IT’S a mad world, my masters. As the country goes to Euro-hell in a handcart, it is bizarre for Britain’s political elite — on both sides — to be more obsessed with who should lead their party than with the future of the nation at this time of unprecedented crisis.
As Jeremy Corbyn put it: “The country will thank neither the benches in front of me or behind for indulging in internal factioning and manoeuvring at this time.” And yet, even as he spoke, his frontbenchers were quitting around him faster than he could replace them.
The Brexit vote has revealed a massive disconnection between our political class and the sizeable sector of the British public which is angry at political austerity, greedy bankers, and decades of globalisation; these elements have impoverished them economically, and alienated them psychologically by dismissing them as racist dinosaurs (although some are that). But it has also revealed something profound about the tensions between direct and representative democracy, which the UK, with its erratic resort to referendums, has not begun to grasp.
British voters are used to their votes’ not counting. Most live in safe seats. In our usual elections, only the votes of a handful of people in swing marginals really matter. That is why politicians normally concentrate their campaigning on a few key seats.
In a referendum, however, every vote counts. So an electorate, schooled in the notion of protest, cast its vote in judgement on the priorities of the elite. That is why more affluent metropolitan areas, which have weathered the economic crisis, had high Remain votes. But smaller towns — which had experienced job losses in traditional industries, zero-hours contracts, dying High Streets, closed nurseries, crowded doctors’ waiting rooms, and cuts to benefits and public services — voted Leave. “Take back control” was a slogan that they applied to their whole lives, not just the EU.
All this was clear from a post-poll phenomenon not usually witnessed at UK elections. After Brexit came Bregret, and even Bremorse. TV and radio stations interviewed ordinary Leave voters who were in an audible state of shock at the consequences of their own actions. Even old political hands, such as the former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie, admitted to “buyer’s remorse”. He said that he had experienced a surge of power as he voted Leave, but was now “fearful of what lies ahead”.
The Prime Minister was suave and sure in handling all this in the House of Commons, but he was demob happy. “You broke it; you fix it” seemed to be his departing sentiment. History will have a harsher verdict on his unforced error. The one word “Brexit” will blot out David Cameron’s premiership, even as Iraq does Tony Blair’s.
Mr Cameron is out of it. The politicians who remain, who are uncertain about how to deal with this grave new world, have turned back to what they know: leadership battles and the General Election that will follow them. True, both parties need leaders capable of succeeding at that election. But that is not enough. Both need leaders capable of reconnecting the alienated and the affluent in a project of common purpose. If they forget that, the madness will continue.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.