Two and a half rather news-packed weeks after the British referendum, those innocent, educated middle-class souls who posted their considered decision to vote Leave on Facebook, thinking that this would elicit only friendly banter that was just a bit more interesting than usual, are still getting hysterical, loathing-loaded tirades from their so-called friends who voted Remain. This teaches us something about social media, those cynical exploitations of social alienation in a global society, that let people pretend they are still “in touch” with college friends who have made their lives on different continents. That works as long as they only exchange trivia; but, as soon as something as big as Brexit comes up, they realise they have grown apart, and that there will never be a substitute for a long Faceface session over the booze. Late night chats cement friendships; friendships that are kept alive only by a novel toy are doomed to shatter under stress. Some people still hand-write letters to people they care about, but a personal email will do. If the friend isn’t worth even that, they are effectively discarded and lost – at least until the next face-to-face meeting.
Obvious as this should always have been, it doesn’t account for the sheer abusive heat of the correspondence – if you can call it that – from angry Remainers still attempting to grab the lion’s share of an infinite space. For that we have to dig much deeper. And it doesn’t surprise me in the least, because I’ve seen it before.
In 1979 the default liberal middle-class position was broadly that James Callaghan’s government was a disaster, but that we needed a new Harold Wilson to redress the balance of power between Parliament and the unions in order to restore British civil society while we managed the country’s inevitable post-imperial collapse into insignificance. It was simply a matter of which songs we should sing while we waited for the fire to go out. To elect a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher – Monetarism! Water-cannon! – was just vile and unthinkable. She believed in a can-do self-reliance, in a devil-take-the-hindmost push for resurgent prosperity and pride and power, that directly threatened the smug and intellectually lazy who were doing just fine in the midst of spiraling debt and inflation. The point was that they considered themselves the enlightened voice of their generation, sneering comfortably at the thrifty jingoism of their parents. And when Thatcher won the election they felt that the national mood had turned against them, against their progressive, soft internationalist stance, against the future itself.
But, of course, they didn’t turn their anger on the working-class voters who had mostly effected this revolution, for it was then an article of faith that these were merely the misguided salt of the earth, let down and alienated by their union bosses (whereas now the working class, hurt by the undercutting of EU labourers, can be vilified as racist scum – how progressive!); instead they abused their middle-class peers who had finally swung it. There was no Facebook, indeed no internet in those days, so it was all in the pub, across the garden fence, and, then as now, in the Guardian. But it was the same rage, of the comfortably ignorant progressives unable to justify in defeat a stance they’d never had to think about, that we are seeing now.
In the years following the 1979 election there was a great deal of pain before Britain boomed again, and a lot of “I told you so” from the apostles of genteel decline. But there can surely be nobody now, unless keeping the company of flat-earthers, who argues that we would all have been better off if Thatcher had lost that election (or either of the subsequent two). The truth is that the alternative, of continued Labour government and recession turning to depression, would have been far, far worse.
And so it is now. The pain is already looking like it will be very short-lived – so the trolls might have to eat their words rather sooner – but the alternative was a Britain locked into a unifying European project intent on making rich nations poorer in order to keep poor nations poor but within the holy Eurozone, while weakening national parliaments and thereby blindly encouraging extremism. When we look at Europe 35 years from now, it will be either at a collection of prosperous sovereign nations that heeded our warning, or at an economic wasteland recovering from multiple revolutions. We are right to leave the EU, just as we were right to vote for Thatcher in 1979.
But, although Theresa May has long been braced for cheap and easy comparisons from the press were she to become PM, she is no Thatcher, and by that I certainly do not mean that she lacks Thatcher’s steel or command of purpose. Those she has in spades. But this is not 1979; she benefits from Thatcher’s legacy in that the meat-head Left, who have taken over the Labour leadership with still enduring support from major unions, are nowhere near a resurgence to their position of 40 years ago. Most Labour MPs are desperately looking for ways to save their party and their jobs, while the half a million – tops- who actually support the stance of the bumbling idiot they currently have as Labour leader will shortly disappear into fragmented little agit-prop cells, ignored by all, just as they did through the late ‘8Os.
No, Theresa’s task is not to confront and divide and win, but to unify her party and her country and effect a civilised and beneficial withdrawal from the EU. She is no enthusiast for that institution, or for Britain’s involvement in it. As Home Secretary she was hampered a-plenty by the creeping effect of the primacy of EU over UK law, and will rejoice in its reversal. She was a “reluctant Remainer” because her office demanded support of a fragile government that needed continuity, especially in security, in difficult times; and if there was an element of calculation in that, of positioning herself as the unifying successor to David Cameron, I applaud her for it. We need a clever, experienced politician to get us out of the EU in good order and keep Labour stumbling on its back foot. And now that the party of government is breathing a sigh of relief at an end to its vicious divisions, and unifying behind her, perhaps all those Facebook grand-standers can shut up as well.