“Well, you’re not laughing now are you?”
“I’m not sure that this is a great idea.”
Yesterday was the Centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme: the worst day in the history of the British Army. It was also my birthday. As a schoolboy his quirk of history stoked an enduring fascination with the Great War. Later, as a student at Sheffield University, I frequently passed the memorial for the City Battalion on Division Street. Hundreds of young men from the city answered Kitchener’s call and joined up together. Brothers, sons, fathers; friends, neighbours, co-workers – all fell in front of Serre that morning. In four months of fighting, the Sheffield Pals' objective remained in German hands.
Nationalistic fervour took Europe to war in 1914, and nationalistic fervour has taken Britain out of the European project. Our disunited kingdom finds itself in a political, economic and emotional limbo – what some have termed a Brexistential crisis – in which those who orchestrated the referendum and its damaging result have abdicated all responsibility. We may not know what the long-term impact of leaving the EU may be, but the preliminaries have been every bit as bad as we were warned. Less, 'to the victor the spoils', more 'the victor has soiled himself'.
Both campaigns spent so much time weaving a web of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies, that, astonishingly, they forgot to actually plan for Brexit. For all their talk of BRIC trade deals or Australian-style quota systems, the Brexiteers knew that access to the single market was vital to our economy, and involved a necessary trade-off with freedom of movement. Now everyone is stumped how to resolve it.
After irritating our Continental cousins for decades with our continual flip-flopping – see Cameron’s lengthy, exhausting and ultimately futile pre-referendum negotiations – they want us gone. The UK is the workplace belligerent who, having threatened to quit for years, begs to stay when given the chop. We are the Dick Man of Europe. And its just possible we'll take the European project down with us. While everyone dithered, Nigel Farage went to the European Parliament to verbally 'flick the Vs' at his fellow MEPs.
Having run through the five stages of grief, the 48% protested outside Parliament along with a few remorseful members of the 52%. Remainers feel angry, isolated, ignored, but in the main begrudgingly accepting of the status quo. Most now want to reach a favourable political and economic settlement. One that doesn't involve us eating mud for the next decade. Thankfully the Chancellor has abandoned his plan to achieve an overall budget surplus. After six years of crippling austerity to achieve just that.
It now appears that the future of the country was staked as a precursor to a Tory leadership election. The intra-party fratricidal psychodrama that formed the backdrop to the referendum has simply moved to the foreground. The Conservative Party has descended into open warfare. It was Machiavelli who said, “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”. Michael Gove's blow to Boris Johnson was so severe its a miracle the man can still walk and talk. Gove’s familiarity with Machiavelli is unclear. Either way, the narrative of betrayal and counter-betrayal rivals those of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays. Johnson, incidentally, is supposed to be writing a biography of Stratford-upon-Avon’s famous son, so you’d have thought he’d have seen it coming.
Johnson’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have been cast to the wind. He has been done up like a kipper. The rumour mill has gone into overdrive with suggestions that Cameron, Osborne and Gove have conspired to deny him the party leadership. This is some succour to the infuriated 48%, although that we have Gove and his dreadful columnist wife Sarah Vine to thank complicates our gratitude. Gove’s hopes of securing the backing of the Daily Mail have already been dashed, with the editor Paul Dacre – whom Gove was supposed to secure for Boris – coming out for Theresa May. Gove’s capacity to negotiate is questionable given his abandonment and betrayal of Johnson. Some senior Tories are already calling for Gove to step aside. That he only managed to rustle up five MPs for his leadership launch does not bode well, next to the adulatory reception May was given.
The Conservatives got us into this mess by agitating for Brexit, yet it is Labour which faces a long and arduous road to renewal. PLP discord over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has deflected liberal grief about the referendum result, towards frustration at Corbyn's leadership and enabled the Conservatives to first dissemble and then refocus our attention upon the leadership campaign. David Cameron’s insistence at PMQs that Corbyn go neatly deflected the Opposition leader's question about the government’s failure to tackle social deprivation in the UK - deprivation which partially fuelled the pro-Brexit sentiment in traditional Labour areas.
Cameron’s intervention was a rallying call for the radical left, who are joining the Labour Party in droves to prop up their ailing leader. But in their sense of duty or sympathy towards Corbyn they are failing to acknowledge that the best chance of building a progressive social democratic party to challenge the Government is to get rid of Corbyn and united around a new leader. Corbyn has to go - his mandate is a myth. Of the two lame duck leaders, its is Cameron, as ever, who is rolling in clover.
The only hope for the 48% is the emergence of a new progressive alliance. The Greens have called for a anti-Brexit alliance with the Lib-Dems and a unified Labour Party. Brexit may spell the death knell for social democracy in this country. John Harris, among others, suggests that the British Labour movement is all but over. Any serious social democratic movement in this country will inevitably be hamstrung by the strength of the right wing media, and its ability to continue to exploit poverty, race and immigration. Yet this is precisely what the country now needs as an effective opposition to the right wing zeal of the Conservative leadership candidates. The Labour Party is effectively a zombie-party.
Many will be glad to see the back of June. It has been a bleak and bloody month characterised by belligerence and bewilderment, hollow jubilation and betrayal. What follows next, who knows? As one supporter of the Leave campaign said, “thinks (sic) can’t get any worse”. Rab Butler’s observation that week is a long time in politics can barely begin to encompass a week that began with the annual Glastonbury beano, saw the England football team's pitiful capitulation at the European Championships and closed with the possible future collapse of our economy and body politic. Like the guns of the Great War, the aftershocks of several days in late June 2016 will be felt late into this century.