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EU Referendum: the opportunity we didn't deserve?


2016-06-26 06:05:38

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"Are we still capable of governing ourselves?", is the headline of the Booker column today. There could be no better summing-up of the extraordinary situation in which we all find ourselves this weekend, he writes, than the quotation at the beginning of The Great Deception, the history of the EU we wrote a decade ago.

In 1950, when steps were first being made to create a supranational government for Europe, Britain's then-foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, memorably observed "if you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan 'orses will jump out".

Says Booker, despite having spent much of the past 24 years trying to explain why Britain's decision to submit to that weird supranational form of government had been, in Lady Thatcher's words, "a political error of the first magnitude", he confesses that on Thursday night he was just as startled as anyone by how the referendum results unfolded.

So dismally had the campaign been conducted by both sides that, right to the end, he was predicting as the best outcome a 48-52 per cent split in favour of Remain – except that it turned out to be exactly the other way round.

Booker, of course, was not the only one to call it wrong, but now we are faced with this Brexit earthquake, Booker is reminded of a scene in a Marx Brothers film where one of them asks a bystander to choose five cards before putting them back in the pack. "Do you want them one at a time" he asks, "or all at once?". When the answer is "all together", he throws the cards up in the air so that they shower all over the place.

Such is our position today – when the cards of Britain's future seem suddenly to have been scattered in all directions. Now Humpty Dumpty has fallen so unexpectedly off his wall, where are all the king's men to put him together again?

The last people to advise on how we should now proceed are those leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, who we all feared would lose us the battle by their refusal to offer a properly worked-out "exit plan": one capable of neutralising Project Fear by allowing us to continue trading, like independent Norway, just as freely with the single market as we do now; but without the political baggage and without having to obey three quarters of the EU's laws.

That, says Booker, is the only intelligent way to go. Yet, as he has asked before, are our politicians and civil servants any longer capable of negotiating such a sensible withdrawal? For decades they have become so used to working within the claustrophobic supranational Brussels system that one has to wonder whether we are any longer capable of governing ourselves.

The real reason why the British people voted as they did, it seems, was not due to the lamentably inadequate arguments put forward by Vote Leave, but by a deep sense that they no longer wish to be ruled by a system they don't understand and by a remote, self-serving political elite, wholly unresponsive to their concerns – exactly that sense of alienation we now see welling up across the EU.

That is why we see crises piling in on the EU from all sides, as that wishful thinking dedicated to suppressing national identity collides with the sense of national interest in all directions – the euro, migration, Ukraine. All these are self-inflicted wounds, and now Brexit adds yet another.

Booker then reminds us that the process of disentangling ourselves from this infinitely complex supranational system will be a much more difficult and lengthier task than most people realise.

"Have we slept so long cocooned in its emasculating embrace that we are no longer capable of rising to that challenge in the grown-up way that it requires?", he asks. Such is the task now before us. Otherwise, having opened Pandora's box, we shall see all those Trojan horses running rings around us – in a way that may cause us to look back on June 2016 as the opportunity we didn't deserve.