The only thing worse than sore losers is sore winners. They have the victory, the field is theirs, but still they scream bitter abuse at the defeated.
The millions who know that Brexit will shrink their world have every right to be angry. The young who voted to remain because they wanted to learn, work and love where they choose, without facing restrictions on which university they could study at and which husband or wife they could bring home, have every right to be furious too. As for EU immigrants in Britain and British immigrants in the EU, it is fair to imagine them directing an emotion more intense than anger at the 17 million people who took the cold-blooded decision to risk their future happiness.
Yet, instead of seeing the losers’ anger, we are witnessing a novel and graceless phenomenon: victors’ rage.
Supporters of Brexit shout about “enemies of the people” and denounce “Remoaners” with all the venom of men and women who have lost rather than won the biggest political struggle of their lives. They demand their opponents pass loyalty tests, as if we were living in a dictatorship. They do not allow you to say the referendum result betrayed our country’s best interests. They instruct you to play the hypocrite and pretend to believe what you know to be untrue. Be warned. Refuse to go along with the political correctness of the right and you will feel “the people’s” wrath.
On its own, the Leave campaigners’ victory makes the rage on the right appear baffling. But the mystery does not end there. There is a faint but real possibility that a Greek or Italian eurozone crisis, or a second wave of refugees, will vindicate their desire to quit the union. Meanwhile, although the pound has fallen and real wages are shrinking, Remainers must admit events have disproved their apocalyptic forecasts of recessions and house-price crashes – for the time being at least.
Why in these circumstances are Leavers angry? What the hell do they have to be angry about? A part of the answer is that raging is all the poor dears can do. Across the west, the populist right is as much a countercultural movement as a political movement. Its supporters are closer to satirists than thinkers and doers with practical plans to change society. The right feasts on undoubted hypocrisies and evils in the liberal mainstream. It picks them apart and examines their ghoulish contradictions. Like its counterparts on the left, it then rapidly loses itself in the magic world of conspiracy theory. If you genuinely believe a sinister force has organised 97% of climate scientists to lie about global warming, or Brussels has bribed economists across the world to lie about the danger of Brexit, you are not just assuming mass mendacity at an astonishing level. You are also assuming “the establishment” is capable of the astonishing level of organisation required to persuade tens of thousands to lie.
Paradoxically, Leavers are the establishment’s greatest admirers. Unlike those of us who have seen Britain’s shambling state at work, they believe it is capable of anything. Naturally, they suspect “the establishment” is conspiring to overturn the referendum result. This is why their pious exclamations about respecting the will of “the people” never extend to granting “the people” the privilege of changing its mind. No matter how bad the condition of Britain becomes, they allowed us the one vote and that was that.
It is as if Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove persuaded the British to abandon a familiar route ahead and try their short cut to national greatness. The landscape becomes menacing. The supposedly open road turns out to be tight and tortuous. But as soon as the passengers begin to mutter about going back, the furious demagogues of the right bellow that not only can they not turn the car round, they cannot even stop for a vote on whether they should turn the car round. To ask for a sensible reappraisal is to fall into the trap of an establishment that is plotting to deceive us.
Even if they will not allow us second thoughts, Britain’s Weimar culture of stab-in-the-back theories will poison the wells for years hence. Treason and fear of the accusation of treason fill the mental universe of the right.
You should not forget that the referendum campaign had two Leave campaigns, which hated each other as much as they hated their opponents. The official Vote Leave campaign wanted nothing to do with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, who they regarded as racists. Farage dismissed the Tories at Vote Leave as cretins.
To outsiders, their hatreds looked like distinctions without differences. Although Daniel Hannan and other supposedly respectable Conservatives pretend they did not win by palming the race card from the bottom of the deck, it is a matter of record that Vote Leave began by promising a “positive” and “internationalist” vision and finished by aping Ukip and warning that 76 million Turks were about to land at Dover.
Those inside the toxic world of the right took notice of the frenzied accusations, however, and learned how easily treason charges can be directed inwards. It is said that Stalin killed his Bolshevik comrades because, after learning how to organise one revolution against the tsar, he feared they could organise another against him. Modern populists aren’t so different from old communists. They know there are two scenarios for Brexit. The first is a compromise to avoid the economy tumbling over a cliff. We already know Ukip and the Tory right will denounce as a sellout any transitional arrangement that involves Britain still obeying the European Court of Justice, still paying money to the EU and still accepting freedom of movement.
But, and this is as likely, suppose we go over the cliff. What will the right say to all those who lose their jobs and businesses? You can already guess it will blame the Germans and the French. We could have had a good deal, it will maintain as it pretends the world owes us a living, but wicked foreigners connived against us. The xenophobic fury will be cranked up so loud it will drown out an obvious question, which must haunt the Leavers even now: does not responsibility for a disaster lie with the men and women who have led us to disaster?
Why are the Leave campaigners so angry? Because they fear the demagogic rage and charlatan tricks they have used against others will one day be used against them.