A July 28, 2016 London Review of Books article by John Lanchester is entitled: “Bexit Blues.”
The opening paragraphs read:
The ‘Overton window’ is a term from political science meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment. It was the creation of Joseph Overton, a think-tank intellectual based in Michigan, who died in 2003 at 43 after a solo plane accident. His crucial insight, one which both emerged from and was central to the work of the think tank Right, was that the window of acceptability can be moved. An idea can start far outside the political mainstream – flat taxes, abolish the IRS, more guns in schools, building a beautiful wall and making Mexico pay – but once it has been stated and argued for, framed and restated, it becomes thinkable. It crosses over from the fringe of right-wing think-tankery to journalistic fellow-travellers; then it crosses over to the fringe of electoral politics; then it becomes a thing people start seriously advocating as a possible policy. The window has moved, and rough beasts come slouching through it to be born.
British politics has never seen a purer example of the Overton window than the referendum on membership of the EU. In 1994, the billionaire James Goldsmith founded a political party whose sole purpose was to advocate a referendum. The Referendum Party was a long, long way outside the political mainstream, and a significant number of its members were openly mad. The party’s one moment of – ‘success’ is the wrong word – mainstream attention came when Goldsmith himself stood in the 1997 general election in Putney against David Mellor, the cabinet minister who had been caught having an affair with an actress. Her fuck-and-tell story ran in the tabloids and included the fictional detail that (to quote the front page of the Sun) ‘Mellor Made Love in Chelsea Strip’. In a better-ordered society, making up things like that wins you the Prix Goncourt. Goldsmith did poorly, coming fourth with 1518 votes, but Mellor lost anyway. At the declaration of the result, Goldsmith and his supporters chanted ‘Out! Out! Out!’ while Mellor was making his concession speech, the words sounding a lot like ‘Raus! Raus! Raus!’ and providing one of the 1997 election’s most memorably ugly moments. The Referendum Party contested 547 seats and lost all of them.
The story of how that idea, self-evidently ridiculous in 1997, came to be a reality in 2016 is going to be often retold as we live through its consequences over the next few decades. One of the characteristics of the story is a distinctly British unseriousness: tragedy and farce, as so often in this country’s political life, were hard to tell apart. The climax was the referendum itself, which was promised in 2013 at a point when David Cameron was sure he wouldn’t have to deliver. The evidence strongly suggested he’d be able to do the same thing in 2015 as he’d done in 2010: blame his Lib Dem coalition partners for negotiating away manifesto commitments. When the campaign came, its main protagonist, Boris Johnson, was a man known not to be in favour of his own arguments, manoeuvring for position in the Tory leadership battle due to come at some point between a Remain victory and the 2020 general election. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in British politics when so many people in public life spent so much time loudly declaring things they knew not to be true.
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