The Three Brexit Fractures
The debate is dividing Britons by age, Conservatives by stance and Europeans by revived nationalisms.
- British politics is now of the old, by the old, for the old. Older voters are more likely to vote #Brexit.
- On #Brexit, the Tory Party has indulged in an open civil war without precedent in its centuries of history.
- Britain aside, mainland Europeans are falling fast out of love with the European Union.
With just two weeks to the most historic vote ever held in British history, there is no certainty, no clarity and no confidence that the result either way will settle Britain’s impossible-to-answer European question.
If Britain votes to leave the European Union there will be a huge seismic shock around the world – bigger even than a President Trump entering the White House.
At a stroke Britain will have overturned five centuries of British foreign policy which was always to stay engaged on continental Europe politically, commercially, and when necessary, militarily to prevent the rise of any united bloc that could threaten British interests.
Outside the EU, Britain becomes a rule-taker, not rule-maker. Some may dream of this ancient, traditional, hide-bound, class-ridden nation reinventing itself as a new giant version of Singapore or Lichtenstein, but the 63 million inhabitants of Britain will emerge from the referendum more divided than ever before.
A generational divide
The first social fracture is that of age. Britain is a country entirely inhabited by old men – at least if the Brexit debates are any indication. The main participants are not merely the former leaders of yesterday, but more the leaders from the day before yesterday – men who held office in the 1970s and 1980s.
Former Prime Minister John Major, 77, has been excoriating his predecessor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, 84, who is a devout pro-Brexit man.
The former leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, 77 joins with the former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, 83, to make the case for Britain staying in the EU.
Ranged against them are men in their 70s and 60s presided over by the media oligarch, Rupert Murdoch, 85 in his last great political fight against liberal, progressive ideas.
Even the younger protagonists like David Cameron, the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson are in their 50s while Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is 67.
As in the United States, with the no-longer-young Trump and Clinton, the days when a John F. Kennedy and Tony Blair took power in their 40s have long gone. The young are playing no part in the Brexit campaign and many have not even registered to vote.
British politics is now of the old, by the old, for the old. Older voters are more likely to vote Brexit.
Their votes are most likely to rob young Brits of their right to EU citizenship – bestowed on all nationals of an EU member state – and with it the right to travel, work, live or retire without visas or permits anywhere in 28 countries inside the EU. This would bring about more intergenerational anger.
Conservative party politics
The second fracture is within the Conservative Party, the world’s oldest governing party in the democratic world with nearly three centuries of winning elections, adapting to change, and managing the country from a centre-right position.
In March 2013, just after David Cameron anounced he would hold a referendum the former prime minister, Sir John Major, said it “could heal many old sores and have a cleansing effect on politics.” Never was poor Sir John more wrong.
The accusation of lying, misleading the public, and deception that pro and anti-EU Tories hurl at each other makes the forthcoming Clinton-Trump exchanges look like a church picnic.
The prime minister was told he was demented by his predecessor as Tory Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith. The BBC and other TV stations have badly let down the pubic hunger for a mature fact-based debate by turning the referendum campaign into vicious blue-on-blue infighting.
Meanwhile, the Tory Party has indulged in an open civil war without precedent in its centuries of history.
No love lost for EU
The third fracture is Europe itself. The latest Pew Institute survey shows Europeans falling fast out of love with the European Union. Only 34% of the French now think the EU is a good thing. In other countries, similar dislike of the EU is now recorded.
The populist nationalists in power in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are winning elections by denouncing Europe. A man from a party with old Nazi roots in Austria came close to being elected president.
In France, Marine Le Pen put a picture of David Cameron up at her spring conference, as her top line demand is that France should hold a referendum on Europe.
One of the younger challengers for the centre-right nomination in France ahead of next spring’s presidential election is Bruno le Maire. He calls for a referendum. So does the hard-right Islamophobe populist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
If Brexit happens, the centrifugal forces in Europe will accelerate. The main demand of the pro-Brexit campaigners in Britain is for frontier controls on immigrants from Europe coming to Britain.
If a post-Brexit government legislates for visa for EU member states, there will be reciprocal retaliation and the four freedoms of movement for 1) capital; 2) goods; 3) services; 4) people that are the essentialist core of the EU will quickly unravel as protectionist barriers are raised.
EU in turmoil
Even if Brexit is narrowly avoided these fractures will still be there. The polls show a 50-50 split but David Cameron looks drawn and tired with more and more grey flecking his hair as he appears at meetings.
He knows that if Brexit happens he will be out of politics having lost this giant national vote of confidence which no-one asked for or needed except the anti-Europeans of UKIP.
If he does narrowly win, his party will move straight into a succession war as Cameron has announced he will stand down as prime minister and party leader before 2020.
With half the Tory MP and 80% of party activists opposed to the EU, Cameron’s successor is likely to try and keep the Brexit dream alive.
And if he does turn up at the first EU Council meeting at the end of June with his country still in Europe, Cameron will revert to the old normal of truculent semi-detachment from European affairs seeking to keep a clear distance between the UK and any over-due moves to shape a more integrated EU to deal with economic and immigration problems.
There is no happy EU nation right now. France is torn apart by social strife. Germany now has to think about life after Merkel, as she has lost her touch.
Southern Europe in the shape of Spain, Portugal and Greece are poorly governed and even in Italy, the popular Matteo Renzi is beginning to lose key elections.
Europe’s future as a united, coming-together group of nations has never looked more in doubt.