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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2016 > A national trauma

A national trauma

The EU referendum threw Britain into a bout of self-examination more painful than any other in recent memory

The European Union referendum was the most politically traumatic event in British public life since Iraq. And after the billboards, the battle busses, the slanging match of claim and counter-claim and the frenzy of political back-stabbing, we arrive at the question that stuck in the throat throughout the months of political selfabuse, and it is this—why was the referendum campaign so nasty?

The answer is that it zoomed in on some of the most sensitive zones of the British national psyche, and exploited them mercilessly for political ends. It dragged out into the light and forced us to confront a host of subjects from which the British under normal circumstances will instinctively run a mile, among them: our attitude towards foreigners; our willingness to co-operate with others; our sense of international self-importance and position in the hierarchy of nations. It was the freedom with which politicians bandied about questions of such immense importance, and their willingness to appeal to our irrational instincts, that lent the campaign a deeply unpleasant, almost neurotic edge.

The pro-Brexit campaign made the most intensive use of our national weaknesses. It had to—a great deal of political energy is required to shatter the status quo as they have done. David Cameron and the “Remain” side had the advantage of inertia, which meant they could present a more moderate message. It was curious to watch throughout the campaign as the “Leave” side writhed and complained about the spirit of the debate and the rudeness and underhand tactics of the “Remain” side. But really this was nonsense. It was they who were the more aggressive and they who, in looking to shift public opinion against the EU, made the most overt appeals to the less admirable parts of our national character.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Rachel Sylvester argues that the EU referendum has started a re-alignment of British politics while Roger Scruton and Jay Elwes say that it has thrown Britain into a bout of self-examination with the fundamental question of who we are as a nation at its centre. In addition, Peter Mandelson says without reform the EU could fall victim to a populist uprising. Also in this issue: Philip Ball explores quantum entanglement, George Magnus looks at the political situation in Brazil ahead of the Olympics and Adam Mars-Jones unpicks the work of Steven Spielberg. James Cusick looks at the impact of the Chilcot report and Kathy Lette explains what the world would be like if she was in charge.