PREVIOUSLY ON BRITISH POLITICS: David Cameron promised a Referendum to buy time with his Eurosceptic backbenchers and to take the wind out of UKIP's sails. He thought he'd be in Coalition with the Lib Dems and they would block it. He also thought he'd easily win. But he ran a negative, patrician, but honest campaign and didn't bank on his opponents lying and fanning the flames of vicious racism. His opponents, on the other hand, did not expect to win. Neither side prepared for this result and no one is doing anything.
So what are we going to do now?
There are so many problems. The Referendum has revealed - and exacerbated - some deep faultlines in our country: between the old and the young, between graduates and non-graduates, between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural, between Scotland and England, between London and the regions, between racists and anti-racists. There are so many divisions here, it is almost impossible to say which is most fundamental. Is it having a degree that tends to make you more pro-EU? Or is it having an above-average income? Which causes which? (Do middle class people go to university or do graduates tend to end up in middle class jobs?) The Referendum was meant to end a debate; instead, it's torn it open.
And our political leaders are silent. They don't know what to do. Cameron seems to want to wash his hands of it. George Osborne, as he does at moments of crisis, has gone to ground. Gove and Boris have no intention of grabbing the wheel. It is a dangerous thing when democratic leadership falls silent.
In that silence, Farage has been doing the rounds, seizing his moment to press an extreme - and I mean extreme - right-wing agenda. In his first major statement after the result, he claimed it was 'a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people', thus casting the 48% as unreal, peculiar, and indecent. He has advocated the full privatisation of the NHS. In the past he has advocated relaxing gun laws. His 'Breaking Point' poster was a clear, intentional dog whistle to the neo-fascist right that your time has come. No leading politician has made such statements since Enoch Powell and he had the decency to argue his case. And let's remember, Farage is not even an MP - he has tried to get into Parliament on seven separate occasions and the voters have rejected him every time.
Comparisons with the Nazis are overdone, but Godwin's Law should not make us hesitate fatally in seeing him for what he is: a would-be fascist leader of Britain. Gove and Hannah and Johnson and IDS have already distanced themselves from Farage, but will that be enough? You let him drive your train, boys, and it's still moving.
Daniel Hannan MEP was quick to backtrack on the claims made by the Farage wing of the Leave camp that Brexit would mean an end to immigration. He was immediately met by fury: from the Remainers who saw this as yet more lies and hypocrisy from the cynical Brexiteers; and from some Leave voters who believed that in voting to leave the EU, they were voting to cut or end immigration. In the aftermath of the result, horrifying stories have been circulating of immigrants being abused in the street and told they are being sent home; signs were left outside primary schools in Huntingon saying 'No More Polish Vermin'; in Newcastle yesterday, a revived faction of the National Front (remember them?) unfurled a sign reading 'STOP IMMIGRATION. START REPATRIATION'.
In response Leave and Remain are both trying to rewrite history. The Remain camp have been flocking to a petition calling for the Referendum to be re-run on the basis that it didn't hit 60%. Too late, guys. We may not like the result, but that's the result, and it would be outrageous to change the rules after it's been run. In fact the petition was set up at the end of May, which was too late even then, but Remainers are only signing it out of magical thinking. (And anyway, seriously? You want to go through all this again?) The Referendum can't be annulled and should not be annulled.
But the Leave camp are trying to retroactively rewrite the Referendum rules too. Some of the Brexiteers are demanding that the process to begin withdrawal starts immediately. But actually, hold on. The Referendum is not legally binding. It is - and this is important - effectively a vast, formal, state-run opinion poll. It is an expression of the public's opinion. If the Brexit camp wanted it to be binding, they should have made that case before. Neither side can retrospectively change the rules just because they don't suit them.
In fact, they're both right in hindsight. It would have made things clearer if the result were binding, but to make that result seem just, a higher threshold should have been set before it triggered EU withdrawal. But here we are.
Now, you may think that even if the Referendum is not legally binding, it is politically binding. So no Parliament cannot just ignore the Referendum as David Lammy has suggested. To do so would lead to rioting and uproar and push a substantial amount of the population even further towards the arms of the far right. It would also be, more important, morally wrong. It would be a monstrous thing if the Government or Parliament simply ignored it. In that sense, I agree with all who say the Government must accept the result.
But what is the result?
It's that 51.9% voted to leave and 48.1% voted to stay.
