Wrong call: Cameron will go down in history as one of the most calamitous leaders in British history
Electoral disappointment is an inevitable part of the democratic process. The United States politician Dick Tuck put it succinctly making a concession speech in 1966. “The people have spoken, the bastards.” Many a defeated politician has muttered those words sotto voce.
But in the case of the European referendum, it is not quite as simple as that.
Northern Ireland – now the frontier between the UK and the European Union – voted to remain. Scotland, already conditioned to the potential of independence, voted to remain. Almost half the United Kingdom voted to remain.
The fault lines are clear. They can no longer be disguised.
Let us be in no doubt, this vote marks the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. The Little Englanders (and their fellow travellers in Wales) might think they voted for a return to Britain at the centre of a world map coloured in red; but they have hastened Scotland’s inevitable exit from the Union and they have laid bare the fact that Northern Ireland has more in common with the Irish Republic than with this disunited kingdom.
It is hardly surprising that the UK lost its position as the fifth largest economy in the world within hours of the vote. Billions were wiped off shares and the pound nose-dived. The markets will be up and down in the weeks and months ahead, they are fickle and motivated purely by self-interest. But the long-term trajectory is down, I hope I’m proved wrong.
Cameron’s speedy departure – the only thing he has got right in this saga – will not be enough to halt the country’s slide to ruin. He made a brave face of it, but his legacy is a Britain crippled economically and politically.
By failing to stand up to the Tory right, Cameron has put intolerance at the heart of the political discourse, and single-handedly he has destroyed the notion of one nation conservatism.
This was a referendum we did not need to have. And this result is not just a disaster for the United Kingdom and for Ireland – partners in a peace process inspired in large part by Europe’s capacity to transcend centuries of conflict – but it is a disaster for the EU too.
There is now a crack in the European body politic that cannot be repaired; and Britain’s hubristic decision will fortify sceptics in France, Germany and across the continent. Robbed of one of its strongest, albeit truculent, members the European voice is diminished in the world.
I know it is futile to play the blame game – but blame must be apportioned. My list includes Cameron, not up to the task of being prime minister; Jeremy Corbyn and his party leadership team who gifted the Labour vote to Nigel Farrage; and the EU too, an institution that has clearly lost the trust of ordinary men and women.
Large organisations lose the capacity to listen, and the EU has been turning a deaf ear to scepticism across the continent for years, consequently it has opened its soft underbelly for attack.
Yes, I am angry about the lies and half-truths spewed out by the leave campaign; but this was not a battle where the facts played much of a part. It was clear that leave voters were determined to pursue their course in spite of the facts.
All’s fair in love and war, it is said. Leave executed its battle plan well, and with ruthless efficiency. It is a pity Remain did not do the same. It failed to find its voice until too late in the day.
From Northern Ireland’s perspective the top priority now must be to secure the peace process. Short-sighted unionist Brexiteers may have brought back the prospect of the border – but at the price of the union they say they cherish.
One thing is clear, this decision cannot be allowed to undo the hard work and determination of people and politicians here to transcend the divisions of the past. The pressure for a border poll is unsurprising, but fraught with risk. That boil will have to be lanced, but timing is everything.
An independence referendum in Scotland, and there will be one, should be the catalyst for a border poll – not this.
I am prepared to bet the next vote in Scotland will be a yes to independence. In Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has a much cannier political operator than Alex Salmond, and a more persuasive one.
Independence Day or Armageddon? The wrong movies. Brexit is more a case of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
- This column appeared in The Irish News on June 27 2016