Pop psychologists tell us that grief proceeds through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Have been blindsided by the stunning victory of Brexit on Thursday, members of the camp of the Remainders are now vibrating somewhere between anger and bargaining. This followed hard on a brief period of stunned denial that often expressed itself as gulping incredulity. As the psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple observed in City Journal,
For a long time, Britons who wanted their country to leave the European Union were regarded almost as mentally ill by those who wanted it to stay. The leavers didn’t have an opinion; they had a pathology. Since one doesn’t argue with pathology, it wasn’t necessary for the remainers to answer the leavers with more than sneers and derision.
Even after the vote, the attitude persists. Those who voted to leave are described as, ipso facto, small-minded, xenophobic, and fearful of the future. Those who voted to stay are described as, ipso facto, open-minded, cosmopolitan, and forward-looking.
At this point it is not clear exactly when the Brits will formally invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and officially begin the withdrawal negotiations. But Thursday’s vote made Britain’s congé in the most stinging and public manner.
As of this writing, early Sunday morning, the Remainders have yet to take that rebuke on board. They have, however, moved firmly from denial to white hot anger, as the movement to invalidate the referendum by holding a second referendum attests. As of last night, a petition demanding that Parliament force a new referendum had attracted some 2 million signatures.
The fatuousness of that effort is as patent as it is contemptible. Back in 2009, Barack Obama smugly observed that “elections have consequences.” Thursday’s vote was a non-binding referendum, not an election, but it most assuredly has consequences, as (for example) the immediate announcement by David Cameron, the prime minister, that he would soon be resigning demonstrates.
I expect that the Remainders will soon abandon the petition and move on to more circuitous, backroom maneuvers to subvert or nullify the will of the people. It is at that point, when the delayers and dispensers of red tape arrive with their megaphones, that we’ll know that the bargaining stage has been definitively reached. (I am no psychologist, but my observation is that most people, even if they do progress through the five stages described, do not entirely leave behind the earlier stages. There generally persists, I believe, a bit of denial and more than a bit of anger.)
Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, put his finger on one of the most extraordinary features of the Brexit phenomenon: that the vote turned out the way it did despite the Establishment’s mobilization of every resource at its command against it. “Never,” he wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal, “has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union.”
There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook.
And none of it worked. The opinion polls barely moved over the course of the campaign, and 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU. That slender majority was probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.
I’d say that 52% is closer to “decisive” than “slender,” but Nelson’s point is well taken. The Remainders threw everything they had into this campaign, but it availed them nothing. The British people don’t like what the commissars in Brussels have been doing to their country. What is euphemistically called “immigration” — really, it is a sort of invasion – was part of the story, but only a part. Remainders seized on immigration as the motivating issue because it was easy to weaponize and use it to castigate those who favored Brexit as troglodytic nativists and reactionaries.
The deeper issue, which was eloquently put forward by Boris Johnson, Dan Hannan, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, concerned sovereignty, which, as I observed in this space the other day, is just a fancy word for freedom.
Tocqueville long ago observed that the trick for democratic regimes was getting the right balance between the twin demands of freedom and security. The European Union is an ostentatious example of what happens when the demand for security submerges the demand for freedom. You get three things: an increasingly corrupt nomenklatura, an anesthetizing regulatory apparatus that stultifies economic initiative, and an alienated public that feels more and more disenfranchised from its own future.
As I noted yesterday, the Brexit vote was less an “anti-Europe” vote than a positive assertion of freedom. Indeed, it was by accentuating the positive, by underscoring Brtain’s native strengths and potential, that Brexiteers like Boris Johnson were able to give affirmative voice to the people’s disenchantment. The unease that many Brits felt under the regulatory yoke of the EU is felt by many other people, including many Americans.
As has been often pointed out, that unease helps to explain the success of Donald Trump. Would that Trump had a scintilla of the insight and affirmative spirit of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, Dan Hannan,Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage. Despite desperate howls to the contrary, the campaign these men waged triumphed not because of what they were repudiating but what they were saying Yes to. Sure, the campaign involved a No to officious interference by corrupt and unaccountable officials across the channel. But the main course was Yes: Yes to freedom, Yes to individual responsible, Yes to deciding for ourselves how we will govern ourselves.
There’s a moral here for politicians, and for political pundits. It’s unclear, however, whether many people are bothering to read the script.