Dan Perry
Lived and learned on four continents and counting
Letter from London

Letter from London: Would a 2nd referendum reverse Brexit? Don’t be so sure

Many 'leavers' will stick to their guns, not out of stupidity, but because they value nationhood over prosperity

I am writing this from Britain, which I dearly love and once lived in during a far less vexing period. The place is more like Israel and America these days: People arguing all the time; a sense of self-inflicted disaster in the air.

Politics in Israel have been toxic for about 40 years, since its founders were defenestrated in an electoral upheaval that not even Entebbe could prevent. The cultural war that event reflected and amplified remains with us to this day. Indeed, the antipathy between Israel’s “elites” and the masses presaged what is happening all over the democratic world today. There’s a reason: The world is now too complicated and unstable for democracy to thrive. For Israel, alas, it was always this way.

Politics in America have been toxic for about a quarter century, since upstart oddball Ross Perot pinched a third of the conservative vote from the late George HW Bush, handing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. The Republicans struggled with the outrage, sought redemption in another Bush, and have seemed a little unhinged ever since.

Both countries have serious issues at stake. Relations with the Palestinians and the role of religion in Israel; gun control, race relations and abortion in America. But the discourse is in a vile and darker place. In both countries a central core on one side thinks the other side are fools, and is in turn reviled as immoral, snooty and detached. The sides can no longer agree on facts and increasingly can’t be friends. Hatred flows from this, and liberal democracy looks bad. So it goes in America and Israel, with their embittered, huddled masses, yearning to breathe unfree.

All this bad karma I have never much enjoyed, having lived in both these places. And so I was very pleased indeed to have the glorious opportunity of enjoying most of this century’s first decade in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I loved everything about it, from the quaint inefficiency of bartenders (they will not serve customers in parallel, or with anything resembling speed) to the brilliance of the culture. I loved even the ungainly name of the place, revealing shades of strange complexities.

Britain was stratified to a fault, but somehow quite content. Cockneys did not generally want to be Lords. Wealthy professionals called themselves “middle class.” Faded gentry, often impoverished, are afforded everlasting respect. The working class had little houses with strangely creaking stairs. The Tories and the Labourites were no friends, to be sure, but it was only politics after all. People cared more about their pints. They carried on in sporting fashion, through ups and downs of the day.

This is mostly now a thing of the past, and whoever is well pleased can thank David Cameron. Well-bred but clueless, he is the improvident provider of proof positive that polish is an overrated thing. Cameron’s 2016 referendum misfired so badly that about 52% of voters elected, against his own fervent wishes, to leave the European Union, driving him to speedily and sportingly resign.

The EU is not making it easy, which should hardly come as a surprise: Britain is not being allowed to have its cake (free trade) and eat it too (no free movement of people) because the EU does not want to encourage other countries to pull the same move. A crossroads lies ahead: next week, probably, parliament may well reject the deal Theresa May has managed to come up with because the “Leavers” don’t like its compromises and the opposition must oppose. What happens then may not be pretty at all. The Bank of England last week warned of dire economic decline, especially if Britain “crashes out” without a deal that would avoid huge friction on trade. That scenario, if parliament kills the deal, looks plausible.

Now people can hardly talk about anything else, and many Remainers are no longer even pretending not to consider that the Leavers are dolts. And that’s not just arrogance: the Leave campaign was heavily reliant on what might charitably be called an economy with the facts. Among these was the claim that Brexit would free up vast sums for the National Health Service — bureaucratic and beleaguered, but much beloved nonetheless.

The official Leave narrative focused politely on the sovereignty grumble — shaking off the shackles of Brussels and its rules. But the less presentable side is that many people who voted to leave mainly were motivated by dislike of so many foreigners moving in (not fear, as progressives will say; dislike). Talk to people here and it becomes rather clear that this is what put Brexit over the top.

Remainers warned all along it would be ugly and expensive. Almost the entire literate class lined up behind them in 2016, backed noisily by equivalents from all around the globe. Their efforts were shouted down: the people have had enough of experts. Again the parallels to Israel and the United States are strong. It is hard to find “experts” who favor settlement of the West Bank, or back allowing the haredim to deny their children a core curriculum of science and math. Likewise it is hard to find “experts” who favor pulling out of the Paris accord on global warming, or blocking any reasonable form of gun control. And yet all four examples, and innumerably many more, are happening on the ground. So grave is the societal schism that these days experts, if anything, drive people to vote the other way.

There is now growing talk of a second referendum. Those against it say things like “the people have spoken.” That argument seems flimsy to me. Those who voted decided by a narrow edge on a theoretical question in a heated atmosphere of disinformation – while now reality is clear. Why not have a vote on the actual deal? Supporters of that position point to some evidence of buyers’ remorse, and argue that the youth who will have to suffer the longest did not vote in large enough numbers in 2016. On the other hand, overturning the result could lead Leavers to riot in the streets. A rather sticky wicket.

Most people I meet here do not think a second referendum will happen. I see in this the strangely sporting spirit of the place: Mustn’t grumble! Just get on with it!

There may yet be a “People’s Vote” (as the second referendum has been slyly rebranded) because all over the world sometimes logical things occur. But it might not even matter: polls do not suggest a huge amount of buyers’ remorse, but rather only some. Despite the monumental hassle most people are sticking to their guns. A second vote would come down to the millennials deciding to put their screens aside long enough to march off and cast a vote; anybody want to put money on that?

How come it’s still so close? How can so many people support an economic “own goal”? I have an answer to propose.

European Union membership requires the free movement of goods, services and people. That means, in theory, that each member country must risk being absolutely inundated by the rest as culture and language wash away. None of them want to see this happening. Bulgaria does not want to be overwhelmed numerically by Germans (I have been to Bulgaria numerous times and can state this for a fact). But Bulgaria can happily afford to take that risk; the Germans aren’t coming. So things are calm in Sofia, and no one agitates for Buexit. That’s the way it is almost everywhere.

But Britain is different — mainly because of the English language, which constitutes a major draw none other (but Ireland, in a way) can possibly match. It is also different because London is glorious and the whole place is such a green and pleasant land. It is different because the Britons’ capacity for welcoming foreigners was already strained to the breaking point by immigration from the Commonwealth, its former empire stretching from the Caribbean to the Asian subcontinent.

Very considerable numbers of Britons want to stay British or at least become no less British than they already are today (even though they have an amusing antipathy to the term “Britons” identified as early as in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). They like their ways and means, from the non-metric system that few here can master to their specifically British spellings and even words that sound comical to the American ear, like “orientated.”

Leave voters who believed the absurd campaign promises have well earned the disdain of Remainers — of this there is no doubt. But this does not account for all the Leave votes. Many Leavers understood quite well the price that would be paid. In the tradeoff between prosperity and nationhood they simply chose the latter, and would choose so again. Some will see this as sad. Others find it laudable. Either may be right. But stupid it is not.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel.
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