In other words, the Referendum has taken the view of the people and the view of the people is split. In this sense, it is surely wrong to say, as David Cameron did in Downing Street on Friday morning that 'the British people have made a very clear decision'. They have made anything but. And don't take my word for it: in May this year, Nigel Farage himself said that a 52% victory for Remain would not end it; it would need a two-thirds majority to put the matter to bed. 'The people have spoken', said Bill Clinton after the 2000 Presidential Election, 'but it's going to take a while to figure out what they've said'.
A Referendum is not like a General Election either. In a General Election, even in our very imperfect first-past-the-post system, there is a degree of proportionality. We elect a Parliament which usually reflects a range of views and out of that Parliament comes a Government (which reflects one strong strand of voter preference). The Government is scrutinised and, sometimes, held in check by Parliament. There is no such thing here.
To treat the Referendum as having a 'winner' is to misunderstand what the Referendum is. It's an opinion poll - a very important one, for sure, but still an opinion poll. And opinion polls don't have 'winners'. This Referendum has told us what the people have said and to treat it as a winner-takes-all competition is a mistake, and would be to ignore what the people have said. It would be as profoundly undemocratic to rush out of Europe on the basis of this Referendum as it would be to ignore it.
Accepting the result
So the Government must accept the result. And that means acknowledging that more people in this country voted the leave the EU than voted to Remain. But it also means that almost half the voters do not want to leave. How can the Government act on that?
Well, they've started. David Cameron, very wisely (or possibly very lazily), has decided not to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the mechanism for leaving the EU. He has said that it is for his successor to do so and, surely, he was right to say this. He would have been embarking on negotiations that everyone knows he did not want; the Brexiteers would have suspected his motives (was he not pushing for a good enough deal so as to prove his predictions right?); the Remainers would be on his back asking him to slow down (why is he rushing into leaving anyway?); and in the background the jostling for his position would continue unabated.
But until Article 50 is evoked, we are not leaving the EU. We now have three months to see what effect the Referendum will have: will we see signs of tipping into recession? Will the implications of losing EU regional funding become clearer? Will we see a brain drain? Capital flight? Will the impossibility/undesirability of ending immigration become obvious? Will Scotland move decisively towards independence? Will the Northern Ireland Peace Process begin seriously to fall apart?
And how will Europe react? Will we find that there is room for manoeuvre with our EU membership? Is some kind of associate membership possible? Are new kinds of concessions possible that would form a kind of compromise? It was striking that, even in the 48 hours after the Referendum result, the EU's leaders went from insisting that Britain start withdrawal immediately to saying perhaps there is no need to do anything hasty.
Who will press the button?
Because literally nothing happens until Article 50 is evoked. As the legal expert - and, incidentally, lifelong Eurosceptic - David Allen Green observed on Friday evening: 'If the Article 50 was not sent today, the very day after the Leave result, there is a strong chance it will never be sent.' Because as soon as we notify the EU of our intention to leave the clock starts ticking and, pretty much whatever we do, two years later, we're out.
So who would press that button? It's an entirely practical question. David Cameron isn't going to. Boris Johnson, who will probably be the next Tory leader (though a Stop Boris campaign has already started in Tory ranks), almost certainly doesn't actually want to leave. Farage has no power to do it; nor does Hannan. Gove doesn't seem a plausible Tory leader. Iain Duncan Smith wasn't a plausible leader. Theresa May won't want to pull out. Unless, somehow, the mood of the country is clearly expressed on all sides that we should be leaving the EU, such that our Prime Minister is forced to do it, literally, there is no one who will press that button. And if no one presses it, we are not going to leave the EU.
My risky prediction? In October, Boris takes over; back room negotiations have been continuing with Europe and it becomes clear that we will not get a deal that is in our interests; Boris says that if it comes down to a choice between in the European single market and being outside it, he feels, reluctantly, we should be in it, but he has won a few (face-saving) concessions and on that basis he will call a General Election and fight to remain in. UKIP will win a lot of seats (30-40), mostly at the expense of Labour. But the House of Commons will have a new mandate for staying in. And Article 50 is never invoked. In six months' time, it would be difficult to say the Referendum still has the authority of a mandate. With every day that passes, we look more likely to stay.
As David Allen Green has put it, invoking, of course, Waiting for Godot:
One single good thing has come out of this: we will never have another referendum in my lifetime.