LONDON — The irony was lost on everyone attending the Brexit party last night at London’s Carlton Club, billed as the city’s “leading Conservative Club.” After cocktails in the Thatcher Drawing Room and a sumptuous dinner in the Churchill Room, dozens of nattily clad members and guests squeezed into the Morning Room on the first floor to watch the results roll in on television.
The Carlton Club wasn’t always in its current location. The original club was destroyed by German bombers in the Blitz in 1940. In 1990, the Irish Republican Army bombed the current spot, injuring 20, one of whom was a British Lord who died as a result some months later.
Yet there we were, a mix of Remain and Leave supporters, together witnessing the possible — some might say probable — end of the united Europe project, an idea borne out of the desire to never again experience the hatred, destruction and carnage of World War II. It was Winston Churchill himself, the greatest of contemporary Conservative prime ministers, who called for the “United States of Europe” in 1946. I wonder what he would have said if he had been at the Carlton Club last night.
We are living in an extraordinary historical moment, one that should be of concern to us all. Populism is back and in a profoundly troubling way. The zeitgeist all over the West has become viscerally anti-establishment. The current political divide is not on the left-right economic continuum; rather, it pits everyday working people vs. elites and insiders.
Regular people are fed up with what they perceive as a state that doesn’t work for them, an economic system that doesn’t work for them, too much immigration, the over-bureaucratization of society and a loss of national identity. And the political class has failed spectacularly to pick up on these undercurrents, which are now out in the open for all to see. In fact, some political leaders are irresponsibly stoking these divisions, playing up xenophobia, racism or worse. This sentiment has fuelled Donald Trump and these elements were too present in the Brexit narrative.
As the night went on and the geographic breakdown of the results became known, it all made sense. A small majority of the British electorate — but a large majority of English people outside London, and the Welsh — voted to leave the EU. A pretty clean urban-rural split. It was clear the Remain camp was in trouble when you spoke to regular folks, who said they were voting to leave. Almost every Remain supporter I spoke with is involved in business or the financial sector.
Now, a two year process will be launched to extricate Britain from the EU, which will likely take less time given the EU’s demand that the departure be done with quickly. We have already seen some Scots demanding a second independence referendum, Marine Le Pen in France calling for a “Frexit” and the Northern Irish are questioning their belonging to the UK.
As you enter the Carlton Club, a large portrait of David Cameron hangs on a pillar beside the main staircase. As I left the club early yesterday morning, I wondered if that portrait would still be there by end of day.