A rueful joke doing the rounds in London earlier this week ran: “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman go into a bar. They have to leave it because the Englishman didn’t like it.” It is said, of course, that if you have to explain a joke then it’s a lousy joke (or you’re a lousy teller of jokes). But it does pick up on one of the scores of strands of outcomes, of fallout not all foreseen, of that vote a week ago.
One indication, if you need it, of the extraordinary ramifications of this vote has been the huge amount of global media coverage it has attracted and not just in Europe. A chord has been struck far beyond U.K. shores. It was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, not often cited in these pages, who once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” One week on from that extraordinary night’s drama and the unravelling of so, so much of our shared life here, it’s feeling like one of those weeks.
It has become very clear that many of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland and of Scotland are deeply concerned about the Brexit vote. In Ireland, north and south, there has been a sharpening conversation about the implications for the border and the peace agreement; my colleague Rhona Tarrant outlined this for us a few days ago. And the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, took herself off to Brussels to try to get a word (and a photo-op) with as many European leaders and E.U. bigwigs as she could.
The idea there was to open direct negotiations about how Scotland could continue to hold membership in the European Union when England withdraws. The long-predicted line has become a reality, that Scotland voted for “Remain” and thus could be dragged out of the E.U. against the will of almost two-thirds of its voters.
Independence would smooth that path; a second Scottish independence referendum is, in Sturgeon’s words, “on the table.” In order to join, or continue in one union of sovereign (alright, nearly sovereign) states, Scotland would want to leave another, the United Kingdom. The very real, and widely predicted, likelihood of the collapse of the existing constitutional arrangement that is the United Kingdom has been one of the major pieces of fallout from last week’s vote.
Would it be legal? Is the referendum binding? Here’s another strand of the current fevered national conversation, at least among those who cannot live without a frequent fix of such febrile chatter. We have, to the bemusement of most other nations, a Constitution in this country. But it’s not written down anywhere. That is, unless you count the substantial segment of our statutory law that has come from Brussels and become part of our law, engendering some of the resentment that lead to last week’s vote.
Leave that aside for a moment and you still have a Constitution that leans heavily on precedent and reflects a very British, or at least English, self-image of reasonableness and calm authority; it’s an image that is under strain in these fraught days. The anachronistic oddity of an unelected sovereign is part of this Constitution but so is the notion of the sovereignty of Parliament, even though it too has a substantial element of unelected lawmakers, the House of Lords.
Some voices propose that any referendum, in such a system, can never be any more than advisory. There’s no precedent for the governing party being tied by a referendum, even if they have gone along with its result on previous occasions. All governments poll constantly, of course, and not just at election-time. A wet finger in the air is meant to keep lawmakers aware of public opinion and not make too many mistakes. It didn’t work this time. Yet maybe we should think of last week’s referendum as one big giant, whopping opinion poll. That would not be a line, for obvious reasons, that the Scottish National Party—and Sinn Fein in the Six Counties, now asking the question about a border-poll—would readily adopt.
That might also presuppose the existence of a functioning government and an opposition that is any good at opposing anyone or anything other than itself. We don’t have either. It’s a mess. It’s been so fast-moving and twisting that we’ve it’s not just that we wake up to fresh news and astonishing developments. They come every few minutes.
You stretch out one hand for your cup of Earl Grey and risk knocking it over your desk because you’re unwilling to take your eye off the news website for even a second. The U.K.’s prime minister resigned; now his succession, and the Game of Thrones played out by various potential candidates, have fascinated the world’s media. Then the Labour Party, not wanting to be left out, began the same. Leader Jeremy Corbyn was challenged by many of his own M.P.s, accused of not presenting a strong-enough case for “Remain.” But he appears, for now, to want to tough it out; this might yet prove to be the un-making of him.
