EU Referendum

Millions of smiles and a grieving establishment

A young couple painted as EU flags, protest outside Downing Street against the UK's decision to leave the EU Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A young couple painted blue, the colour of the EU flag, share a kiss during a protest outside Downing Street against the UK's decision to leave the EU

For the last month or so on Radio 4's PM, we've been borrowing a question from The Clash: Should I stay or should I go?

Now, we have our answer: we're going.

Not geographically, for the UK won't float off into the Atlantic; and not any time soon, for unpicking four decades of knotty agreement can't be done instantly.

But for those of us in the business of reporting politics, particularly the relatively uneventful, peaceful, democratic breed of the beast, we're inured to the inevitable consequence of that predictability: most of the people, most of the time are barely paying the blindest bit of notice.

And that is rational. The stable transfer of power from one relatively centrist, relatively benign government to another doesn't rivet many, and the soap opera of its leading characters has its rivals on Manchester's cobbles and in London's East End.

Every five years or so, this "normal" is briefly shaken. A big political decision comes along, and a window opens; the conversations I spend my life having at Westminster become mainstream, as a decision is taken - and then the window slams shut again.

But this is a moment far bigger than even that; today really is different; the sort the next generation will be taught about after that module on the Tudors and Stuarts.

'Compromise extinguished'

Make no mistake - a giant brick has been lobbed into the political pond. The ripples, nay waves, of the thunderous splash it is causing are washing away a generation's worth of assumptions.

By definition referenda divide; they force a binary choice. They extinguish compromise.

But the absence of a referendum on a topic that divides does little to hide that division either.

In its aftermath, a people cheer; a people mourn.

And so they would, in reverse, if the decision had been the equal, but opposite of what happened.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Smiles, whoops and cheers rang out when Leave campaigners clinched an early win in Sunderland

But those waves in that pond have drenched a particular, but amorphous and ill-defined blob - the so-called establishment; in politics, in business, in the arts and in sport.

It is they who look soaked with grief, despite the 17.5 million smiles on the faces of their fellow countrymen.

As a correspondent in Brussels some years ago, the UK always felt like the embarrassing uncle at the Christmas party; the invite obligatory, the jokes crude, the patience of others tested.

Crotchety, crabby and cantankerous was the default position; ebbing and flowing only marginally as governments at Westminster changed.

In that context, this result shouldn't seem that surprising.

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