It was nasty, brutish and long, and now it’s over.
My overwhelming emotion is of sadness.
Not just because the referendum result is not the one I wanted, but because for the next several years, British politics will be dominated by endless negotiations, rows and crises over how to recalibrate our relationship with our neighbours. And because as our economy sinks back into stagnation, our major trading partners will themselves descend into political and economic turmoil. If you thought the referendum campaign was ugly, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
So many uncertainties have been created by yesterday’s vote that it is hard to know where to start. It is the biggest shock to global politics since the collapse of the Soviet empire more than 25 years ago.
First, the United Kingdom has never been less united: England (with the exception of London) and Wales voted to leave the EU; Scotland and northern Ireland voted to stay. In Scotland, the SNP says the vote again raises the issue of Scottish independence; in northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is talking about Irish unification.
Second, we are now in the constitutional absurdity of having a prime minister, as well as a Cabinet and House of Commons, the majority of whose members disagree fundamentally with the verdict of the voters. How on earth can they claim to be the right people to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU, a course of action that they have been warning for months will spell national catastrophe?
Third, there will now be growing demands in other EU countries for similar in-out referendums. President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel both face elections next year – they will have their own political constituencies to take care of while simultaneously dealing with the UK’s demands for a favourable new deal. Guess which will be the higher priority for them.
But what saddens me most of all is that many of the people who voted Leave yesterday will be the ones who suffer most as a result of their decision. The foreigners who they believe have taken their jobs and houses will not suddenly be deported; the over-crowded schools and GPs’ surgeries will not suddenly empty; the out-of-touch elites whom they blame for their misfortunes will not suddenly hand over power to people’s tribunes.
The referendum was a roar of anger from voters who grabbed the opportunity to demonstrate their fury at the economic and social changes they have observed around them and which they neither welcomed nor accepted. ‘We want our country back’ is a powerful motivator; but what no politician had the courage to point out was that the country they yearn for has gone forever.
It is no surprise to learn that the nation is divided, but what the referendum has done is expose the divisions in painfully stark clarity. The haves have done very nicely out of the changes of the past 30 years, but the have-nots have not. Their jobs vanished, their pay stagnated, and their children have little chance of making a decent life for themselves. The rich got richer, but no one else did. Why did anyone think that was a sustainable way to run a modern economy?
What we need now is a leader who can heal the referendum wounds and speak across the national divide. David Cameron’s days as prime minister are clearly numbered; Boris Johnson will never be a convincing leader, however hard he tries, any more than Jeremy Corbyn will be. We enter an age of uncertainty, cast adrift into turbulent waters with no one at the tiller.
And the people with the biggest smiles on their faces are Nigel Farage, Neil Hamilton, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to share their delight.