So a Tory party in the thrall of zealots has all but engineered Britain’s reckless departure from Europe.
Theresa May’s stated casus belli is cutting immigration but the dull thread stitching her Lancaster House strategy speech together was a desperate attempt to steal UKIP’s seductive clothing.
The legitimacy of her mandate for such drastic action is far from certain. But the inevitability of Brexit’s forthcoming harm to the UK’s social and economic fabric is quite clear.
It’s worthwhile taking a sober look at what the country’s about to lose and also to consider just why the EU provokes such visceral hatred in vast swathes of England?
Brussels is guilty of many sins, but only the same ones found in abundance in British domestic government.
It’s symptomatic of the current impatience with fact-based debate that reams of carefully argued defence of the EU and its achievements has fallen on deaf ears.
Of course, there were people in June, well informed about the EU, who voted knowledgeably to leave, together with a small number of the anarchically-minded who vote against any status quo on principle.
But the majority of the Leave vote came from people who, despite indulging for years the defects of the UK’s own outdated and remote institutions, preferred to believe that it was the EU that was undemocratic, too centralised, flooding the UK with migrants and cramping its God-given flair for free trade.
And their antipathy to Brussels project intensified through the long years of UK membership because they were misled about its aims and never told enough about its track record.
The preoccupation with Brussels of too much of the UK press and social media has become obsessive to the point of making any realistic assessment impossible – so much so that Leavers did not, as Theresa May insists, vote to quit with their eyes open.
Being in the EU has provided around half (44 per cent) of the UK’s trade, with the bonus of no paperwork or customs formalities for British exports destined for the single market.There’s irony here, because while Margaret Thatcher was one of the Single Market’s principal architects, May intends to lead the demolition squad.
Employment and economic activity has been backed up by impressive rights in the workplace such as equal pay legislation with holiday entitlement and the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime. Virtually unmentioned during the referendum campaign, these advantages for workers, just like those protecting the consumer, are now at risk in a future derailed by Brexit.
There are environmental achievements – clean beaches and rivers, cleaner air, lead-free petrol and the introduction of a recycling culture. Who will enforce these criteria in future – assuming the UK’s new-style of economy can afford them ?
The EU has insisted on cheaper mobile charges and lower cost air fares, cementing the freedom to travel, live and work throughout Europe.
Already it’s clear that cases of discrimination against EU nationals working in England are on the rise – discrimination not allowed if you are an EU citizen.
The greatest achievement of all is that, for half a century, the EU has contributed crucially to continued peace among European neighbours after centuries of bloodshed. A dozen of its members have been transformed from former dictatorships since 1980. Yet there’s been scant consideration in the UK of whether or not our net contribution to Brussels of £7 billion – about one per cent of total annual government expenditure – has been money well spent.
Losers and winners united
So what exactly has the EU done to merit the disgraceful blackguarding it receives in the British media? The problem lies with the obduracy of the two very different, principal groups determined on Brexit.
First, the relatively poor and uneducated, moulded in their outlook by Murdoch’s Sun and Richard Desmond’s Daily Express. They’ve every right to feel ignored and excluded – they are/were after all the theoretical beneficiaries of a social democratic EU’s redistributive mission.
Curiously, they line up with those very rich folk with most to lose from a successful social democracy. But both groups, though disparate, do have common ground in that they are traditionalist and authoritarian. And they both despise the EU. The excluded poor focus their sense of alienation on the EU because of their long subjection to relentlessly anti-EU media. And the posh arch-traditionalists (Jacob Rees-Mogg et al) are implacably opposed to the erosion of their comfortable world in the shift of power from Westminster to Brussels.
The future of English identity seems to have been behind the ultimate inability of a majority to accept the EU. Both initial British attempts to join the Common Market were baulked by General de Gaulle, acting for his national interest as a man motivated by “une certaine idée de la France”.
Behind this current, impoverishing turmoil lurks a similar, equally certain idea of English identity that’s clearly contradicted and compromised by the ideals of the EU.
It may be that this sense of identity sees shame in accepting the need to collaborate internationally – a sense that a country that won Two World Wars and one World Cup is turning soft. Why else would Boris Johnson and David Davis evoke WW2 on the same day?
The same John of Gaunt speech in Richard II that spoke of England as “this precious stone set in a silver sea” concludes:
England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself
Or, as Joni Mitchell, might say:
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone