By Richard Forbes.
The stomachs of viewers bottomed out with fear, shock, surprise or genuine excitement. The results for Sunderland (now anxiously worried for the fate of its Nissan plant) had just been announced, revealing a resounding win for the “Leave” camp. As the night went on, the shock and despair among the “Remain” camp started to grow and the trend became clearer. Britain had voted to leave the EU. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, some bitterly muttered to themselves. The polls, the experts, the prediction markets – none of them had predicted the surprise win.
Canadians, remembering the 1995 Quebec Sovereignty referendum, quickly took to social media to compare the emotional night with their own referendum experience –
But alas, Montréal didn’t get a vote this time. It wasn’t meant to be.
The Morning After, by authors, Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre, is a recent award-winning book that explores that very night and speculates what aftermath a “Oui” victory would have brought upon Canada. An insightful, deliciously political book, The Morning After is not a work of speculative fiction per se, but rather a series of conversations, or even, final confessions from major leaders involved in the referendum. Much of what could not have been said twenty years ago, being too explosive or painful then, has instead made itself onto the public record through this unique collection of interviews. The insights as presented paint a sad picture of two deeply divided camps, both avoiding a contingency plan as if it were high treason to either’s cause.
But in light of the recent EU referendum, with comparisons all too clear not to make, The Morning After seems more prophetic than speculative. The mad aftermath its authors describe somehow feels more real after the events that have transpired this week; more painful, more chaotic. After all, we don’t have to imagine a Brexit win. We’re witnessing it.
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The morning after the EU referendum began deceptively sunny. Prime Minister David Cameron departed towards Number Ten, his wife by his side. “Thank you very much,” he said with a touch of finality, the crowd now hollering at the tops of their lungs. Cameras clicking furiously. Did he need to resign, some wondered? Cameron had in fact suggested earlier in the campaign he would try to stay on as leader in the event of a ‘Leave’ victory but obviously had ultimately decided against that notion.
The luck for the gambling man had finally run out – and rather than inherit the mess Britain would face from Brexit, Cameron had resolved it seems, to pass it off to those responsible.
Rarely has the resignation of a prime minister in Britain received so little attention, but that morning, bigger stories were afoot. Cameron was simply another statistic that morning in a sea of political causalities; watching in horror as the madness unfolded, Britons found themselves dumbstruck – some in denial or shock, others in regret – a national case of buyer’s remorse was emerging.
The “Leave” camp had campaigned on the slogan of “Take Back Control -” but in less than twenty four hours after voting “Leave,” nobody at all seemed to be in control: Britain was leaderless, flirting with self-destruction, its currency plummeting, its investors scrambling. Provinces and countries of the United Kingdom: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar had immediately signaled referendums to leave the UK were not off the table. Even in Australia, republicans were calling to drop Australia’s links to the British monarchy as a response to Brexit (no word yet on Canada’s republicans!)
The sterling had dropped six cents off its value instantly the night before as nervy traders watched the results from Sunderland pour in; the pound would eventually drop against the dollar to its lowest point in three decades. The day after, $2 trillion in market shares was wiped off the global market. Panicked investors, financial analysts and economists would spend the next few days speculating whether or not the economic fallout of the decision to leave the EU could force the British economy to sputter into a recession (Goldman Sachs says yes; S&P downgraded the UK’s credit rating.)
We cannot know whether some Quebeckers would share the Brexiters’ regret if they had voted ‘Yes’ too, but throughout The Morning After, one of the chief questions surrounding the referendum is whether or not a sovereigntist victory would have prompted a resignation like Cameron’s from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The answer from the “No” camp appears to be, rather repetitively (erm), “no.” Chrétien had no intention of stepping down that morning no matter the result, Hébert finds (although Chrétien was cagey about responding to the question), but that doesn’t mean that keeping his job wouldn’t have been a great challenge.
Chrétien was, after all, a Quebecker – a leader from a province that would no longer be in Canada. Brian Tobin noted non-Quebec ministers had even organized a meeting off-the-books, having commissioned their own private polls on the referendum to discuss their concerns surrounding the vote. The knives were out. While they hadn’t agreed to target Chrétien personally, there was a growing frustration with the Quebec ministers in key portfolios and how they had handled the Unity file. Cameron, it appears, decided to avoid the difficult position in his own party Chrétien would have been placed in after a loss. A fate that Official Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn now faces.
Corbyn, accused of standing idly by as the “Remain” side hemorrhaged support, has lost a critical non-confidence motion against him amongst his fellow Labour MPs. Over the past few days, whole scores of shadow cabinet ministers have resigned in protest of Corbyn’s leadership. But despite the gaping schism his presence is creating within the Labour party, Corbyn appears to have every intention of bullishly contesting a leadership challenge. The rumours surrounding Corbyn’s lackluster defense of the EU, however, have been particularly shocking: some insider reports have suggested Corbyn’s office routinely ignored “Remain” meetings and rejected campaign invitations, lest the great Corbyn be seen in public, side-by-side with the evil, Tory PM, to defend an institution his party’s members almost universally support. If one rumour is right, the “Remain” campaign even considered roping President Obama into trying talk some sense into the Labour leader!
It’s hard to find a comparison to the stupidity of Corbyn’s stubborn resistance from The Morning After – especially since Jean Charest, the PC Leader had valiantly fought for the federal government’s case in Quebec, despite poor communication between him and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). But there are a number of cases described in The Morning After where communication was especially poor between supposed allies, as it was between Cameron and Corbyn. The gold standard of such communication dysfunction was that of then Premier Jacques Parizeau and BQ leader Lucien Bouchard, who, as The Morning After finds, hardly ever spoke with one another during the campaign – neither trusting each others’ intentions and goals. Parizeau, favouring full sovereignty – perhaps even brooding over a unilateral declaration of independence after a “Oui” vote; Bouchard, favouring a close economic and political partnership between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Parizeau’s unused victory speech (delivered in English) – only recently made available -gives Canadians a rare look at how the premier would have welcomed the result…
But it was Bouchard’s vision, not Parizeau, that really connected with the majority of Quebeckers, bringing them into the “Oui” fold.
The problem was, the vision was also a fantasy. Ottawa had no intention of negotiating a half-measure, a close economic and political partnership – voices interviewed for the “No” camp suggests either a negotiated reversal of the referendum or a ‘quick divorce’ (as the EU seems to prefer) would have been the preferred response from Ottawa, rather than negotiating a settlement that built a friendly economic arrangement for Quebec without the cultural and constitutional baggage of Canadian federalism.
Like Ottawa, EU (through German Chancellor Angela Merkel) has said the UK can expect no special favours during negotiations. Sources, according to AFP, suggest the leaders of France and Germany had spoken on Sunday to coordinate their response – that response appears to involve going enthusiastically overboard in pressuring Britain to accept its own people’s decision as soon as possible.“The process for the UK to leave the EU must start as soon as possible,” French President François Hollande said on Tuesday, adding “I can’t imagine any British government would not respect the choice of its own people.”
(At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before Britons begin telling Europe to stop “telling them what to do – although it’s what we’ve told ourselves to do –“)
Nevertheless, it would be crass in so many ways to suggest Boris Johnson is Britain’s Lucien Bouchard – Bouchard deserves far more than that – but the similarities are significant.
Like Bouchard, Johnson was a divisive turncoat, revered by his supporters and demonized by his critics, who has pitched a ludicrous fairy-tale wherein an independent UK, remaining close European partners, skillfully renegotiates more favorable trade relations with a continent, who, forced by geographical happenstance, cow-tows to their demands. As that fantasy of a smooth ride has proven farcically wrong – amid fears of unemployment, inflation, stringent austerity measures and tax increases – those in the “Leave” camp have inherited their own fictions as failed expectations.
The quick pivoting has been so hard this week, Great Britain has nearly spun upside down.
Tabloids that only the day before had backed independence would spend the morning after telling its readers what a disaster the vote had been for them. Nigel Farage, who looked like he had been hit repeatedly in the face with a shovel on live breakfast television, would hastily admit the “Leave” campaign’s promise of £350M in savings for Britain’s health care had been a “mistake.” Not to be outdone, Boris Johnson would backpedal desperately, noting to readers of the Telegraph the referendum’s result was “not entirely overwhelming” (echoing the Clarity Act‘s ‘clear majority’…). Indeed, Johnson, despite being the most visible leader of the “Leave” campaign has shown no apparent interest in triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to set the United Kingdom’s departure in motion – and nor has the prime minister, for that matter.
The Morning After suggests you could have expected quite a lot of pivoting on Halloween twenty years ago – Parizeau, far more prepared than the boorish UKIP, had boatloads of studies conducted (that sat on his bookshelf even) gauging how best to insulate an independent Quebec’s economy from any fallout if he were to pursue a full separation. But Bouchard could have been expected to attempt to cool Parizeau’s rhetoric and prevent the diplomacy from falling out. Likewise, Ottawa would have predictably contested the results, the ballot question and the legitimacy of the referendum – drawing out the negotiations until a compromise not involving separation or independence could be found. Others closest to Chrétien – who is still clearly uncomfortable with revealing his hand -suggests that he, terribly worried about a loss, was prepared to establish a “Unity Cabinet” to challenge the national aftermath of a sovereigntist victory.
Perhaps unintentionally, the authors of The Morning After, in weaving the contradictory confessions of those involved into something resembling a narrative of events, have not only written an account of a referendum that never happened, but have also blessed us with a textbook for the politics of a “Yes” vote. The hard lessons learnt from that sovereigntist project, dead on arrival as it was, has proven instructive in the case of Brexit. Despite being an ocean apart, the same patterns and machinations have appeared: leaders facing enormous pressure to step down, big coalitions bringing disparate, warring forces together, the legitimacy of the referendum contested, national unity deeply fractured, a public frustrated with having been presented a bait and switch – now facing tougher economic and political consequences than were sold to them.
The British people as this week continues are quickly running out of people to blame for the omnishambles their decision has made of their economy, their foreign policy, their parliament and ultimately, their country. At some point, it may have to face the terrible truth, after (rightly) burning Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and others at the stake, that the whole of Britain’s elites, experts and politicians may have had a point about independence after all. It’s not too late for a policy reversal, there are windows of opportunity – a general election, upcoming leadership conventions, perhaps even a royal intervention. Expect to hear a lot of, “sometimes a leader must make unpopular decisions.”
Regret, as silly as it seems, may prove to hold a powerful influence in shaping the direction Britain takes – that is, if it ever really decides on something.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘does one do exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, some writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.
Follow him on Twitter at @richardjforbes.