Being on holiday during the referendum was a strange, and embarrassing, experience

The incredible shrinking island, how I got it so wrong and the meaning of “Middle England”.

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Holidaying abroad as Britain voted to leave the European Union was a strange and slightly embarrassing experience. We were in Corsica, where the indigenous population, absorbed in ancient local feuds, takes little interest in the outside world. Yet other Europeans, hearing English accents, eyed us warily as if we were wild animals who, though outwardly friendly, could turn nasty at any moment. Some were evidently keen to talk but uncertain whether it was wise to approach us. We felt like carrying placards: “We love you all, we voted Remain.”

The night after the vote, we talked to Italians who seemed puzzled and even hurt by the outcome. A woman from Venice said she’d lived in London for several years and always thought our anti-Europeans were just a joke. She knew that Brexit could lead to the UK breaking up. “You were large,” she said. “Now you will be small.”

The ghost of Harold Wilson

My forecast, given in this column more than three weeks before the vote, was 62-38 to Remain. As my late mother used to say, there’s only a right and a wrong and it’s a poor fool that can’t get either. Even the opinion polls’ drift towards Leave didn’t disturb my confidence. In referendums across the world, the final outcome usually favours the status quo by greater margins than most polls predict.

The shock of the Brexit triumph – unexpected even to its supporters – reminded me most of 1970 when Harold Wilson’s Labour government seemed to be cruising to victory. Then came the first result from Cheltenham. “This means a Conservative majority in the House of Commons,” roared the Tory candidate, re-elected on a 6.1 per cent swing. The Cheltenham moment in the early hours of 24 June came from Newcastle, which voted far more narrowly for Remain than anyone expected.

In Corsica, I shut my iPad and went to bed, my confidence shattered at last.

Britain’s Bastille moment

You could attribute the Brexit vote, as many have, to a mixture of racism, fear, ignorance and junk food. However, you could take a more positive view, although for middle-class lefties it is perhaps an uncomfortable one.

Here it is. The masses have waited, at least since the financial crisis of 2007-8, to strike a decisive blow against neoliberal capitalism. The concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, the rents extracted by executives in financial services and public utilities, the wanton destruction of long-established industries, the blatant indifference of global jet-setters to the millions whose wages are stagnant or declining – all these have created a revolutionary moment. The more strongly the Treasury, the Bank of England, the IMF and the European Commission warned of the dire consequences of Brexit, the more the masses became convinced that this was their unrepeatable opportunity to place a bomb under the whole rotten system. It was a 21st-century version of storming the Bastille.

Brexit voters may not use words such as “neoliberal” or know exactly what the IMF does but they should not be accused of false consciousness. That charge should be made against middle-class lefties who allow themselves to believe that significant change can be achieved through existing institutions.

You may dismiss this narrative as romantic fantasy. But I prefer it to the view that stupid voters were led astray by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the Daily Mail.

Stand up for what you don’t believe

Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn could have articulated some version of the above instead of pretending to support something he patently didn’t believe in. If nothing else, he would have disrupted the Tory Leavers who would have been upset to find passionate socialist talk on their side. But Corbyn, alongside his other failings, showed that he lacks the courage of his convictions.

Stuck in the middle

The Mail hailed the Brexit victory as one for “middle England”. This is slightly odd since “middle England” is usually taken to refer to middle-class and lower-middle-class people outside the big cities in the south and Midlands, not to the northern working classes who supported Brexit most overwhelmingly. What is even odder is that my old friend Robert Chesshyre used the term “middle England” to describe pro-Europeans when, as an Observer reporter, he covered a meeting in Aylesbury, Bucks, during the 1975 referendum on what was then the Common Market. Middle England, Chesshyre wrote, “support good causes (in this case the market), go to the theatre and garden fetes, and believe . . . that heckling is vulgar intrusion”.

How unlike our own dear Nigel Farage. I suppose middle England, like everything else in the country, has gone to the dogs in recent years.

Rise of new monsters

As the Brexit results came through, I was reading Victor Serge’s recently republished novel Midnight in the Century. First published in Paris in 1939 and based on his personal experiences, it portrays a community of loyal Soviet Communists who, having fallen foul of Stalin’s regime, were banished to the Urals, on the fringes of Europe, in the mid-1930s. It is a work of extraordinary power – vivid, moving, humane – that bears comparison with Arthur Koestler’s slightly later Darkness at Noon.

Serge fled Paris when the Nazis invaded and died in Mexico in 1947 when 20th-century Europe was emerging from its nightmare. Reading his novel reminded me that the European project that led to the EU was – and in some respects still is – an attempt to embed humane and liberal values so deeply that the nightmare could never be repeated. Now new monsters, more frightening than Johnson or Farage, emerge across Europe to challenge those values. I was confident that none would acquire serious power. After the Brexit vote, I am less sure. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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