A British Tragedy in One Act

OXFORD – Thursday night is said to have been momentous for those who campaigned to leave the European Union and turn Britain’s back on the twenty-first century. On that, at least, I can agree. As Cicero wrote: “O wretched and unhappy was that day.”

The decision to leave the EU will dominate British national life for the next decade, if not longer. One can argue about the precise scale of the economic shock – short- and long-term – but it is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which the United Kingdom does not become poorer and less significant in the world. Many of those who were encouraged to vote allegedly for their “independence” will find that, far from gaining freedom, they have lost their job.

So, why did it happen?

First, a referendum reduces complexity to absurd simplicity. The tangle of international cooperation and shared sovereignty represented by Britain’s membership of the EU was traduced into a series of mendacious claims and promises. The British people were told there would be no economic price to pay for leaving, and no losses for all those sectors of its society that have benefited from Europe. Voters were promised an advantageous trade deal with Europe (Britain’s biggest market), lower immigration, and more money for the National Health Service and other cherished public goods and services. Above all, Britain, it was said, would regain its “mojo,” the creative vitality needed to take the world by storm.