No mountains flattened, no elites toppled, but Brexit will still hurt


‘Now is the end! Perish the world!” In a hilarious 1961 sketch, the Beyond the Fringe team play a millenarian sect led to a mountain top by Peter Cook to await the end of the world. After protracted discussions about the precise form the apocalypse will take — “Will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?” “No, it will not be quite as mighty as that” — there is a long and expectant silence.

Nothing happens.

“Well, it’s not quite the conflagration I’d been banking on,” says Cook. “Never mind, lads. Same time tomorrow . . . we must get a winner one day.”

You might be forgiven for feeling that way about Brexit. This time seven days ago the papers were full of prophecies of the impending end of days. I myself said Britain was heading down “the stairway to hell”. And then . . . having fallen off a Lehman Brothers-style cliff on Friday, June 24, global financial markets spent last week rallying. This created the perfect opportunity for the referendum’s victors to consign “Project Fear” to the shredder of history. So Michael Gove was right to dismiss the experts after all.

The flaw with this argument is twofold. First, and most importantly, Brexit hasn’t happened. Nor is it imminent. It probably won’t happen for more than two years. Second, there is no evidence as yet to dismiss the predictions that the UK would suffer a recession if the electorate voted to leave the European Union. I still expect it to, as investment appears to have ground to a halt. The mountains of the earth are still standing. But that sucking noise you hear is the sound of financial services jobs leaving London.

The most that can be said is that the Brexit vote was not a “Lehman moment” for the world economy. But it was never likely to be, as the impact is primarily on the UK and it will partly be mitigated by the instantaneous 10% drop in the exchange rate. For every other central bank, Brexit provided ideal cover for yet more monetary easing — hence the global rally in equities and record-low bond yields.

Nor did the result portend a generalised “revolt against the elites” (a view fashionable with those hacks who belong to the elites but like to write as if they don’t). The only concrete consequence of the referendum so far is a Tory leadership contest that seems like a re- enactment of the Oxford student politics of my youth. On Thursday one former president of the Oxford Union debating society (Gove) knifed another (Boris Johnson), while a former Oxford Union treasurer (Nicky Morgan) decided to back Gove against a former union returning officer (Theresa May), who is married to a former union president.

As an Oxford graduate and friend of David Cameron and George Osborne — Brasenose and Magdalen, respectively — I did my best to avert their defeat, as I thought they deserved better after winning last year’s election. But now that the rest of us are where we are — or, rather, exactly where we were before — I can reveal the shocking truth about British politics: heads, Oxford wins; tails, all other universities lose. (Labour’s simultaneous self-immolation is only tangentially related to Brexit. History suggests it will continue until it finds an Oxford-educated leader.)

The “revolt against the elites” thesis has another flaw. According to Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll, voters belonging to the AB class were more likely to vote “remain” than “leave”, but the gap ( 57% to 43%) was much smaller than for C2 and DEs (36% to 64%). Homeowners split evenly. A more striking difference was educational, with those with a higher degree much more likely to vote “remain” (64% to 36%) and the least educated overwhelmingly favouring “leave”.

Yet the biggest division exposed by the referendum, as I have noted before, was between the generations. Not only were the elderly much more likely than the young to back Brexit; they were also much more likely to show up and vote. The most telling statistic of all is that only 36% of under-25s actually turned out on the day, compared with 81% of those aged between 55 and 64 and a remarkable 83% of those aged 65 and over.

As the journalist Tina Brown has pointed out, there was rampant pro-Brexit sentiment among older members of the British social elite in the run-up to the referendum. Old money and new money tend to mingle more than usual during the summer party season, as the old money needs the new money for tickets to Ascot and Wimbledon and the new money likes having the old money on the guest list. Excessive consumption of Pimm’s and warm champagne in plastic cups encourages all kinds of frivolity, especially when it’s pouring with rain; this year the frivolity took the form of Brexit.

And remember that the over-64s aren’t really that old. You need to be in your eighties to remember what a mess Europe was in 1945. The last survivor of the Somme died in 2005. He was 108. Small wonder that Cameron’s sombre warning about the Continent’s historic instability did not resonate.

So Brexit thus far is this generation’s Munich or Suez: a foreign policy crisis that splits the political elite and creates an opportunity for an ambitious politician to replace one who has gambled and lost.

Johnson would have loved nothing more than to be Winston Churchill in 1940, but he would also have settled for being Harold Macmillan in 1957. Instead he is the latest Michael Heseltine or Michael Portillo — the media favourite who didn’t drink enough tea with the backbenchers to win their trust and fatally underestimated the competition. Hats off to Machiavel Gove for a classic Oxonian knife in the back. His back is next.

As for the global ramifications of Brexit, I am beginning to disbelieve in the idea of a populist chain reaction. At this point it’s hard to see anyone else in Europe wanting to go down the UK route. Polls suggest that if a “Nexit” vote were held in Holland, it would be as tight as the UK vote 10 days ago. Precisely for that reason, the Dutch elite is united against such a referendum. It would be forced to hold one only if Brexit necessitated a change to the EU treaties.

Donald Trump? True, he lost no time in giving his blessing to Brexit, even if he made the mistake of doing so in Scotland. But I hear few members of the American elite talking him up the way their counterparts in London were talking up Brexit in recent months. Only one thing makes me hesitate to write Trump off and that is the news that the election expert Nate Silver gives him only a 20% chance of winning the presidency in November. Nate, I hate to ask, but back in January didn’t you give Trump only a 12% chance of winning the Republican nomination?

Trump can still win, despite a run of lousy polls, just as Brexit came from behind and won. The simple but strange reality is that, for reasons no political scientist can quite explain, most elections in our time are very close. (When was the last landslide anywhere?) Which brings us back to the Beyond the Fringe question: “Will this windbag be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?”

The answer, as with Brexit, will be: “No, it will not be quite as mighty as that.” But it will still suck.

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