EU Referendum

Brexit: an inchoate howl of rage


If, as is being widely held, Trump's "unexpected" victory in the US presidential race was "Brexit plus plus plus", then there is an argument for suggesting that the referendum we held on 23 June wasn't actually about Brexit.

The pundits have it that we are seeing in the United States is an election where Trump ignored the centre ground – thereby breaking one of the electoral shibboleths of the age. Instead, he pandered to his core vote, provoking in inchoate howl of rage against the uncaring "establishment", represented by Hillary Clinton. Thus does the Guardian have it on its front page (print edition) that: "Republican takes victory on a tide of popular rage". 

The result has been an unlikely coalition of the untertanen, united not by the advocacy for any cause or vision, but by nihilistic sentiments covering multiple grievances so vast in range that one could not even begin to articulate them in any detail.

But if the election of Donald Trump was a protest vote along the same lines as our EU referendum, then it reinforces the view that the referendum itself was not specifically against the EU. Rather, since the EU was supported by the "establishment", a vote against it became a proxy for a more generalised anti-establishment expression.

Yet we didn't really need the US election to tell us this. So many people know so little about the European Union that they would be hard put to it to describe specifically what is was that they so disliked. Asked what laws he was most looking forward to losing, one antagonist was hard put to name any.

What is most often the case therefore is that people are not so much opposed to the EU as to their vision of what they believe the EU to be – which has very little to do with what exists in reality. And of course, this applies the other way round. Most Europhiles seem to be in love with a fantasy version of the EU.

But, for many of those who voted to leave, the referendum was not so much a deliberate, studied decision to remove the UK from EU membership but simply an opportunity to express dissatisfaction. Like Trump in the United States, the EU simply provided the focus – the nucleus abound which our own version of the untertanen could aggregate.

Such would explain why there was such difficulty in getting the leave campaign to unify around a single exit plan and why, now, there is such difficulty in defining what Brexit actually means. So many people are intent on leaving what amounts to a fictional construct that they can hardly expected to be satisfied with the mundane realities of a structured Article 50 process.

One suspects that, rather that have exit negotiations, some activists would prefer to see a latter-day version of the Nuremburg trials – complete with the execution of the lead players in the development of the EU.

What precisely Trump voters will settle for is probably just as much a mystery. Beyond vacuous slogans along the lines of "Make America Great Again", Mr Trump's speeches were as short on detail as was Vote Leave's battle bus and Nigel Farage's crowd-pleasers.

Trump is said to have tapped into a growing pessimism among many voters - particularly white, working class men without a college degree - about their economic and cultural future with his, which is precisely what has been said of the EU referendum. And both the American election and the referendum have produced the same things – wrecking balls aimed at taking down the establishment.

The problem with this, though, is the cultivation of nihilism produces – as one might expect – nothing very much. As I have been known to remark under the cover of what I called the "Stokes precept", you cannot campaign on a negative. To achieve lasting and meaningful change, there must be a positive vision to which people can aspire.

What one needs to add – pace the referendum and the just declared presidential election – is that it is possible to motivate people to express their anger in the ballot box, especially after years of abuse, where the political classes have completely lost touch with the electorates they supposedly serve.

At the heart of this dynamic is the loss of hope. Expectations from the voting process are low and voters have long abandoned the idea that the ballot box actually achieves anything. Thus the vote becomes an extended opinion poll, unconnected with any defined outcome.

However, in the end, reality intrudes. With Brexit, the need to produce a coherent exit plan becomes ever-more pressing, as our prosperity and political stability depends on a successful withdrawal from the EU, with minimal collateral damage.

In the absence of any positive vision from the noise-makers – who are most voluble in expressing their detestation of the EU – it is unsurprising that former "remainers" (including the Prime Minister) are making the running. If the leavers cannot unite behind a single plan, it can hardly be a surprise that they are not listened to.

When it comes to Trump, it would not surprise me if we see much the same sort of thing. In the policy vacuum created by his victory, one might see very little in the way of successful policy initiatives.

But prolonged inertia – on both sides of the Atlantic - is potentially dangerous. It serves merely to distance voters from the things they were so voluble in protesting against, leaving it open for the despised "establishment" to step back in and offer order in the face of chaos, and direction to replace uncertainty.

Winning the "war", therefore, is not enough. We have to win the "peace" as well.