Ed Vulliamy has sent us this short column.
Often, it is more stressful to be right than wrong. Before the Euro football tournament in Switzerland in 2008, two championships ago, I offered a column to my newspaper about how this was a metaphor for what the continent would soon look like: without England, and probably – in the long run ‑ better off for being so. Europe could get on with the tournament without English fans, just as it can now get on with the thornier matter of rescuing the European Union without Margaret Thatcher’s whinging handbag, Tony Blair’s hubristic alliance with the Bush administration and David Cameron’s pestering, which has now the led to the suicide of his own, belatedly professed, cause. The piece was turned down – people thought, not without reason, that I was as mad as the Trojan Cassandra.
No one really saw it coming; especially not among the “opinion-formers” who live in cosmopolitan London, rarely venturing to the post-industrial wasteland and nasty-minded suburbs of towns and cities in the Midlands and North.
I’ve presumed a “Brexit” for ages, and for this reason – among others – sold my apartment in London to buy, with what I had left, a little place in Paris, hoping that those who pay property tax in the EU will keep a right of abode – half a million of them in Spain. With the result ringing in my ear today, Black Friday June 24th, I’ve made a dash for the Eurostar before they block the tunnel.
I did wonder (darkly) whether the murder of a highly sympathetic Labour MP by a neo-Nazi, clearly related to the xenophobic language of the Leave campaign, would be enough to make the wavering voters think twice about his words as he plunged the blade and pulled the trigger: “Britain First”. But it wasn’t – or if it was it merely reduced what would have been an even bigger majority to leave.
This has been a long time coming: it has been in the tea-leaves of little-Englishness during almost every recent national outburst, and in the national mindset, not just in the repulsive antics of football fans and fascists. It has been there in what is not there: how many town or city or county council offices in Britain flew the flag of the EU, as they do in France, Italy or elsewhere? Almost none. How long has this been going on, “getting a better deal for Britain”, in Brussels? Forever, almost since I cast my very first vote, in the referendum of 1975, to join the EU.
It has been in the tarot cards of successive bulimic royal occasions: Prince William’s wedding, royal babies, the queen’s jubilee, the queen’s ninetieth birthday. It propelled the spectacle of the Olympic Games and the inward-looking nostalgia of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech. Above all, it has screamed from the headlines since the crisis of migration and flight of refugees – described by the supposedly Europhile prime minister as a “swarm”.
David Cameron did not have to call the referendum that now carves out his legacy as the idiot prime minister who took Britain out of Europe, apparently against his wishes but having himself set the Little England ball rolling with his pre-referendum foot-stamping against the EU. But he did call it, and he let the genie out of the bottle, as best expressed by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspaper The Sun – which has never lost an election. It backed Margaret Thatcher keenly. When it abandoned its usual Conservative stance to support the Labour Party, Labour won. When it returned to the Tory fold, the Tories won again. Now The Sun has again backed – and perhaps helped forge ‑ the winner.
What have Cameron ‑ and most of the people who voted for him as prime minister, and now for Brexit ‑ unleashed? Scotland will probably secede. Perhaps, unthinkably, Northern Ireland too, so that Cameron will have achieved what the IRA has failed to achieve in a hundred years. Will there be a referendum in Poland, then Hungary, maybe even Austria? Will Marine Le Pen feel a step closer to being empowered to do the same? Probably not, but the buffoons of British nationalism will fuel their tanks.
There is no vindication in having seen this coming. There is only anger and sadness. At the dogged, small-minded isolation that a small majority of Britons have yearned for, now got and inflicted on the rest of us. At the fact that my daughters are stuck on this now soggy little island – and have no right of abode or labour in Europe, unlike their peers who can live and work from Sweden to Sicily, Poland to Portugal, without hindrance.
Anger at the elite, cut off from the country outside London, which brought this on themselves, and on Britain. Even when they argued to remain in Europe, the government never appealed to the wider, bigger issues of what Jean Monnet began in the 1940s in Europe, to make the second half of the twentieth century so different from the first ‑ only about Britain’s interests within it, and about money. One could invoke Umberto Eco’s great concept of i legione dei imbecilli were it not for the elite’s complicity in all this.
Anger at the Labour Party for being culpably silent over all that has been lost – access to the human rights court, pollution controls – and which thereby lost the post-working class to Brexit. Okay, so it was not easy to vote with the IMF, the banks, the financial mafia – but the internationalist foundations of the EU are cogent too, and were lost in the miserably mediocre discourse.
Anger at the stupidity of people for believing all those lies about how money currently sent to Europe would somehow instead end up in our national health service and schools. Angry at what will happen next in the Eton civil war between Cameron and his likely successor, the absurdly terrifying Boris Johnson, a British Berlusconi, a British Trump – feigning to be a maverick, but in reality the system on legs.
If this is what “Britain First” looks like count me out. My passport has always been a badge of shame, on the slipstream of Empire, but now it has become an outright embarrassment, a symbol of imbecility, and needs changing.
Wanted: internationalist male writer and journalist – sixtysomething but not a bad catch ‑ seeks eligible single or divorced Italian, Irish, Polish, French, etc female with similar interests in literature, politics and music for hasty marriage and purposeful but dolce vita in the European Union. Will promise to be grateful forever.
Ed Vulliamy is a multiple-award-winning foreign correspondent who worked for The Observer and The Guardian. In 2013 he won the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage. He is author of The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: The Reckoning, published by Bodley Head, 2012 and Vintage paperback, 2014.