Consent can be highly manipulated and is different from democracy. Arguably, certainly from the point of view of a political elite, it is better to have consent without democracy than democracy but not consent. In the case of Iraq, Britain had neither.

That was bad enough. But the second informal understanding of the British regime is that while the public is foolishly conservative or dangerously populist and generally grasping, short-sighted but foolishly in love with conventional forms of power, the elite are wiser, more far-sighted and know what is best. It is the validity of this presumption that allows the country's rulers to retain consent over the long run.

With Iraq, this state of affairs was turned upside down. The real, unspoken reason for the Chilcot inquiry is to work out what do to re-establish the credibility of a military, administrative and intelligence establishment that got it completely wrong.

How wrong, and it is good to be reminded, was summed up before the war by an obscure Democratic politician in Chicago who, despite his ambition, broke ranks with his party and, in effect, spoke for millions in his own and our country when he said about Saddam Hussein:

He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in a shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

David Miliband went along with the Blair view that the millions who thought this didn't "get it" when we took to the streets on 15 February to protest against the coming invasion. In fact, the millions were wise and he was dumb.

General crisis

What David needs to explain, therefore, is not just why he was wrong, but why we the public got it right. The issue is not only about him and his judgement, but his explanation, as the would-be leader of a democratic Britain, of why, when the public was right, we were ignored. The public being not just Labour supporters but also the hated Lib Dems, patriotic Conservatives, Greens, Scottish Nationalists, Robin Cook, Diane Abbott and, indeed, Uncle Tom Cobly as well as President Chirac, Chancellor Schröder, Joschka Fischer, Barack Obama (they were his words in Chicago) and all. How come we knew what was going on when he didn't? It is the answer to this question that tells us what kind of power (and there are different kinds) he feels he has to represent.

David is now saying that Labour has to be a "movement" and he is funding a thousand citizen campaigners to help achieve this. But Labour was rarely, if ever, more of a movement than in February 2003. Even a majority of Labour MPs not on the government payroll voted against the war, which was only endorsed by the House of Commons thanks to the Tories. Yes, indeed, a party of the left needs also to be a movement. But a movement has to embody judgements; it has to stand for something. When Labour was last a movement David opposed it. Why does he think that the movement called it right -- and six years later what remained of it then got 42 days right, while he didn't? Perhaps Jon Cruddas can explain.

The question goes to the heart of current British politics. For perhaps the first time since the franchise was cleaned up in 1832, the voting public feels that the political elite do not represent the country. The public has always been justifiably cynical in thinking its leaders support the class system, but at least it was our class system! In the case of Iraq, the elite acted in the interests of Washington and George Bush. They told us that we had to back globalisation for our own good. When the crash came, it turned out that they were representing the bankers, not the British. Then the expenses crisis broke, and the catastrophic decline in trust that followed was less about what some MPs took for themselves than what MPs as a whole permitted.

At first, the freshness and surprise of the coalition made it seem that it would be able to distance itself from this general political crisis. It may find it increasingly hard to sustain this, and it is certainly the case that unlike "sleaze" and John Major's government, the corruption of the Noughties is cross-party.

But it does not follow that Labour is not specifically identified with the abuses of power that marked this century's opening decade. It expanded the powers of the state far too much, threatened our liberties and deployed its powers on behalf of vested interests, especially international financial ones. The public knew this, has not forgotten and anyway will be reminded of it. In these circumstances, to dismiss the Iraq decision as "the past", as David Miliband does, when it opened the gates, and to belittle the issue of trust that it symbolises, is a strategic failure of political judgement. In whose name does he want Labour to rule the UK? Because of its reckless statism, from ID cards through subsidising bankers to the Budget deficit, and above all its military adventurism on behalf of the United States, this will be a major front in the coming battle for Labour to re-establish its claim to govern.

Milisisters

The new generation bidding to lead Labour are not interested in having the kind of bunfights that permit the press to destroy them. Inheritors of 13 years in office, they know what it takes to win; the disciplines of ruling come naturally to them (including Diane Abbott). Today, the question is what to do with power once in office and how to build support for any reforms they carry out. Something that Mandelson, Campbell, Brown, Blair et al, for all their skill at "persuasion", were incapable of achieving. Boring as the leadership contest may be to outsiders, this is the underlying seriousness of it.

Delivery, it seems, will not come from internal ideological correctness. Perhaps this is why partnerships seem to go down well in British public life. What are David Cameron and Nick Clegg but a replacement for Blair and Brown? Voters find ideological disputes between party factions weird. They make them feel excluded, and the media hammers "splits". But who isn't familiar with strong personal differences between individuals tied together in a relationship?

In an era when the spectacle demands personalisation yet dislikes the cult of the individual, partnerships, with their human tensions and difficulties, may be inherently attractive. The Blair-Brown diarchy in Downing Street has been replaced by another, and in a similar way the coupledom of the Milibands is an attraction. They are the Williams sisters of Labour Party politics, outsiders delivering a new style and professionalism to the game. Is David the Venus who may win first and Ed the Serena who shows greater determination when pushed to prove himself?

If they can continue to play together while playing each other, Labour could have a winning team. But it is as certain as things ever are in politics that, however much David is an asset in the larger game, he will be an election-loser if he is appointed captain.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom.

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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