It is too late to be angry at Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage for their mendacious and malignant Brexit campaign, and likewise at our fellow citizens for swallowing it whole to vote however narrowly to Leave.
It is too late to be angry at David Cameron, for his arrogance and weakness in calling a referendum for which there was no need, and for not heeding the warning shot of the Scottish independence referendum, that 50% plus 1 vote would be insufficient mandate for major disruptive change.
It is too late to be angry at Ed Miliband for failing to see the existential threat to the Labour Party posed by the SNP in Scotland and by Ukip in the north of England and in Wales, and for creating a Labour Party which could be easily suborned by a left-wing anti-parliamentary conspiracy.
It is too late to be angry at the posturing of Nicola Sturgeon and her refusal to accept the results of successive referendums, and instead pretending to be the president of an independent country rather than the head of a regional assembly. And again too late to be angry at David Cameron for allowing the myth to persist that Scotland’s votes would be somehow different, when of course there was no caveat on 2014’s ballot paper: it did not say “except in the case of foreign policy.”
It is too late to be angry at referendums themselves, and the way in which they undermine and subvert representative democracy, which is why they are as Attlee said “the referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues.”
It may indeed be time to be fearful.
We should be fearful that just as the civic life of Scotland was divided and coarsened by the independence referendum, the same has happened on a larger and national scale in the UK. “The United Kingdom is not less united” said Boris on the morning of 24th June: he must have been the only one in the country who thought that, if indeed he did himself.
We should be fearful that the same beasts that the independence referendum unleashed in Scotland are now undoubtedly at large in the rest of the UK: the finger-pointing, the loathing and bitterness in families and workplaces. And even worse, the mobs on the streets, the attacks and verbal abuse of “others” now extended to ethnic and national minorities. In 2014 I was told by Scottish Nationalists to “fuck off home to England”; now the equivalent and much worse is going on in the streets of English towns and cities.
We should be fearful of the danger that the binary partisan politics of a post-referendum society do not become combined with these forces into a kind of Manichean populism with referendums being refought as street battles. If anyone thinks this is far-fetched, they might try reading pp378-9 of Damien McBride’s Power Trip memoir, which describes wholly realistic fears of the breakdown of social order during the banking crisis of 2008, which shows the fragility of stability.
We should therefore also be fearful of the current existential threat to the Labour Party as the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party was created to take the fight for equality and social justice off the streets and into Parliament: it is now the manifesto of the Momentum movement surrounding Jeremy Corbyn that extra-parliamentary forces in the party are more important in every way than MPs. To them, the internal votes of 200,000 or so members (some of short standing) trump the 9,000,000 General Election voters of the PLP: in other words, democratic centralism, the system of Lenin. We already knew that the Shadow Chancellor believed that the Labour Party was a “disposable tactic”, but in recent days it is also reported that Jeremy Corbyn and his coterie would regard the destruction of the Labour Party as mere “collateral damage” if furthered their cause of creating a social uprising against capitalism.
Again, Lenin famously suggested that Bolsheviks should support the Labour Party “as the rope supports the hanged man.” We should be fearful that a faction entertaining these ideas should be surrounding the leader of the UK’s main opposition party.
We should be fearful for public order, and for the political order based on representative parliamentary democracy, not least because if Labour becomes an extra-parliamentary movement, the Tory government will govern effectively unopposed by the mainstream. Indeed, the fringe, in form of the SNP, is already claiming to be the real opposition.
We should be fearful for the UK. The SNP is putting up a wholly mendacious case, based on a simplistic view that “good Scotland voted Remain/bad England voted Leave” and pretending that it can act as a separate country in negotiations with the EU. However, neither Labour nor the Tories rammed home the point before the referendum that it was an all-UK vote, and that the border meant as little as that between Woking (Remain) and Surrey Heath (Leave). As a result there is a fallacious but persistent belief that two countries voted differently: the first post-independence referendum test of UK unity has been faced and lost.
So if it is too late to be angry, and we are justifiably fearful, what do we do?
We must take courage: history only happens by accident when the emotional spasm of anger distorts judgements or fear freezes people to inaction.
In Scotland, we need all of the non-independence parties to have the courage challenge the myth of a binary Britain in which all Scots are virtuous Europeans while all across the Border is populated by Nigel Farage clones. We also need to remind the First Minister that she is going to need to co-operate with the UK Government (which is Scotland’s too) to secure the best deal possible from Europe.
All of those parties must also have the courage to be clear that the conditions for independence are since last Thursday no better than they were in 2014, and in fact are worse: collapsed oil price, worse deficit, etc. And that even if fiscal transfers from the rest of the UK (including Barnett but also taking in informal transfers like non-devolved benefits and pensions) are reduced, they will still be better than none at all.
In the Labour Party, we need the courage to take on the Corbyn Momentum conspiracy against parliamentary democracy and Labour’s role in it, and to face it down and drive it out in the same way that Neil Kinnock dealt with Militant in the 1980s. Then, it was demonstrated how taking a stand can change the course of seemingly unstoppable decline, as it had been in the 1930s when Ernie Bevin gutted the pacifist George Lansbury.
In Westminster, politicians who have supported the ideals and principles of Europe all their days must now show courage and to contest Brexit in the House and justify that positon outside. This will mean facing many people who voted Leave in the referendum, and confronting them with the main principle underlying the role of parliament: its own primacy over ochlocracy (government by the crowd or mob).
And in the logical outcome of this position of Brexit being rejected by Parliament, MPs should again have the courage to submit themselves to an early General Election, on the single issue of EU membership. (This could be encoded in a coupon arrangement, similar to Lloyd George’s in the election of 1918.)
All future governments should also have the courage to address the issue of how politics works, in order to prevent the alienation and dislocation felt by many to be the root of the Brexit vote. They must have courage to ask themselves: does our system allow all voices to be heard equally? Are the rewards of work and prosperity distributed in an inclusive manner? Is our voting system fit for purpose?
As individuals we must also be of courage. We need to confront the politics of division and prejudice in our own lives, our communities and workplaces: we need to believe in our values and in the basic common humanity of our neighbours at all levels, and to have the courage to act on them.
If we do not do so, we might end up needing a lot more courage than most of us actually possess. Things are that serious.