Is there anything more dispiriting than the sight of our politicians bellowing impotently at one another, while all around them the world we have known crumbles into dust?
The unnecessary referendum has produced an unintended result, with all too predictable consequences; consequences which can be summarised as chaos without end. So how did we get to this?
The referendum campaign itself is like a condensed, magnified version of the processes whereby Britain turned from settled social democracy to snarling instability.
We know that Cameron called the referendum as a device to quash the irritation of the Eurohating right of his party. And why was he so certain that he would win? Because he ‘knows’ how to win.
Cameron was trained in the University of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the decade that destroyed our country. Margaret Thatcher did something daring and unusual in the 1970s on becoming leader of her party. She appointed an advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, to run the Tory election machine.
Before that time, political campaigning was left to politicians and party members on the ground. There were posters, and TV broadcasts, and press conferences, but such things were minor frills. Policies were decided by parties on the basis of what they believed, and what they believed possible, and then they went out and tried to convince voters that they were right.
The Saatchi brothers, and Thatcher’s particular guru, Tim Bell, had no patience for that approach. Their recipe was Attack and Tempt.
Attack your opponents with ruthless ferocity with the intent to destroy them. And use any means necessary, however irrelevant or dishonest. ‘Negative campaigning’ is nasty, and it is effective.
The Tempt bit is more subtle. Sometimes referred to these days as ‘retail politics’, it is essentially about finding something enough voters say they like, and then offering it to them, even if it is essentially irrelevant to the central aim of the party or campaign.
Back in 1979, the ad men found in their focus groups that one policy (actually a Labour policy in areas with a surplus of public housing) was unexpectedly popular with voters. Sale of council houses. Go big on this, said Don Draper. It worked, and he was knighted, enobled (well, Sir Tim and Lord Saatchi were).
Eventually Labour had to succumb to this method of doing politics, too. New Labour, a classic branding exercise masquerading as a political party, refined the methods of marketing, and trained a generation of politicians in their way of working.
And so politics went from principle and public service, to the dark art of selling selling any old crap in shiny packaging. Politics became a game, and that game was winning. Nothing else mattered. Not honesty, not integrity. Winning.
David Cameron knew that this worked. He also thought himself the master. Hadn’t he sold the lie that Labour “crashed the economy?” “Maxed out the credit card?” “Couldn’t be trusted with our money?”
He forgot one thing. It’s the narrative, stupid.
The Leave camp had a narrative already up and running. It wasn’t the one the official campaign originally wanted. The brains behind the campaign were neoliberals – total globalisers, capitalism-set -free ideologues. But their focus groups said voters didn’t buy that; indeed, it frightened them. The narrative that had traction was ‘immigration’, and ‘control’. The UKIP narrative, one given priceless free exposure for years thanks to Nigel Farage’s ubiquity on programmes such as Question Time. So, like Thatcher and her council house sales, Leave took UKIPs narrative off the shelf and used it to cruise to victory.
But is ‘victory’ the right word? Nigel Farage, this morning yelling abuse at elected politicians in the European Parliament, might think so. But it looks like the wrong result for Boris and Gove.
The official Leave campaign had what we might call a ‘minimum programme’ and a ‘maximum programme’. The max prog, or ultimate aspiration, was free markets around the world unhindered by nations, states, workers rights, or any other irritation standing in the way of capital. A hard sell.
But the minimum programme, of which the referendum campaign was a start, was to install a Tory leader and a party ascendancy more sympathetic to their ultimate goals. Boris, in this respect, is less mastermind than figurehead.
They were too good. Nothing could stop the runaway £350,000,000 bus. Not squeamishness, not xenophobia, not even political assassination.
The thirty five years of political cynicism and unashamed manipulation came crashing to a head, releasing, giving licence to, the expression of the venom and anger that representative democracy is supposed to contain and dissipate. Democracy, after all, is not dictatorship of the majority – it is a political culture which respects minority rights, and which enshrines the idea that no party has a right to rule in perpetuity.
A referendum, on the other hand, if held to be binding, is dictatorship of the majority. Authoritarian yearnings have been given expression, and they now have a voice and a means of organising.
So. Economic crisis on a bigger scale than 2008. Political violence on British streets. Hatred of minorities. Angry, disenfranchised people who think they have, at last, voted for something to be done. A perfect storm.
Cometh the hour, cometh the …what?
I couldn’t name a single political leader with the skills, understanding and reach to calm things, to soothe fears, to get a grip. Nor is there any party with the unity and purpose to rise to the task.
This is bad.