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With Cormac McCarthy’s flair for stylised violence, a Conservative MP told The Sunday Times that he longs to stab prime minister David Cameron in the front, savour his expression, rotate the blade and then withdraw it for subsequent use on George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer. This is presently the saner of Britain’s two great political parties.
Like a Twitter troll with an egg for a profile picture, the parliamentarian’s swagger did not extend to identifying himself. Other Tories pour their pestilence in open view. Andrew Bridgen MP says his leader is “finished” after campaigning too brusquely to keep Britain in the EU. Nadine Dorries, with the gravitas of someone who defied her party whip to enter a reality television show only to get voted off after 10 days, is unmoved by Mr Cameron’s democratic mandate. Anything shy of a 60-40 win in next month’s referendum should, she says, end a premiership that voters renewed only last year.
Britain is not where history happens any more but our two flirtations with secession — Scotland’s from the UK, the UK’s from the EU — pique the curiosity of outsiders. They must look at the intra-Tory venom and assume its seepage into wider society. If Scots were lastingly politicised, and riven, by their referendum, Britons as a whole might be too. The stakes are as large, the facts as contested, the principals on each side as seethingly at odds as they were in Scotland in 2014.
And still we demur. The notable feature of this referendum is its lack of notoriety. With three weeks to go, pubs are not blazing with anticipation or rancour. Friends and relatives are not falling out. Campaign events are unmarred by anything darker than cheeky heckles. On the morning of May 30, only one referendum-related story made the 10 most-read on the BBC news website, and that was trumped by a crocodile attack in Queensland, Australia.
This is not indifference, as such. Most voters, according to a recent survey by Opinium, rate the referendum above a general election in importance. But they know the matter is theirs to settle. Virulent emotion makes no sense to them before June 23 or, I suspect, after, regardless of the result. They will decide and move on, even if their governing party cannot.
A certain kind of educated Englishman used to judge compatriots by which side they would have taken at Marston Moor, a patch of Yorkshire where parliamentarians defeated royalists in the English civil war. Nations have these moments, when identities are defined and faultlines etched to last. Ireland’s violent disagreement with itself over the Free State Treaty in 1922 was one: the belligerents spawned political parties that still dominate. Scotland’s bloodless but testy referendum was another. Thatcherism, more a process than an event, retains some of the same capacity to energise and embitter.
On this emotional scale, Europe fails to score. The country cannot be enduringly divided by a vote that most people could have lived without in the first place. This is why Leavers, in the event of defeat, will have to abandon their recourse of a second referendum. Even if they could corral a parliamentary majority for it — not a cinch, as most Tories just want this damned question out of the way — voters would need a very good reason to go through the rigmarole again within a decade or two. Britain is not Scotland and Euroscepticism is not nationalism. There is hardly sufficient zeal out there to keep this campaign going. There will not be enough for a re-run.
If Mr Cameron legislated to gift Leavers a five percentage-point top-up on whatever vote share they achieve next month, they would deplore his refusal to make it 10. The hatred some Tories feel for the only winner they have had for a generation, and the giver of their coveted referendum, beggars logic. But it is his burden. Yes, the wreckers need only number a dozen or so to disrupt the governance of the country. But similar toxins coursed through the last Tory administration in the 1990s, and Britain enjoyed a goldilocks economy regardless. Nations can succeed despite their politics. The Tories’ distemper is no verdict on this land of bottomless sanity. It is not our problem. Our equilibrium will hold.
In his dotage, Mr Cameron may remember this referendum as the beginning of the end of a premiership that should have lasted quite a bit longer. The rest of us will remember it as the time when, obeying GK Chesterton, “a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale”. That is, if we remember it at all.