Living on an island does strange things to souls. Being surrounded by water can even make whole nations feel they are under special protection—protected by Providence, singled out for Something. Some zephyr of open sea seems to reach to even the furthest inland points of England, affecting all weather, stirring imaginations, colouring culture in aquatints. Thus Shakespeare, born in Warwickshire, which is as far from the sea as one can find in England, emoted of a white-cliffed coast, and “a moat defensive to a house, / Against the envy of less happier lands.” Thus the special resonance of the King James Bible: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.” Thus the astute Froude saw Hakluyt’s Voyages as “the prose epic of the English nation,” a summation of buccaneering Bullishness—while still Shelleyan cumulonimbus brings “fresh showers for the thirsty flowers / From the seas and the streams.”
But as well as rain and raptures, island life can give rise to resentments—complacency, philistinism, sourness, a sense of superiority. Much English imagery has been conceived in opposition to the mainland mainstream, reactions against real or perceived European tyrannies—Boudicca sacking Rome’s colony at Londinium, English freemen wapentaking against Norman feudalists, Lollards and Anglicans against assorted popes, Elizabethan privateers against Spanish autocrats, Rockingham Whigs against bloodthirsty Revolutionists, a “nation of shopkeepers” against Boney, splendid isolation against European entanglements, “The Few” against the Luftwaffe, chippy 1960s trendsetters against a stuffy Catholic/post-Catholic continent, Thatcherism against dirigisme, and Eurosceptics against bland (yet somehow sinister) Eurocrats. The events of 23rd June 2016 can therefore already be seen as inevitable, fusing into history even as we try to deal with the dramatic repercussions.
Yet it seems not to have been seriously foreseen by anyone, either Remainers or Leavers, with UKIP’s Nigel Farage conceding, un-conceding, conceding and un-conceding again within a few hours on the night. He could be excused slight panic on the night that saw the culmination of decades of near-monomaniacal activism, and which would never have happened without him. But the major Conservative Leavers, less emotionally committed, and with better resources, likewise seem to have misread the signals—to the extent that they did not bother to make any contingency plans for a Leave victory.
On the Remain side, there had for the most part been a vast complacency, borne of years of unchallenged ascendance—a virtual certainty that the combined weight of mainstream politicians, economists, celebrities, sectoral interests, stand-up comics, and even God’s emissary to the English would see off the motley Brexit coalition. David Cameron had been called a “lucky politician” because of his track record on referendum brinkmanship. He had only called the referendum because he had been so sure of winning, and had sought to use it as a means of neutralising old-school Tories who had never warmed to him, and cementing his legacy. While some polls had indicated a much closer run contest than expected, the Leave campaign was rocked the week before the vote when a gunman, motivated by a toxic blend of mental illness and race hatred, shot dead the Labour MP Jo Cox. In the appalled aftermath, official campaigning stopped for a few days, but many Remainers linked the killing to the Brexit cause, and the polls turned again.
But then—mirabile dictu or O.M.G., according to tastes and views. Beyond the glass walls of Westminster, outside the studios, in the unfashionable and woebegone streets, an auxiliary army was taking shape. The lower middle classes of England’s and Wales’s most Saxonised suburbs and shires, the middle-aged, National Trust members, Ford Fiesta drivers, lifelong savers, small business operators, golfers, gin and tonic downers, ex-colonels, the readers of the Mail, Spectator, and Telegraph somehow found themselves putting their Xs in the same box on the same form simultaneously being filled in by the white workers, drivers of white vans, inhabitants of dour council houses in dourer areas, readers of the Express and Sun (when they read at all), the de-industrialised, despised, disregarded “chavs,” who despite the vast underachievement of their existences somehow saw inside themselves a deep vision of an older England, a country still beautiful, worth fighting for. And here was the ideal opportunity to get back at an unfair life—give an Anglo-Saxon two fingers to all those smooth-faced or wispy-bearded politicians, faceless foreigners, unasked-for immigrants—all those asset-strippers, bankers, chinless England-haters, incompetent social workers, snarky chortlers, and Safe Space students. In some ways, it was a classic “Court versus Country” confrontation—fueled by Establishment arrogance, E.U. inflexibility and, always in the background, troubling images of refugee-thronged borders, storied waters studded with unseaworthy craft bringing untold numbers of un-ignorable arrivals.
Early on referendum night, Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith told BBC radio there had been “late stirrings on the estates” of his northeast London stamping ground, those Essex fringes filled with white-flighters, ex-East Enders whose parents or grandparents had decamped from suburbs drenched in hoarily English history that had now been given over to everyone and anyone else—Bethnal Green, Bow, Hackney, Limehouse, Plaistow, Shadwell, and Whitechapel, grim districts indeed, but their districts, theirs and “by rights” no-one else’s. It seemed a throwaway comment, but it held one of the keys to the night, because those unreconstructed English had for so long been taken for granted by Labour, a bankable bloc to back up the much more interesting black vote, or Asian, feminist, gay and cis/questioning—a lumpen resource to help propel the universal, unending struggle against “inequality.” For so long, it had worked brilliantly, aided by Conservative ineptitude and enforced by the moral blackmail of political correctness. But now that alliance is at its end, even if a post-Corbyn Labour can recover.
For now, whatever about the noises off from Labour, Scotland, Northern Ireland and sundry sore losers, most eyes are on the Conservatives, gearing themselves up for their own leadership contest, followed by complex and hard-headed negotiations with the E.U. Boris Johnson was “the obvious choice” for many, but he is hampered by a jocular persona which makes him likeable but does not give gravitas, and in any event he has declined to stand. He is distrusted by many MPs, who see him as driven mostly by ambition—and indeed his often expressed views on the linchpin of immigration were long almost indistinguishable from Cameron’s, or even Labour’s. (He was once a staunch advocate of Turkish E.U. membership, partly out of nostalgia for the Roman Empire, partly for family reasons.) He also has no experience of negotiation. The Tory default setting being against boat-rocking and ideological analysis, the new Prime Minister could foreseeably be outmaneuvered by “pragmatists” at home and in Brussels who want to minimise the result, or even reverse it, and become a figurehead for business-almost-as-usual. There are suspicions that immigration concerns—most closely represented by Nigel Farage—may be sidelined by wagon-circling Tories, and even some within UKIP. The new Prime Minister—whoever it may be—will need to offer answers to all kinds of explicit and implicit questions.
But events could work in the new leader’s favor. Labour offers no opposition at present and will in any case move Right under its new leader. The markets are settling down, and the economy may dumbfound the doomsayers. Furthermore, the E.U. is sounding reasonable—and soon many millions of pounds once earmarked for Europe will be available for British uses. Then there is that undoubted public mandate, and hunger for substantive change on identity and representation. Expectations are stratospheric in some quarters, and anxieties unfathomable in others, but with a fair wind and some swashbuckling captainship this battered ship of state could really make a go of it.
Novelist Derek Turner reflects on the Brexit vote and its causes, coalitions, and likely aftermath.