A recent headline in the Times left me reeling at the speed at which the world has changed: “The moaners mustn’t be allowed a second vote”. But surely moaning was the essence of wanting to leave the EU?
In discussions about the Brexit vote, much of the attention has been focused on a mass revolt by the English working class. This was crucial, undoubtedly, but for me the sinking feeling I had while watching the early results came from staring at the map. I just knew that a swath of Middle England, from Somerset to Suffolk – that diehard Conservative territory – was about to turn on its master. For the first time in a generation, those places had a proper Tory prime minister, and now they were going to destroy him.
For anyone feeling even faintly disaffected with a careless and mean-spirited government, the opportunity that the referendum provided to give David Cameron and George Osborne a free kick in the head was almost too good to be true. Yet the Tories’ betrayal of themselves probably needs more explanation.
I shiver even to raise this, because I feel so dangerously close to these people in terms of my identity. I am never happier than when I’m wandering around a National Trust pile, admiring a luxuriant yet ordered garden from behind mullioned windows, contemplating coffee-and-walnut cake, humming a little Elgar under my breath and thinking about how tremendously brave our lads were in the Boer War. But what saves me is that I know this has nothing much to do with foreign policy or economic choices: that, ultimately, all that coffee-and-walnut cake has to come out somewhere.
The moaning at the heart of the Leave argument has gone on as long as anyone can remember. John Major was driven mad by various peculiar Tory MPs who made no sense and had the horrible air of those who wear monogrammed underwear and have a special room in which they listen only to Wagner. Incredibly, these people are still around. Michael Gove was correct, though, when he talked about British voters having had enough of “experts”: in effect, those wanting to leave the EU had almost no intellectual base of any kind beyond the utterings of iguanodons such as Bill Cash and Patrick Minford. The vote has not caused some intellectual leviathan to burst to the surface and transform the country. Instead, all we have is the unremitting moaniness of a deeply silly, coddled and evasive English middle class.
I keep having a nightmarish vision of a Union Jack-themed dinner party in Cromer, at which middle-aged couples, chewing local produce, stare across the table at each other, saying things like: “Tim, we’ve finally got our country back.” Yet what shape should that country, no longer strangled by the tentacles of Brussels, take? The moaning has gone on so long, it is no longer clear what it has to do with the EU. Besides, deep down, these people know that each time they said “Pole”, they actually meant “Somali”.
The only vision of the future described so far is one that frees up “the lion to roar once more”. But it is hard to see where and at what greater volume this could happen. Britons can be found all over the world – bribing Saudis, filling the Gulf of Mexico with spilled oil, grovelling to the Chinese, building London homes for Russian criminals. Modern Britain already acts on the widest stage. This is the heart of Middle England’s problem.
Taking a walk across London the other day, I was struck by how many businesses there were, lodged in posh streets, filled with nicely brought-up yet slimy young middle-class English men and women who supply yachts, financial “advice”, ugly art and discreet homes for a global clientele untrammelled by the EU or, indeed, by almost any legal framework. When the Mafia expert Roberto Saviano stated in May that Britain was “the most corrupt country in the world”, I initially felt a bit affronted, but walking west from the Strand to Park Lane proves how much Middle England has been behaving like some diseased Jeeves.
The tragedy lies in the way so many middle-class Leavers know this to be true. There can be hardly a village in the Cotswolds or Sussex that does not have that big house with extensive grounds and security gates yet absent owners. The post-Cold War world has reconfigured the nicer bits of southern England so they are now honeycombed with fairly straightforward criminality. The unfortunate revelation in the Panama Papers that Cameron’s father used entirely legal (if entirely contemptible) measures to shield his investments from tax shows that those stables, nice schools and foreign holidays of even the old elite were, in effect, being paid for by starving the NHS of funds, denying our troops proper vehicles, closing libraries – take your pick.
The problem that faces Britain as a result of Cameron’s staggering incompetence is that, whatever the result of leaving the EU, it cannot change any of the things that many people feel uneasy about. Everyone is right to moan – but not about the EU in particular. The UK is now wobbling all over the place, spurred on by an intellectually feeble movement that has no idea what it wants, one that has hardly any respect in parliament, or the City, or Nato, or in scientific or academic life, or among any of our allies or trading partners, anywhere in the world.
Putting out the hand of friendship, I think that, whether we leave or remain, we will soon have plenty of new things to moan about.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge