I wrote a while back that the UK referendum wouldn’t be at all bitter or divisive, and I think it’s fair to say I was utterly, utterly wrong. I just hope whoever wins shows a spirit of magnanimity and conciliation, and tries to steer the country to the most moderate course available.
Perhaps it was obvious that this debate would turn into a sort of British culture war, one that divided the country heavily over the issue of globalisation. As James Bartholomew points out in this week’s issue of The Spectator, the referendum has exposed a huge rift between the metropolitan elite and the rest.
Although there is a very strong free-market case for Brexit, and leaving the EU might not necessarily mean controlling our borders, the majority of Brexit supporters are not cheery-faced globalists who want more Indian engineers or technicians coming to an island tax haven.
The Leave campaign, knowing that socially conservative localists outnumber Thatcherite libertarians by about ten to one, have made immigration their focus, which has inevitably made the tone more grim on one side and more sanctimonious on the other. There’s nothing that can be really done about this, just as serving drinks is inevitably going to attract some drunks to your establishment.
Inevitably this new culture war has a class element to it, as John Harris points out in his excellent reporting. (Worth reading the even more depressing previous piece.) The depressing news is that, although this godawful referendum will finally be over this week, the culture war it has highlighted is only likely to get worse as society cleaves along cultural and moral values. Our democracy emerged in a country in which most people more or less shared the same values, but we’ve now returned to the situation of the 16th to 18th century when European societies were heavily split along moral and theological grounds; then the educated middle-classes in places like London and Cambridge adopted a radical new faith, leaving the rural majority and a few aristocrat leaders clinging to the old religion.
We’re not going to see a repeat of the wars of the Reformation in Europe, for countless different reasons (just as we’re not going to return to 1914-45, with or without the EU) but politics is likely to become more shrill if people don’t have the same values as those they share their countries with, and whom they vote against.
So whoever loses tomorrow will feel great bitterness. They will feel especially bitter because they’ve learned to see their nation not as a group of people joined together by ancestry or adoption but as an extension of their own ideals. I’ve seen lots of people tweet they want to remain because they want this country to be defined by certain values. Others saying that the other side are taking away their birth right by steering the country away from the way they want it to go.
Perhaps, but being a citizen of a country, rather than just a subject, means suppressing your own wants and concerns in favour of the common good, since your ideals, and your preferred direction, might be squarely at odds with those of your fellow citizens. And so the less a country is defined by things like history and the more by ideals and values, the more bitter the arguments will be over what those ideals are, and the less ready people will be to accept when they happen to lose.