For me the defining moment of the referendum morning came at 4:50am. The percentage of the vote for Leave was not budging at 52 per cent. The composure of Keith Vaz, a normally very self-confident man, MP for Leicester East since 1987, had vanished. He talked in despair to David Dimbleby about the hardening certainty of a Brexit victory in an apocalyptic mood; perhaps one similar to that which had gripped Francophiles in June 1940 on the news that France had fallen.
The news was simply ‘crushing’ It was ‘terrible for Britain and for Europe’. For over 40 years ministers had travelled to Europe where they had become ‘embedded’ in its affairs, ‘pursuing the completion of the single market’.
What the British people had decided was ‘catastrophic for the world’.
It came back to me that Mr Vaz had been Europe minister from 1999 to 2001. No less than twelve Labour MPs had held the job between 1997 and 2010, the high tide of European integration when major strides were taken to try and build a continental-wide state with Britain very much part of the project.
The rapid turnover of ministers was a sign that Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did not feel that European affairs was a policy issue where Labour required any real expertise or vigilance.
The European constitution was voted down in referenda held in 2005 in France and the Netherlands. This decision by the citizens of two of the founder members of the EU was ignored by the directing elite of the EU.
It was simply repackaged as the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. This was a watershed, amounting to a severe diminution of sovereignty for the then 27 member states. The European Court of Justice was given dominion over crucial areas of domestic policy from which derived the authority of parliaments and domestic judiciaries – criminal justice and home affairs, foreign affairs, social affairs, immigration, defence and commercial matters.
Blair had promised a referendum to allow the British electorate to give its verdict on this colossal expansion of EU power. Both he and Brown then claimed that the constitutional features had been removed, and what remained was a modest treaty. So to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty was unnecessary.
Blair had enough prudence to reject the advice of his chief European adviser, Roger Liddle who in a 2005 a BBC interview called on him to be open about the drive to give Europe a political identity:
‘In the past, pro-Europeans have talked about Europe as though it is some sort of economic free trade area that doesn’t threaten our sovereignty…I think we have got to be much more honest and open with people, that Europe always has been a political project.’
But Blair acted as if the European Union was a common economic zone. Britain opened up its labour market many years before it was necessary for the 6 new 2004 East European members. Whitehall confidentally predicted that a maximum of 13,000 migrants a year would bother to be attracted by Britain’s much higher wages and superior health and educational services. Nobody seems to have been aware, or cared much, that it was logical in a regional economic zone including very poor and rich countries, millions of people in the former might rush to enjoy the benefits of the latter.
In 2006, John Denham, a Southampton Labour MP and government minister, warned Blair and also Brown of plunging wage levels due to much higher levels of immigration. He stated in a memo that the daily age rate for a builder in the city had fallen by 50 per cent since 2004. Southampton voted to Leave by 56 per cent to 46 per cent last night.
The voluble John Mann is one of the few Labour MPs who has his finger on the pulse of ordinary Britain. Speaking directly to John McDonnell in the BBC election studio he said imported workers and zero-hours contracts had caused economic devastation in former coalfield areas such as the one he represented, Bassetlaw where Leave triumphed by 68 per cent to 32 per cent.
The far-left-winger McDonnell’s path to power in Mann’s party has been smoothed by the influx into the Labour Party of tens of thousands of students, graduates and middle-class activists who are far more at home in university towns like Exeter, Brighton and of course Oxford and Cambridge where Remain romped home.
Mann said Labour was as good as finished in many previous Labour strongholds because it had thrown ordinary people to the wolves because of its imprudence in embracing the EU’s single market which emboldens multinational capitalism while making it virtually impossible for workers to defend decent pay rates and conditions.
It is to the hapless Keith Vaz that we have to return in order to understand the full extent of Labour’s economic illiteracy. The 29-year-old Romanian Victor Spirescu made headlines when, on 1 January 2014, he stepped off the first Romanian flight to Luton airport, after the lifting of entry restrictions on migrant labour from Romania and Bulgaria. Vaz greeted the Romanian and invited him to have a coffee so that he felt welcome in Britain. He made light of claims that there would be a mass influx of people from either country. Yet by November 2014, 200,000 had already arrived.
