Nick Cohen and Fraser Nelson discuss The Spectator’s decision to back Brexit:
We British flatter ourselves that common sense is a national personality trait. Giddy Europeans may follow the abstract notions of dangerous leaders, but we could not be more different. We are a practical, moderate breed — if we do say so ourselves — who act according to the evidence, not fantastical theories.
Let me see how this dear delusion is bearing up. It feels as if the Leave campaign will win the EU referendum. But even if Leave loses, it seems certain that it will perform so well as to produce an existential crisis in both our main parties. Our fabled common sense should also tell us that the British economy could have a crisis of its own. We do not need to lose ourselves in arguments about statistics to understand that the likely consequence of exiting the richest single market in the world is that foreign investors will look elsewhere and domestic firms will think of relocating.
Yet millions of Britons believe Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove when they say that all the national and international bodies warning of spending cuts, tax rises, job losses and inflation are not just wrongheaded, but full of corrupt liars bought off with EU gold. Think about what the invective says about those who would determine our future. Even right-wing journalists were alarmed when they heard Vote Leave smear the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a ‘paid-up propaganda arm’ of the EU. They did not have the sense to follow up and ask what right-wing conspiracy theory said about the veracity of the conspiracy theorists.
Our common sense also ought to tell us that ‘there is no magic money tree’. Sensible conservatives have told us so often enough in the past. Yet now, all of a sudden, one of the greatest miracles in natural history has occurred: a magic money tree has appeared from nowhere. If we only vote to leave, its beneficence will ensure that we have tens of billions of pounds to spend on the health service, school buildings, school places, scientific resensible to see a smash-up coming.
There’s another crucial question that cannot be dodged. How can an alliance of Nigel Farage and George Galloway, of Boris Johnson’s opportunism and Michael Gove’s fanaticism, endear itself to millions of allegedly commonsensical Britons?
If the Remain campaign lose, or just squeak home, the press will be full of articles denouncing the feebleness of Jeremy Corbyn and the blunders of David Cameron. In truth, their failings are as nothing when compared with the structural shifts across the West since the 1960s. The old divisions between capital and labour are less able to explain political behaviour with every passing generation. The new divisions are cultural. Labour has already been wiped out in Scotland, where social democracy was no match for nationalism. Whatever the result of the EU referendum, it faces a rebellion in its heartlands from voters who do not believe in universal human rights, internationalism and immigration but in a Britain for the British.
Nearly identical divisions between nationalists and, in this instance, market liberals on the right will tear apart the Tory party. You only have to look at the success of Donald Trump to wonder which side will win. If politics reflected society, we would have a PC left-wing party, a little England right-wing party and a new centre party trying to hold its ground against all comers.
I myself have many problems with liberal culture and its arrant double standards, and appreciate the democratic case for leaving a decaying EU. But I would not vote for our new nationalists. I know hucksters when I see them. When he argued in favour of a representative parliament, Burke warned of the dangers of politicians becoming ‘bidders at an auction of popularity… Flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.’ He forgot to add that the worst fate that could befall political flatterers is to win.
If Brexit triumphs and — contrary to its proponents’ assurances — jobs go, workers’ rights disappear and living standards fall, if our enemies everywhere make their delight clear that Britain has turned its back on the world, if all the promises of a magic money tree turn out to be as fraudulent now as they ever were, right-wing populists will learn what true populist anger looks like. Brexit voters won’t blame themselves. Voters never do. They will blame the politicians and pundits who made them look like fools. Common sense will turn into communal rage as those who have accused everyone else of lying will be revealed as the greatest liars of all.
Will Britain vote to leave the EU? Can the Tories survive the aftermath? Join James Forsyth, Isabel Hardman and Fraser Nelson to discuss at a subscriber-only event at the Royal Institution, Mayfair, on Monday 20 June. Tickets are on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here to join us, from just £1 a week.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10