There is something of a whiff of 1789 in the mood in Britain today.
The people have voted, the pro-EU liberal centre where Britain’s political class is located has discovered to its horror that the people have rejected it (decisively so in England outside London), but there is no clear sense of where things are going.
I get the strong sense that several of the leaders of the Leave campaign did not expect to win and were using the campaign more to gain leverage within the Conservative party than because they believed in the cause. Now that to their amazement they have won they don’t know what to do with their victory.
The result is that though Prime Minister Cameron has announced he is going, he will be there until October in part because there is no-one strong enough or determined enough to take over from him. This despite the fact that at an existential moment in the country’s history the situation cries out for strong and decisive leadership, which cannot be provided by a discredited Prime Minister who has been rejected by the people.
As it happens Cameron’s priority does not seem to be managing the economy, negotiating with the Europeans or conciliating the Scots – who look like they may be about to secede – which would seem to be the most pressing matters of the moment. It is preventing his rival Boris Johnson – one of the leaders of the Leave campaign – from succeeding him as Prime Minister. It seems Cameron’s preferred candidate is Home Secretary Theresa May, a liberal Tory like himself who distinguished herself during the Brexit campaign by keeping as low a profile as possible and not taking a strong position either way.
I would add that the same confusion of purpose seems also true of the Scottish Nationalists. It has become fairly clear to me for some time that the commitment of many of their leaders to Scottish independence is rhetorical rather than real. In reality they are pretty comfortable with the present arrangements where they are subsidised by London for exercising power in Scotland but can go on blaming London when things go wrong in Scotland. Now that England’s Brexit vote has given them the perfect excuse to press for a second referendum on Scottish independence, instead of grabbing it they are hesitating from taking it because they are afraid they would win.
As for the Labour party, its situation is the most ridiculous of all. Despite the fact that it ought to be blindingly obvious that large numbers of Labour voters voted Leave because they don’t like the EU, the Blairites within the Labour party are currently plotting to oust Jeremy Corbyn because they don’t think he was pro-EU enough! With that kind of thinking I wonder there will even be a Labour party in a year’s time.
The mood here is febrile with much of the political class struggling to understand a result that none of them truly anticipated or fully understand and with no-one having a clear plan for going forward. The extent to which the party leaderships in London have become disconnected from their supporters and have lost legitimacy amongst English voters has come as a shock. So much so that there are some people who are talking quite seriously about cancelling the referendum result and holding the vote all over again in order to get a different result. That of course has been done previously elsewhere in the EU. However trying to do it in Britain after a clear vote to leave the EU would be complete madness and would risk turning the mood here very ugly. I cannot seriously believe that in the end it will be done.
One way or the other Britain is going to experience a period of chaos and drift which will continue for several weeks if not months. As it happens I doubt a clear sense of stability or direction will emerge for several years. What the political landscape will look like then is anyone’s guess.
Gramsci’s famous maxim for once sums it up exactly:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.