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Sold for a mess of pottage

01 July 2016

Shock waves: The Times reports on the Prime Minister’s resignation announcement, on Saturday

Shock waves: The Times reports on the Prime Minister’s resignation announcement, on Saturday

I AM finding it quite hard to write this. There is a kind of eviscerating grief, like a divorce, in watching helplessly the folly and selfishness of my country.

One piece, by Philip Collins, in The Times on the morning of the disaster, can stand for all the rest: “I have bad news for the Hannans and Goves and Johnsons of this world. This is not your victory. You are free riders on the back of Mr Farage.

“You have smuggled through your sixth-form reading-list politics on the back of Mr Farage’s stoking up of immigration fears. I hope you are proud of yourself and I hope, though I do not expect, that you are ready for what is coming. You have made a promise, whether you realise it or not, to bring down immigration. Even if you find, as you will, that employers rebel because they need the labour, you have promised. You have condemned yourself to leading a government for whom the number of foreigners in the country is the primary issue.

“You will then find, of course, that when the white working class says ‘immigration’ it means something more than the presence of Polish plumbers and Romanian fruit pickers. It means that life is hard, that employment prospects are bleak and that work is either unavailable or of really low quality. It is beyond laughable that the exit fantasists have the first idea what to do about this. Frankly most of them have never shown the slightest concern about that before. Well, it’s their problem now.”

The only thing to add to Collins is that when the white working-class say “immigration”, they mean, as he says, all the economic and social horrors of their lives, but they do also mean that they hate foreigners and want them to leave. We’ll see a lot of that in the months and years to come.

But there is a bleak comfort in contemplating the crimes and follies of the enemy which we should deny ourselves because we have not deserved it. In my own trade, the liberal or remaining press did not lie deliberately and by commission as the Brexit papers did. But we failed on a tremendous scale to understand and to bring home to our comfortable readers the scale of the rage and despair outside London.

SOMETHING of the same might be said of the clergy of the Church of England. It goes without saying that the disaffected post-working-class don’t go to church, but the Church should be trying to go them from time to time. If the bishops in the House of Lords had listened to their clergy’s communities, they might have been less shocked by the result than they were — or I was.

Nor, I think, did the Left think clearly about what Scott Atran calls “sacred values”, meaning those that should never be sold for a mess of pottage. In the fraught and often antagonistic relations between the divided parts of England, the metropolitan side sneered at the Union flag but did not recognise that its own attachment to things such as equal marriage was just as symbolic and just as little available to be traded away for gross material advantage.

Dominic Lawson, in his Mail on Sunday column, wrote that the dividing fissure in the Conservative Party opened when David Cameron committed himself to gay marriage. Although this sounds ludicrous, I’m not sure that it was. The right thing to offer the people who hated gay marriage was not material advantage, such as winning elections, but a surrender on some other matter that they themselves held sacred. But, even with the wisdom of hindsight, I have no idea what that could have been.

The independence referendum in Scotland (perhaps I should write “the first independence referendum in Scotland”) was won because the Union side was unmistakably patriotic, despite the best efforts of the Nationalists to paint them as traitors.

The Remain side here looked as if they hated great swaths of England. They probably do, just as great swaths of England hate them, or us, or me, as it feels today. These are emotions not confined to either side, but which feed, like fires, on each other’s heat.

I have racked my brains for a joke appropriate to the situation, but the best I can come up with is the reflection that there is no politician in England today with the devious political skills and grasp of strategy to lead the country out of this mess — unless Justin Welby could be persuaded to stand. People will say he’s disqualified, but that isn’t really true. If you check the record, you’ll find that he did go to Eton.

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