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LONDON DISPATCH: Troubling populism leads to win for Brexit

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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.

A stroll through Stoke Park

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Needing a break from the Brexit action, my friend Edwina was kind enough to take me golfing Sunday at her home course, Stoke Park, in Buckinghamshire. Now, Stoke Park isn’t any old golf course. Look at the clubhouse below. It’s a spectacular building. Do you recognize it?

Of course you do:

That’s right. It’s the course featured in my favourite Bond movie, Goldfinger. Below is a plaque that greets players on the 17th tee:

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And here is a majestic country manor along one of the holes:

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Stoke Park is a beautiful English parkland course, with some really challenging holes, especially on the second 9. (There are three in total). We played on a Sunday, and in that terrific English tradition there were families with babies in strollers and others walking around at the same time as the golfers, as in a park. And they make a mean Pimms and lemonade for an after-round refreshment. A great experience.

Kellie Leitch op-ed postmortem

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In nearly 20 years of writing op-eds, I’ve never had a response quite like the one to the article I published earlier this week, entitled “A Clinton in Trump’s clothing“.

The article had two main points. The first is that Tory leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is disingenuous with her proposal to screen would-be immigrants with a “values test” because she doesn’t believe in it. In fact, despite her effort to ape the populist wave that carried Donald Trump to success in America, Kellie is actually more like Hillary Clinton — the type of politician who will say or do anything if they think it will be popular. The second point is that the policy isn’t even “conservative”. If anything, Leitch’s idea replicates the type of identity politics that the Left has championed over the past few decades. Her leadership campaign, successful or not, could cause serious damage to conservatism in Canada.

I heard from former Harper cabinet ministers, Conservative MPs, Senators, current and former Conservative and Liberal staffers, Conservative and Liberal party activists, and other friends and acquaintances — some of whom I had not been in touch with for a decade or more. The reactions were all positive — Thank you! Great job! Keep it up! — except for one negative (but predictable) tweet from Leitch’s campaign manager calling me a “Montreal Elite”, and an insult tweeted by someone who said I shouldn’t be able to pronounce on the issue because I’m a Muslim (I’m not, but even if I were, the guy was clearly a nutter).

To be clear: I am a non partisan. I am not a Conservative Party member, and not involved in the leadership race. But those who are need to realize that Kellie is — unfortunately — making a lot of headway with her phony populist scheme, and should be considered in the top tier of candidates, if not the front-runner. She might not be getting a lot of big-name support, but she is signing up a lot of people whose names you’ve never heard of — the people who actually show up to vote in a one-member, one-vote leadership contest.

Of course there is a legitimate point to be made about integration of new immigrants to Canada. That conversation should be had. But the way Kellie Leitch is going about it, by proposing a simplistic back-of-the-napkin approach to the issue, has to be called out for what it is: insincere, opportunistic and retrograde.