Jealous of all the internecine fun Labour was by now having, the Tories matched them. Leadership hopeful Boris Johnson, having stabbed the prime minister in the back, found the same knife, still dripping Cameron’s blue blood, thrust between his own shoulder-blades (a big target to aim for, granted) by his own, as he’d thought, colleague—“Et Tu, Gove?” Johnston’s ambitions for Number 10 are for now on hold (but you can bet he’s not going to go gentle into that goodnight). He has had a good referendum, but an awful aftermath. There is something to be said for the theory that he never wanted or really expected “Leave” to win; it was meant to be a protest, a shot across the bows of Brussels and of Westminster.
But it all went wrong; the voters bought the half-truths, the ugly xenophobia and racism unleashed has been worse than anyone anticipated, and there is anecdotal evidence aplenty of voter remorse—could it be Bregret that we’re feeling?
The trouble here is that a lot of it reminds you, or at least me, of university debating clubs and student politics, all taken dreadfully seriously but containing precisely no significance for anything remotely like real life. In other words, it’s all inside the bubble. Johnson, having got us into this mess, has walked away from it as indeed has Prime Minister Cameron. One can barely avoid recalling Fitzgerald’s description of the privileged and idle in Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
More playfully, this theory has been presented in a hilarious, but very sweary, redubbing of the famous Hitler final days scene in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s excellent, 2004 film, Der Untergang (“Downfall”). Search for the clip; the language is raw, but it’s the way a lot of people are interpreting things this week. You don’t need “House of Cards,” or ”Yes, Minister” or “West Wing”; throw away your box-sets because it’s all happening before your eyes in real-time.
What else are people saying? There is voter remorse, that’s for sure, but it is hard to measure. Conversations overheard reveal broadly similar views; on a 329 bus yesterday, the bloke behind me said to his mate, “That Johnson’s a…” I won’t assault your sensibilities with the predicate of the verb; use your imagination. Entirely in the interest of keeping this journal’s readers informed, I popped into Clapham’s Alexandria Bar, without an Irishman or Englishman for company, under the pretext of watching the current Euro ’16 football (that’s soccer, my dear) tournament on the big screen, just to listen.
Similar comments abounded, mixed with disgust at the England national football team’s latest shambolic own version of Brexit, dumped out of the tournament by mighty Iceland (population less than 300,000). The England team manager, recognizing that it’s the fashionable thing to do, promptly resigned. So there’s another nationally-important job now vacant.
One observation from a loud man in the corner, to no one in particular, picked up a rumor that David Beckham might become the next coach. This loudmouth suggested that Beckham is no worse a candidate than any other for Number 10 Downing Street, not just the football post, and might even consider a job-share. This pub bore, I mused over my pint of flat room-temperature ale, might just be onto something. Watch this space.
In this correspondent’s view, the most alarming feature of the week since the fateful result has been the sharply increased incidence of reported hate crimes based on racial prejudice. We can never be sure in the instant-communication age if what we are seeing is an increase in the outrages or an increase in their reporting; the truth is likely to lie somewhere in the middle. It is undeniable that there is much more open prejudice against U.K. residents from the European community. Polish people have been insulted, told to “go home” and various cultural and social centers have been daubed with hateful graffiti.
There has to be a way found to rebuild a healthy political culture. Catholic social teaching, as the editors of this journal remark elsewhere, was the foundation of the whole project in 1950. We should be asking if that inspiration got lost along the way and, if so, what it would take to restore those religious insights and inspirations. Even in this post-religious moment in history, someone needs to make the case for the restoration, preferably in a way that does not further damage the religious roots of European society.
It will take imagination; it will take courage. Sadly, the political class is demonstrably out of touch here in Britain. Although people did respond to fear-tactics, this writer still dares to think that Britain is fundamentally tolerant and can live with multiculturalism, but the risk of loss of that tolerance is great. Just before the referendum became the main story, there had been some evidence that the concept of the common good was re-emerging in the United Kingdom. Someone needs to get that back to center stage. Who will do this for us? The task is urgent. Our hope lies there.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.