The front-page story under a banner headline in the New York Times reflected the confusion and alarm of the West's elite: "From Brussels to Berlin to Washington, leaders ... awoke Friday morning to a blunt, once-unthinkable rebuke delivered by the flinty citizens of a small island nation in the North Atlantic. ... The British had rebelled." The unthinkable had become not only the thinkable but the doable. And now has been done.
This time it wasn't the shot heard around the world, as at Concord and Lexington by the rude bridge that arched the flood, but the vote by our English cousins to leave the European Union to the Europeans. All of which brought to mind a favorite headline from an English tabloid between the wars: "Fog in channel/continent cut off."
The nerve of these people; they'd risen up against the whole of the British -- and Western -- establishment. To quote Fraser Nelson, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph: "Never has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers' federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook. And none of it worked." For the natives were -- and remain -- restless. Result: Today's whole celebrity culture now trembles. It's a refreshing change. For once again pride has gone before a much deserved fall. And it's a refreshing sight.
"A stubborn people," as a refugee from Nazidom once described the British, "but they have character." The most bulldog-stubborn of them all as the Second World War broke out was a Tory backbencher named Winston Churchill, who would soon enough mobilize the English language and send it into battle: "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...."
In June 1940 a London Evening Standard cartoonist would depict a British tommy on his flinty rock vowing defiance: "Very well, alone." And alone the British would carry on as the Battle of Britain raged above their heads. Every night the Luftwaffe would set London ablaze. Never mind. For the Brits would carry on and muddle through, as is their obstinate way.
The upshot of last week's revolution at the polls: Prime Minister David Cameron won't be prime minister any more, and all the bureaucrats in Brussels are in a dither as they try to figure out a way to respond to this latest challenge to their ineffectual rule. It seems the European Union is no longer united. Closer to London, the Scots remain as restless as they were under the Romans, for in the mountains there is freedom. (That's the state motto of our own West Virginia, which broke away from the tired Old Dominion to declare its independence during this country's not so civil war.)
In France, its National Front is calling for a Frexit, and in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of its Party for Freedom is calling for a Nexit. To quote French Prime Minister Manuel Valls: "Now is the time to invent another Europe." Because the old one, breeding ground for catastrophic world wars and bloody revolutions, certainly needed replacing.
It's a new beginning all around, only without a Ronald Reagan to lead it. Or a Margaret Thatcher to warn against the rise of this multi-culti Europe. Now it reels as the latest wave of the future becomes just another wave of the past. And only little England has stood fast against it, just as it once did against one approaching threat after another -- whether it came from the Spanish Armada, Napoleon's Grande ArmÃ©e or Hitler's Wehrmacht.
The happy ending isn't here, not yet. But you can see it from here. And the road to it is called independence. So hail Brittania, God bless America and good show, old sport.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.