On 23 June 2016 England voted decisively to leave the European Union, of which it had been a member for more than 40 years. That decision has provoked a sense of deep dismay amongst Anglophiles throughout the world, of whom I am one. I believe that in the perspective of history it will be seen to be the most shameful decision the country has taken in recent years, even if not quite on the scale of Iraq.
This has nothing whatever to do with the economic consequences, whatever these may be. In the long term they are unlikely to be significant; they are certainly unpredictable. The globalisation of trade and investment flows that has taken place in recent decades means that the barriers to the movement of most goods, services and capital among Western countries are now quite low. It is reasonable to assume that a future economic agreement between the UK and the EU will confirm access to the European single market.
The real damage is to England’s political reputation. This will be long-lasting. To the rest of the world it looks as if the country has suddenly and inexplicably turned its back on its long-standing friends and partners. Leaving the EU is the petulant act of a country turning in on itself, a refusal to fight for common beliefs despite the entreaties of friends and allies. It is reminiscent of France’s capitulation in June 1940, although France at least had the excuse of the invasion of half its territory.
It could have been avoided. The Remain campaign was an insult to the intelligence of voters and an embarrassment to its supporters. At least the infamous Leave claim that £350 million a week was the cost to the UK of EU membership had some tangential connection with reality. It was the gross not the net figure. No such defence can be offered of the Treasury’s claim that leaving the EU would cost each British household £4,300 per annum by the year 2030. This was pure fantasy. The Treasury cannot even forecast accurately its own expenditure 12 months ahead. And the “punishment budget” threatened by George Osborne in the event of a vote to leave lowered the credibility of the Remain case still further. Remain made no attempt to engage with, let alone to rebut, the Leave arguments about immigration. Worst of all, it did not try to offer positive reasons for staying in the EU.
Those voters who lived in Scotland experienced a reprise of the No campaign in the independence referendum of 2014. Less than two years later the same people, Carney, Osborne, senior civil servants, industrialists, military men and think tank gurus were wheeled out by the Remain campaign to say the same thing: a vote for the other side would ensure economic catastrophe.
Because they had won the Scottish campaign the organisers of the Remain campaign appear to have supposed that the same scare-mongering strategy would win again. Although Nicola Sturgeon pointed out to them that Project Fear had actually increased the pro-independence vote in Scotland from 30 per cent to 45 per cent, the opinion polls suggested that the Remain side enjoyed no similar margin of comfort. The repeat of a purely negative campaign would be likely to push Leave over the 50 per cent mark. And so it proved. Sturgeon’s advice was predictably ignored, and the Remain campaign was lost.
The outcome of the European Referendum vote revealed two further unpalatable truths. First, that Scotland is a separate country in political sentiment if not yet in constitutional fact. England’s decision to leave Europe may not bring forward the date of independence, but it has surely made it more certain.
Second, Scottish nationalism, like that of most other small European countries, has been shown to be outward-looking, whereas English nationalism is inward-looking.
In some places in this article I have used “England” where many Scottish readers would have preferred “Britain”. But ‘England’ is the usage of the rest of the world. This is not an error – it reflects the political reality.
Scotland is not an equal partner in the United Kingdom, it is simply an appendage. No-one outside Scotland pretends otherwise so we, too, should stop deceiving ourselves.