Brexit feels like a coup d’etat by the old and middle-aged

You cannot change three decades of negative narrative into something positive in three months

In a speech to Canadian Parliament, U.S. President Barack Obama says he is confident Europeans will come up with a 'prudent' plan to move forward after the Brexit referendum but warns that the "frustrations" that led to the historic vote were not unique to the United Kingdom.

 

When dawn broke in London last Friday, and the results of the UK referendum showed victory for those who wanted to leave the EU, I was not so much shocked as gutted.

I was appalled at the consequences, not just for the UK. The decision to walk out of the EU, which I have always seen as primarily a peace project rather than simply a common market, could end up by unravelling both unions.

Scotland, determined to stay in the EU, may vote for independence in a second referendum, and the rest of Europe is likely to suffer from a contagion effect – both political and economic – from the British decision.

For many continental countries Brexit looks like a self-inflicted drama precipitated by British voters at the worst possible moment. It will distract from efforts to resolve the crises already on the agenda: the influx of refugees across the Adriatic and Mediterranean, and the economic crisis in the euro zone.

If Brexit becomes a reality it will also be a nightmare for Ireland. Although Dublin may initially benefit from the transfer of financial jobs from London, the long-term economic and political consequences look far more negative.

If the UK leaves the single market it will almost certainly make it impossible to maintain the Common Travel Area between the two countries. Ireland will become an EU external border. The reintroduction of Border controls between the Republic and the North could very well undermine the still fragile peace process in the North. Yet the subject barely got a mention during the referendum campaign, and was airily dismissed by Brexit campaigners – including Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers – as “the worst sort of scare-mongering”.

I dreaded the outcome of the referendum ever since David Cameron announced his plan for an in-out vote on EU membership three years’ ago in a desperate attempt to maintain the unity of his Conservative party.

It was a reckless gamble, given the way in which other plebiscites have often been decided by voters as a way to punish their governments, not to decide the issue on the ballot paper. The UK referendum was also a massive protest vote against London.

That initial reaction to the Brexit vote has turned from despondency to anger for millions of younger voters. There was a huge generational divide between voters for Brexit and Remain: 73 per cent of 18-24 -ear-olds, and 62 per cent of 25-34-year-olds voted to Remain.

In contrast, 60 per cent of my own age group – over 65s – and 57 per cent of 55-64-year-olds voted to Leave.

Yet, as predicted by most pundits, many fewer young voters turned out for the poll ( 36 per cent of the youngest age group) compared with the old. Some 83 per cent of pensioners over 65 turned out to vote.

Far from being an impressive demonstration of the country’s democratic will, the referendum result feels as if the UK has suffered a coup d’etat by the old and middle-aged.

A narrow group of fervent English nationalists, mostly old white males, has campaigned against the EU for years. Over the past three years they succeeded in mobilising a much wider electorate of disaffected voters, exploiting fears of immigration and resentment of a London-centred political “elite” perceived as self-serving and corrupt, to blame all their misery on “Europe”.

Yet it was not just about immigration, even if that was a crucial issue in mobilising working-class voters. An analysis by Lord Ashcroft, former Conservative Party chairman, cites “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK” as the top reason for voting to leave.

Continental plot

The vote reflected something more profound that has bedevilled UK attitudes to the European project ever since the Treaty of Rome. The British establishment first tried to prevent it happening and then was convinced it would fail. When it did not, it was still regarded as a continental plot led by Germany and France. So when the UK finally joined in 1973, it was perceived by many as a defeat, not a victory. “We won the war and lost the peace,” they said.

In a country that has been immersed in a constant diet of negative, Eurosceptic propaganda pumped out by most of its media (the printed press has been 8:1 against the EU in terms of readership) and its leading politicians for the past 30 years, the vote was no surprise. You cannot change three decades of negative narrative into something positive in three months, as the UK prime minister sought to do. Previously he had always been a critic of “Brussels”. His conversion never rang true.

The UK tragedy has been precipitated by a referendum which has no checks or balances: a narrow majority has decided to walk away from the EU regardless of the consequences. It will precipitate a constitutional crisis, with the referendum outcome directly contradicting a large pro-Remain majority in the UK parliament. It will undermine the very parliamentary sovereignty that the Brexit campaigners say they want to preserve.

Quentin Peel is Mercator Senior Fellow on the European programme at Chatham House in London

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