As Brexit plays out to what many of us have seen as its all but inevitable conclusion – delay and final abandonment – it is worth asking why the project has engaged such visceral emotions and been so definitively divisive. The answer surely is that it is about more than at first appears.
Remainers have majored on predictions of economic disaster. First Brexit itself, then a ‘hard’ Brexit, has been portrayed as ‘catastrophic’. But they were not talking about the economy. Behind the rhetoric the reality was a commitment to supra-nationalism, and the benefits it supposedly brings: peace in Europe after a century of disastrous wars; greater tolerance of minorities and integration of peoples; advantages of scale and co-operation. Remainers were not simply for the status quo of the last forty or fifty years: they had a vision for the future fuelled by the Enlightenment rejection of the past.
Leavers have been accused of an obsession with immigration and of an offensive xenophobia. But instead they were talking about democratic accountability and national integrity: the ability to identify with a country in which one takes pride and part. Leavers have an intrinsic distrust of the novel and the fabricated, and instead embrace the enduring and the organic. In short, they are for the Common Law rather than the Code Napoleon.
These differences – necessarily expressed in terms of a treaty relationship recently undertaken – are nevertheless fundamental. More even than the divisions of left and right, which have come to dominate modern politics, they are the real stuff of political strife. Small wonder that such passions have been aroused.
Small wonder, too, say Leavers, that the European project has been embraced by countries with a largely different experience of twentieth century history from our own.
Those of the twenty-seven which existed before 1945 had their modern identity forged in the crucible of that war – the Germans, after a short but eventful history as a single nation, by defeat and partition; the French by defeat, humiliation and collaboration; the Italians by defeat, subsequent invasion and civil war.
In truth we in the UK have little in common with those nations who have proved enthusiastic for the EU. Dean Acheson famously remarked in 1962 – one year before Britain first attempted to join the EEC – that Britain had “lost an empire, and failed to find a role”. The demise of Empire, however, was an event quite different from the political upheavals in mainland Europe. It left our institutions intact in a way that is not true of any of the constituent nations of the Union.
The truth, it seems, is that the ill-fated referendum was an encounter between the residual nationalism and patriotism of the English people, and those who have been educated to suppose that such sentiments are outmoded and destructive.
It was bound to be a fight to the death.