Why did the UK population vote in the referendum to leave the European Union?
Chris Finlayson suggests that neither the British people nor their political administrations ever bought into the great ideal that was the European Union. Instead, he suggests, it was reduced to a mere trading arrangement full of arguments like the one featuring in the satirical TV series Yes, Prime Minister about the Euro sausage. “It all seemed to be very pedestrian,” he adds.
“You know what they say about the French?” AC Grayling responds. “They say ‘It works in practice, but does it work in theory?’ Well of course it’s the other way round in England. What people there tend to say is ‘If it’s a good thing, and it’s kind of working, don’t mention it.’ If you’re against it, however, then you’re going to be vocal about it.”
In the face of constant and persistent hostility from the Eurosceptic right in the UK the pragmatists had, according to Grayling, always thought, “Let’s not wake up any sleeping dogs, let’s just let the thing work itself out, and take its course.” And rather than talking about great ideals, just keep reminding people if they do need reminding of some of the practical advantages: easier trade, travel and so on.
And so the conversation did not dwell on progress and cooperation. The remarkable achievement of healing the divisions of the Second World War, and rebuilding Europe as a place of peace was not celebrated sufficiently, or really even marked.
By contrast, relentlessly, he says, the far right wing of the Conservative Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party, together with the tabloids which supported them just kept on pushing out a relentless stream of hostility, misinformation and distortion about the European project: “They created an impression of an atmosphere, and environment which somehow or other we were not completely signed up to.”
Indeed, in order to shut up the far right of his party, David Cameron offered them the promise of a referendum. But it was not, Grayling says, a promise he was expecting to be held to. “This was during the time that he was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats after 2010, and he didn’t expect to win the election in 2015.”
“In the event, he won a majority, much to his surprise. A little bit like the dog that chases after a car, and catches it. And then he has the problem of ‘What do I do now?’ And so he committed himself to a referendum,” says Grayling, with a result that he had never anticipated and which he had campaigned against.
Grayling thinks that these developments would have been inconceivable from an earlier generation of politicians – Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, and those of their era – who had actually lived through the Second World War. “They saw the great value in uniting with our European friends and neighbours. And that sense of history has been lost.”
What’s not been lost, he argues, “is some vague dream of what people learned about Henry VIII and the Raj, when they were at private school.” And the results have been the messy situation we find ourselves in today.
Chris Finlayson counters that it’s not just the right which has conducted this campaign against the EU for generations. “It’s been across the political divide.” He mentions from the left the Michael Foots, the Tony Benns and others who have, he says, been pretty relentless in their opposition. “And Mr Corbyn was nowhere to be seen during the referendum and was equivocal at best.”
On that issue, Grayling agrees, adding “The Corbyn office and the Parliamentary Labour Party are two different planets.”
About the author
Anthony “AC” Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities, a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, and a “a natural educator,” according to The Spectator.
He has written and edited over 30 books on philosophy and other subjects, including Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggle for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West, Liberty in the Age of Terror, The God Argument and The Age of Genius.
He has been a regular contributor to print and online media, including The Times, The Guardian, Economist and New Statesman, and appears frequently on radio and TV.
His most recent book Democracy and its Crisis looks at the advent of authoritarian leaders and the simultaneous rise of populism, prompted by the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the United States.
This audio was recorded in partnership with 2018 NZ Festival Writers and Readers at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. The next festival is scheduled for March 2020.