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A Letter to the Leavers

28/06/2016 11:02 | Updated 28 June 2016

First of all, peace and love. When people say 'nobody died' they are trying to put things into perspective. But somebody did die during this referendum campaign. Whether the actions of an individual with poor mental health; or the inevitable residue of a culture of political hate; somebody did die. So when I say peace and love I don't say it lightly, I say it because those are the most appropriate words.

I lived and studied in America during the end of the Clinton administration and the Lewinsky scandal (remember when that was the biggest thing going on, internationally?) One thing that struck me at that time (and that has only got worse) was that American public discourse was almost the polar opposite of that in the UK. Congress was a quiet, polite place, where opponents would treat each other with collegiality and respect, whereas outside in the media people would scream at each other with pure contempt.

Here, however, our Parliament would be the home of that most un-British thing - rambunctious, arrogant shouting - while in real life we generally rubbed along together quite well. This referendum has given lie to that myth. Like it or not we now have our own culture war; with a (so it seems) snarling, racist, suburban, anti-modern proletariat lined up against an arrogant, snobbish, metropolitan, tone-deaf elite. There is no left and right any more; only leavers and remainers.

Remainers want to know who is responsible for this coming to pass. Cameron forgot the cardinal rule of referenda: don't call one you could lose. Farage hypocritically rode a carousel of frustration and resentment at elites, apparently oblivious to the universal political truth that eventually the music stops. Boris didn't pause one second between leading the most diverse city on the planet and shamelessly crowning himself king of the British Tea-Party. Jeremy Corbyn has presided over the descent of the most progressive political party in Europe into one of the least.

I actually blame Tony Blair. Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband too. I don't say this as an instinctive Blair hater. I didn't march against the Iraq war in 2003, and wouldn't today even if I could. Saddam had been in breach of 12 separate United Nations resolutions calling on him to verify the end of his weapons programmes, each of which threatened him with military action. This is not about Iraq.

Tony Blair's greater failure was to legitimise a form of politics whereby centrist parties - Labour and Conservative - would both have their cake and eat it. While wanting to enjoy all the benefits of immigration and the EU, Cakeists (for want of a less glib word - or maybe it is glibly appropriate) would nevertheless use immigration or the EU as punch-bags of first resort in order to head off political trouble. I have often tried to point out to people that Cameron has governed as if he had a majority of 120, when actually he had a majority of 12. Part of this arrogance was the belief, now shown to be spectacularly erroneous, that a Conservative leader was perfectly placed to benefit from the votes of both leavers and remainers as long as we could continually get all the economic benefits of EU membership, while routinely giving Brussels a duffing up.

Cakeists bluffed, and the electorate called it. It is right to ask what the origins of Cakeism are; and I can't help but notice a Prime Minister who adopted this policy when he had a parliamentary majority of 179 and the time and opportunity to win the country over to his progressive, cosmopolitan instincts. Tories don't know any better. Farage doesn't even try to hide his desires to exploit people's frustration and resentment. But Labour, the party that created the NHS, presided over the greatest regressive shift in modern British history.

Yes, of course, single individuals never bear sole responsibility in representative democracies. Neville Chamberlain did not inflict every trauma on Europe after 1938. But, in retrospect, he was there at the crucial pivot of history, and failed to act despite having the means. And when we look back at this crucial pivot in history, Tony Blair was the one that stepped off the plane waving a piece of paper.

I said that this is a letter to my leave chums; and I know it probably reads so far as a letter to my fellow remainers. It is not. When leavers were asked by the media why they wanted to leave the phrase that they kept using was that they wanted to Take Back Control. The onus is now on them to explain what they mean by that. Who are we taking control back from? Who - honestly - was responsible for that loss of control in the first place? What are we seeking to take back control of? These are not just glib questions (or no glibber than the original phrase). We have just taken the most profound geostrategic decision in our society since coming to the aid of Poland in 1939.

While pondering upon those questions, perhaps leavers can answer me this. One charge you often make against the EU, that I feel is rarely challenged, is that the EU is undemocratic. Yet, we get to vote regularly for MEPs using a voting system shown to be far more proportionate than our own first-past-the-post. The despised Eurocrats seem, to me, to be no less legitimate than the unelected mandarins of Whitehall. European Commissioners are appointed, yes, but by democratically-elected Governments. And Europe is not headed by someone who inherited the position from their father. How, exactly, is the union we are leaving less democratic than ours?

This referendum has laid bare, and exacerbated, deep divisions in our country. Having decided to leave one Union, leavers need to decide if they now want to maintain another. This is not just about preventing Scotland, and even Northern Ireland, becoming independent. On the evidence of the last few weeks, we are no longer a united kingdom. As arrogant and as out of touch some of the pro-European elite has been, leavers can not now become the elitists: you petitioned for this divorce, now you must own it.

And part of taking responsibility in a democracy is reconciling with your defeated opponents. Just as you passionately felt that you had to Take Back Control, you have to recognise that you are now in charge of a country where 48% of people disagreed with you. Just as you felt that leaving the EU was an emotional imperative, millions of your fellow citizens feel that being a responsible international actor, believing in Europe as an idea, and modernity are emotional imperatives too.

This weekend, as I write this, Johnson and Gove are strangely absent from our television screens. I assume that this is the result of stunning hangovers, rather than buyers' remorse. But very soon they will have to start making decisions. We have lost, within a few hours, a Prime Minister and a European Commissioner, on the very day that the most important foreign and domestic decisions for a generation need to be taken. In short, they will have to take back control.

Peace and love.

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