Sir Andrew Green, the founder of Migration Watch was denounced as an irresponsible bigot by elite London figures and their publications for publishing research in low-key language that warned of ‘huge practical and social consequences’ if the migration flows established after 1997 became the norm. Figures showing that the population was likely to increase by 12 million over the next 20 years, once seen as alarmist, are now regarded as realistic estimates and it is to David Cameron’s credit that he gave Sir Andrew a life peerage in 2014.
The alarmist warnings of Cameron, Osborne and Amber Rudd about the awful consequences if Britain democratically opted to restore full governance are likely to have been dismissed by struggling voters because they had years of seeing how worthless their complacent claims about migration being manageable wereand in many ways essentially beneficial in its impact.
Will Straw, the most energetic Labour Remain figure could only reply with threats and warnings of currency convulsions and retaliation from Brussels when Dimbleby asked him what kind of Labour policy on immigration would convince mutinous party voters.
It was a ‘wake-up call’ for Straw which Emily Maitlis pointed out was a phrase other Labour colleagues had been robotically using since UKIP first started to snatch its voters in 2013. Chuka Umunna desperately declared that the challenge for Labour was ‘how to make globalisation work for our members’.
But the evidence is impossible to conceal from the gaze of million of Britons, many of whom voted for the first time in a generation, that globalisation primarily benefits ‘them’, the remote elite and just causes dislocation and deteriorating conditions for unprotected folk and their descendants.
As John Harris pointed out in the Guardian on 17 June, ‘the arrival of large numbers of people prepared to do jobs with increasingly awful terms and conditions was always going to trigger loud resentment. For many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with.
Long ago folk only lightly touched by politics have spotted how the governing classes benefit from the mounting EU role in British life. These beneficiaries are heavily located in the yellow (BBC’s colour for Remain) stream which flowed from London up the Thames valley to Oxford with a separate tributary heading to Cambridge. These are middle-class professionals and corporate business folk who benefit from EU advisory roles in the expanding bureaucracy or the regulatory system skewed towards major global firms.
Remain could have prevailed on Thursday if the experts and the powerful in the business and educational elites had talked nicely to unhappy voters. Instead, just before Cameron’s resignation was announced, Anna Soubry, the barrister and junior minister was on the BBC telling Dimbleby about how utterly horrid so many white-working class folk had been to her in the East Midlands where Leave won by 59 per cent to 41 per cent. She observed that as likely as not, many had never encountered an immigrant. She reminded me of a certain type of class-ridden reactionary of by-gone centuries who felt the masses were backward, dangerous and unable to be trusted with any influence .
Neither she, nor John Major, nor Amber Rudd were able to make a positive case for the EU perhaps because very few people who worked in the Byzantine EU labyrinth actually liked it very much – except for the influence, perks, and networking that was available in abundance.
They failed to see that millions of fair-minded and balanced people had checked out their arguments and found them shallow.
Too many ordinary folk sensed that the idea of swallowing up a respected independent democracy in a failing technocratic experiment was ludicrous. It showed faulty judgment on the part of elites for whom they had vanishing respect. If there were avuncular statesmen like Stanley Baldwin or Jim Callaghan prominent in Remain, it could have successfully crossed the finishing line. Baldwin anonymously gave 20 per cent of his fortune to the Treasury appalled at the debts had accumulated in 1914-18; if Tony Blair is even aware of his predecessor’s action, he might be tempted to view it as the gesture of a simpleton.
Challenging times are bound to lie immediately ahead but the British remain a broadly adaptable and resourceful national group. A majority voted for a restoration of democratic control over their administrative affairs because they sense that in the medium term it is likely to reduce inequalities and internal class and regional divisions which were in danger of doing permanent damage to the country. The voyage might be bumpy for a while but provided the upheavals of this year revitalise politics and keep people engaged in public affairs, the omens for renewal are finally starting to look bright.
Tom Gallagher is a political scientist. His latest book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World (Scotview Publications) was published earlier this year.