I listened this morning to Peter Hennessy being interviewed by Paddy O’Connell on Radio 4’s “Broadcasting House” (starts at 54:11). His views on the impact of Brexit largely match my own. It took an hour or so to transcribe, but has saved the much greater effort of trying to cover similar ground in my own words.
Peter Hennessy: June 23rd 2016 has been a breaker of careers and a breaker of hearts for some people. It has thrown the personnel question of the state high up in the air too. Whatever happens to Jeremy Corbyn, who knows, and what’s happened to Boris Johnson already, their salad days have been taken away from them.
Paddy O’Connell: So we start with the doubters. Should they be optimistic or pessimistic?
PH: It would help if we actually, without being excessively Pollyanna-ish about this, remember that we are a mature democracy. Not since wartime have we faced anything like this. This caesura, this guillotine, is going to leave big scars. It’s made the big scars already. We’ve been scoured by this. It’s an awful lot for any individual who cares about their country, as we pretty well all do, and has a sense of their past and the prospects of the future to be anything other than gloomy about the multiple overlapping uncertainties which might lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom—which would actually break my heart. And to all sorts of divisions within our society that we knew about, which have been shown up in even sharper relief because of this Referendum. Differences based on lack of life chances in many areas, inequalities of wealth and all the rest of it and attitudes—immigration and ethnicity and all that. It’s a moment when you look around and all you can see is a country looking for things to fall out over, rather than to fall in about. And so pessimism could be all too easily the mood of choice. But I refuse to actually, get pessimistic, because I think we do have these deep wells of civility and tolerance in our society, which we’ve got to draw deep on—and fast. We also have this genius we pride ourselves on called “muddling through”.
But the other reason is just straightforward cockeyed optimism, really, and I will refuse to get gloomy, unless and until the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ask for landing permission at Heathrow—and not even then.
PO’C: You’re determined to be optimistic when I see so many people pessimistic. Listeners to Radio Four are furious at the tone of the debate. Also whatever message the public wanted to send the political elites, it is the elites who are going to decide who the Prime Minister is going to be, it is the elites who effectively are kicking out the Leader of the Opposition.
PH: Well this word elite is tricky. In many ways notions of elite and Establishment are very useful in open societies because they are there for cathartic purposes. You can rant about elites and establishment but you don’t know who they are, you can’t see them in the evening on the Victoria Line and be tempted to beat them up. So I’ve always thought the Establishment-elite notion was quite useful but it’s wildly imprecise, but the one thing we want to cling to, the ultimate thing that matters in an open society is the vote. This is a time for not being rigid about everything; but you’ve got to stick to the rules of the game. If you’ve lost something—and I was a Remainer, I’m quite open about that—you can’t say “The people were misled”. It’s rather like the Marxists used to say: “The masses have let us down yet again.” You’ve got to express the sovereign will, as expressed through a vote—and you’ve got to accept that. You’ve got to live with it, and make the best of it. The only possibility, if you really did want to reopen it, reasonably quickly, is to have a General Election on a single issue which is that, but General Elections can’t be on single issues, because General Elections are lightning conductors for a whole range of resentments, hopes and fears and possibilities. You can’t have a general election that really can be trusted to be on a single issue, can you? Hence the referendums.
PO’C: But, if two or three main parties won a plurality of the vote, and they were all pro-EU membership parties, that would trump the Referendum?
PH: Well, some might argue that it would. But when you consider it, how many people would be left deeply resentful?
PO’C: —Oh, seventeen million!
PH: The vote that mattered to many of them in their lives above all other votes was that one, on the 23rd June. Nicholas Soames, who’s a friend of mine, I admire him very much, a member of the Churchill family, said to me last week, “This was about the end of the post-war settlement”. Ever since the Marshall Plan, when the Americans put up a dollar curtain against the Iron Curtain, and got the Western European nations to talk about how they should do it together, the grain has been towards European integration of some form or another. The Brits wanted a different form of it and were very reluctant to go down the Common Market version of it for a very long time, but the grain has been that way, plus the Brits’ desire to play on every playing field in the world that’s possible, to punch heavier than our weight in the world. What we’ve got to do now, Paddy, is to think heavier than our weight in the world.
But it’s a perilous old path, isn’t it. Because we’re in a very ratty mood at the moment. We’re not being nice to each other. And a large part of the rest of the world thinks that we’ve lost it. We’ve gone from being a great stabilizing nation in the world, whichever alliance we’ve been in or whichever organization we’ve belonged to, to being one of the world’s destabilizers, and they’re shocked rigid by it. And I’m not surprised.