IN Japan, ritual suicide is known as hara-kiri. In Great Britain, the equivalent is a referendum.
On Wednesday, June 22, the United Kingdom stood confidently astride the Channel, with one foot in the British Isles and the other in the European Union. At 9am the morning after, the referendum called by Prime Minister David Cameron opened.
It asked 46.5 million of his British electorate (which had voted him in a year earlier) whether Britain should remain in the EU or opt out. It was suspected that the real reason for his decision was to pre-empt a coup within his own Conservative party.
It seemed as if they regarded the referendum as an opinion poll.
By 4pm, 33.5 million UK citizens (a 72pc turnout) had cast their ballots. By early Friday morning, just over 17.4 million Britons had decided the future of 65 million of their fellow citizens. They voted to leave the European Union.
Mr Cameron found himself quite literally out in the street. He stood in Downing Street, announcing his resignation. He had lost the job he had held for six years with ease and skill, forfeiting it in a single fool-hardy throw.
David Cameron was barely seven years old, not even in his teens, when in 1973 Great Britain gained admission into the European Union. Since then, over 43 years, Britain’s relationship with the EU has been less a marriage than an uneasy cohabitation: Britain being regarded by EU partners as fickle, abrasive and often arrogant, and in retaliation Britain viewing the other 27 EU countries — many smaller and insignificant by comparison — as hiding behind the petticoats of Germany and France.
Suddenly, dramatically, all that has changed. The Britain where a week ago one would be driven around by a Bulgarian in Penzance or for an interview with the BBC by a Lithuanian or served by a Polish waiter in Leeds is now ethnocentric. Xenophobia from being a British pastime has hardened into national policy.
Today’s Great Britain is determined to remain insular, even if that means shrinking into Little England, especially now that Scottish secession and Irish reunification have moved a notch closer to reality.
Astute face watchers detected a fleeting expression of incredulity on the face of Mrs Samantha Cameron as she watched her husband announce his resignation. What was the need for a referendum? she seemed to ask.
That is a question millions of Britons are asking themselves the morning after. It is a question only they can answer, for they have no government left to interrogate. They have only themselves to blame, and the blame game in the UK has begun in earnest.
The under-50s blame the over 50s for being limpets to the past. The educated blame the semi-literate for heeding populist slogans. The Labour party blames its leadership for a lacklustre, indecisive campaign. And everyone other than determined loyalists now blames David Cameron for making a serious miscalculation, the sort that clever lawyers are taught to avoid when asking a witness a leading question.
In hindsight, it seems unbelievable that a British government should not have been prepared for a ‘leave’ vote. Was it hubris, left over from the success of the Scottish referendum? Certainly, there was an air of complacency among the British public, perceptible among both camps — for or against.
It seemed as if they regarded the referendum as an opinion poll, designed to elicit their individual preference. No one — none of the warring party leaders, none amongst the divided public, none of the bureaucrats in Whitehall, not even it would seem the EU commissioner in Brussels (who has since resigned) — had prepared a checklist on the steps that would follow the invocation of Article 50 — the request for withdrawal from the EU. It is too late now.
Mr Cameron may want to wait until his successor is chosen at the Conservative Annual Conference in Blackpool in October. Two and half million Britons may sign a petition demanding a second referendum. But the Brexit juggernaut has begun its doleful journey, pulled by spurned members of the EU.
Germany would like Britain out sooner than later; France wants to see a British prime minister — any prime minister — take the first, inexorable step to give formal notice of withdrawal. All the 27 EU members are planning to meet in a few days to assess the implications individually and collectively on the EU. It is a wake they had not expected to attend, certainly not so precipitously.
Tradition requires Mr Cameron to tender his resignation to the Queen in private audience. It is not the 90th birthday present she expected from her 12th prime minister. With her sharp sense of history, she must feel like King Canute, seated on a throne of sand, watching the tides of secession erode her once united kingdom.
The writer is an art historian.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2016