According to legend, two fingers were famously raised by Henry V’s archers at Agincourt 601 years ago. It was supposed to be a gesture of defiance toward the French who threatened to cut off their bowing digits if they were captured.
Now the descendants of those men have given the same gesture not just to the French, not just the EU, but to their own political elites.
Now is time to ask: Why?
The message from the shires of England is that they no longer trust their leadership. A divide has opened; centers of cosmopolitan wealth are at odds with their council estate and country-living cousins. It is not about wealth, it is about history – about who the British think they are.
For the majority, they are too far from their history, their roots are stretched, and the blame for it falls on migrants – not personally but as an all-consuming force for change.
Where Henry’s archers might have gathered for mead merriment and more, the pubs of little England have been alive with an anti-elitist groundswell. The global capitalist machine, they postulate, has gobbled up more migrants than the country can contain.
For many in the UK, beyond the leafy fringes of the capital’s rosy suburbia, they see a rich upper class that has grown ridiculously rich, intertwined with a political elite in their pocket and their thrall.
It is a revolt that needs little understanding, they would say. The poor have been misunderstood and misrepresented for too long. As a policeman outside the UK prime minister’s home at 10 Downing Street told me last night as the “leave” campaign took the lead, the politicians – and with a gesture of his head, he indicated the prime minister behind him – “didn’t listen.”
The argument of political leaders that immigration benefits the economy is lost on the “Leave” supporters because they don’t feel they see the benefits.
When the argument is lost, so is trust. But none of this happened in isolation.
The critical shift came when Immigration took on hues of Islamophobia as migrants surged from the seething cauldron of Middle East conflicts.The EU was apparently unable to hold them back.
It was the spark that some in “leave” campaign needed. They played up fears of ISIS attacks, of over-burdened schools and hospitals, of moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren forced to miss out on their rightful and paid-for state support, edged out by newly arrived migrants hungry for handouts and everything for free.
The “leave” campaigners’ message almost wrote itself: Bring back the Britain of their memories. Take back control, not just from Europe, but from their own runaway politicians. Nigel Farage, one of the prominent “leave” campaigners, played this card time and time again.
Farage is already demanding new leaders to take them on this uncharted course. Calmer heads in the pro-exit ranks, chief among them former London Mayor Boris Johnson, are less onerous, calling for a modicum of caution, no haste for Prime Minister David Cameron to go.
It is too soon to say how long the populist fervor will last and who will emerge as leader – Farage and his divisive rhetoric or Johnson realizing a long-awaited political ambition.
Johnson is embarking on a transition of Churchillian proportions, but then part of him has always relished the chance to live up to that gargantuan reputation. No reading of Johnson’s own biography on Churchill could leave the reader in any doubt – in place of Churchill’s name, read “Johnson”.
It is soaring ambition on a par with the new course the “leave” campaign has set.
Why did this happen? A salutary lesson from history may be due.
Within a year of Agincourt, Henry V was dead, his massive debts financing that battle far from paid, and within a few years, the war settled in the continent’s favor.
But then history remembers only the two fingers story, and Shakespeare’s words immortalizing Henry: “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George!”
We write our own history, and today a new chapter was begun.