This post was originally published on June 24, 2016, on Lindley French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power:
“Oh what tangled webs we weave when at first we seek to deceive”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 24 June.
Why did Brexit happen? Peering through the grey drape of fatigue in which I am cloaked having spent the night watching history being made (or is that unmade) the decision the British people have taken last night is quite simply momentous. To be honest I felt something like this might happen the moment I saw people in a working men’s club in my native Yorkshire declare for leave to a man and woman. I know these people. Part of me is hewn from their stock. This was the English, and I stress the English, at their stubborn best and bloody-minded worst. An Agincourt-beckoning two fingers (the English don’t do one finger) to distant Establishments from people who have for too long felt ignored, bypassed, and don’t give a damn who tells them what they must do however exalted.
It would be easy to blame a lot of people for Britain’s decision. And yes there are many who should be looking hard at themselves this morning. French and German leaders who for years excluded Britain from the leadership of the several European projects always implicit in what eventually became the EU. A Brussels Establishment impervious to all and any argument that did not fit into their ‘one size fits all’ idea of ever closer political union. A kommentariat of which I am in some ways a minor part who simply could not believe the peasants would ever revolt.
In reality none of the above were really the cause of Brexit. Britain’s departure began the day Britain joined the then European Economic Community back in 1973. Ticking away deep in the heart of Britain’s accession was a political time-bomb with a delayed fuse that last night exploded. To convince the British people to accept a new idea of ‘sovereignty’ then Prime Minister Edward Heath and his ministers simply lied. They knew that the EEC was far more than a ‘common market’. Indeed, one had only to read the preamble of the 1957 Treaty of Rome to realise that Britain was joining a political project.
As the ambition of that project grew over the years stepping, sometimes stumbling, forward from treaty to treaty successive British leaders wriggled and struggled to maintain that original lie. An opt-out here, a special ‘deal’ there, all to defend a political space that over years steadily shrank. Finally, the idea that Britain could be in the EU but outside the European Project could no longer be hidden and began to look like the absurdity it was. In the end the original lie came to be seen even by some members of the British Establishment, as an original political sin.
The problem with the lie was that it eroded one vital conversation and replaced it with another. Since at least the English civil war British democracy has been established on what Abraham Lincoln would describe in his magisterial Gettysburg Address as government of the people, for the people, by the people. However, as British politicians danced ever more clumsily on the head of a hot political pin to maintain the original lie the conversation with the British people itself became a lie.
Rather, for the British Establishment the traditional conversation between power and people was replaced by a more ‘important ‘conversation with Brussels and the leaders of other EU member-states. And, as the gulf in importance between the two conversations became ever wider it become ever clearer the European elite conversation was far more important than the British political conversation. Worse, too much of that elite conversation took place behind closed doors in a secrecy-obsessed Brussels. This exacerbated a gnawing, growing sense in the political instincts of millions that Europe was not for the people but against the people. That democracy was being eroded with the Mother of Parliaments reduced to little more than a political reality show.
The die is now cast. My arguments against Brexit have been confounded. This is a moment for calm reflection. Given the dangerous world into which Britain and states and peoples that this morning remain friends and allies are moving, it is vital a new relationship between a post-Brexit Britain and the EU is quickly established. The British people cannot be punished for democracy. Britain must also sail towards new horizons with countries with which it shares old visions.
The bottom line is that with respect Britain is not Norway or Switzerland. Britain is a major power, the world’s fifth biggest economy and fourth biggest defence spender. Turbulence is of course inevitable. However, it is surely in the interest of all Europeans and indeed the world-wide West to re-embed Britain in new relationships, not least with what will soon inevitably be a new Europe. The British people have exercised their democratic right. Other Europeans will exercise their own right as they see it. That, after all, is why Britain fought and helped win two world wars this century past. Britain has not suddenly become an ‘enemy’. There are plenty of those elsewhere.
That Agincourt-beckoning two fingers has in the past saved Europe from slavery. It maybe that last night the English helped break the Europe that could not have been built without Britain. I hope not. But, for better or worse, for good and ill Brexit is now fact and I am very, very tired, and very, very sad. And, I now need some sleep. As clearly does David Cameron for he has just resigned.
Julian Lindley-French is an internationally-recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author, Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, CGAI Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC