Trump, Farage, Marine Le Pen, populist governments of the Right (Hungary, Poland) or Left (Greece). Across the West, established political elites are under siege from mutinous masses furious at stagnant or falling living standards and a sense that their values of thrift, hard work, patriotism and love of family are held in contempt by their wealthy metropolitan rulers.
It has become a commonplace to observe that trust in conventional politicians has broken down. Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march towards the Republican nomination is but the latest manifestation of the collapse of the established order. His hair may be wild and his soundbites wilder, but he is connecting with the feeling of betrayal rampant among America’s disaffected middle classes.
Britain, too, is far from immune to the gulf between the ruled and their rulers. David Cameron may have won a small majority against expectations at last year’s election. But Nigel Farage’s Ukip insurgents still polled four million votes, eating into Tory support in the south and Labour in the north. In Scotland, the nationalist insurgency of the SNP all but wiped out Labour. The financial crash of 2008/9, prolonged if mild austerity sitting uneasily alongside the bonus culture of the City, the expenses scandal exposing MPs’ sense of entitlement, and the cultural and financial dominance of London over the provinces have all come together to erode public confidence in the political class.
It is against this fissile background that the country prepares for the June 23 referendum on EU membership. And, it seems, the political class has one further trick up its sleeve. You might think that a vote to Leave will mean exactly that. But you might just be wrong.
For some time now an idea has been kicking around the Westminster village. The idea of a second referendum. According to this notion, the Leave camp should promote the suggestion that a vote to Leave should be interpreted as a vote to return to the Brussels negotiating table and strike a much harder bargain than the feeble deal brought back by David Cameron. Cue more horse-trading in which a shocked and weakened EU hierarchy is forced to give significant new ground and concede a package markedly more attractive to the UK. Thereupon, a relieved electorate votes Remain in a second referendum, so putting the whole issue to bed.
The rationale for this defeatist idea is that the waverers – a sizeable group who don’t like the EU but are afraid of Mr Cameron’s “leap in the dark”, could readily be persuaded to vote Leave initially, so securing victory in the first round and a much strengthened bargaining position in the ensuring haggle. Without such an insurance policy, the waverers are likely to back away from their dislike of Brussels and reluctantly endorse the PM’s proposed settlement.
The second referendum idea was first endorsed a week ago by Boris Johnson when he stunned and infuriated Cameron by coming out for Leave. It was then backed by former Conservative leader Michael (now Lord) Howard. Johnson first said that EU history shows they only really listen to a country when it says ‘no’. But having ratted, he then apparently re-ratted in The Times on Saturday by insisting “Out is Out”. Howard has been more explicit, saying that in the month after a Leave vote, the Europeans would reconsider and seek “a different agreement and perhaps you could have a second referendum”.
Cameron, for his part, has been unequivocal in dismissing this idea, saying it was a “complete fiction” to think there would be a fresh round of talks with Europe’s leaders clamouring to offer revised and better terms for continued UK membership.
The second referendum idea is seductive in that it appears to offer a plausible means of securing the wavering vote and a win on June 23. But what about the rest of the country? What about all those millions of people committed to ending our disastrous 40-year European marriage and rediscovering our birthright of self-determination? How would they feel – and react – if they woke up on June 24 to be told that Leave does not mean Leave – instead it means Mr Cameron embarking upon a second Grand Tour of Europe’s capitals seeking fresh concessions?
They would feel utterly betrayed. They would be furious at yet another confidence trick played on them by the political class. And in an era of rock-bottom trust in politicians, the idea that No means Yes would trigger a savage backlash against the Westminster smart Alecs.
The referendum result is not open to interpretation by our political masters. If we do vote to quit, then the Government, whoever is leader by then, must follow the will of the people. It must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, an irrevocable act, and within two years come to the practical arrangements under which we regain our independence from foreign rule.