Interview. The historian Donald Sassoon speaks with il manifesto about the implications of Brexit and who’s to blame.

May the best narrative win

A disciple of Eric Hobsbawm, Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary College, University of London. He is the author of a series of texts on Italian communism, European socialism and is presently working on a magnum opus on the parable of global capitalism. An expert on modern Italy, he has been curating the Genoa historiographical festival La storia in piazza since 2007, and his books are translated in many languages. Looking at the crucial United Kingdom referendum, he harbors no doubts: The impending danger of self-exclusion of Britain from the E.U. seems to oscillate between farcical and tragic, but it could have real repercussions of unforeseen gravity.

Professor Sassoon, what kind of consequences could the barbaric assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox have on the results of the referendum?

It is impossible to predict. But given the tones employed — by some in particular — during the campaign, which has degenerated into insults and exaggerations sometimes bordering on racism, one shouldn’t be too surprised if some deranged individual decides to do what he did. I’m very worried about the results.

Nigel Farage has stigmatized what he calls a political usage of Jo Cox’s death by the Remain campaign.

The sheer fact that someone like him has the cheek of raising similar accusations after unveiling, himself, a poster like that [showing the image of a long queue of Syrian refugees under the headline “Breaking point”] that has no relation whatsoever with the U.K. referendum clearly shows — in my opinion — the disgusting person he is.

What kind of consequences do you envisage after a Brexit victory?

Should Brexit win, the consequences for the E.U. will be enormous and unpredictable. It will be the biggest European crisis since the war. The entire project could become unravelled and all because David Cameron promised a referendum to unite his party (now more divided than ever), because he thought he could either win it easily or because he thought he would not have to implement since he did not believe he could win the 2015 elections.

Up to now, the constant refrain by the Remain front has been that in case of a Leave victory the country will find itself in uncharted territory. What are, in your opinion, the kind of political and institutional scenarios that would emerge?

The consequences for British politics might also be considerable. The conservatives would have to introduce in Parliament a law to quit the E.U., since technically the referendum has no constitutional validity. The Brexit law would require a majority in both the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. But the vast majority of members of both Houses are in favor of staying in the E.U. But how can they vote to stay after a referendum which expressed the popular will to quit?

The main culprits for a possible exit appear to be the Tories, but the Labour party too seems to have woken up abruptly and far too late to the need of campaigning for staying in.

If Brexit wins, the main responsibility will be on both Labour and Conservatives, since, in the last 40 years, they’ve had nothing positive to say about E.U. Their attitude was that of someone who stays in a club not in order to improve it but in order to gain as much as possible while participating as little as possible (no Schengen, no euro, etc.). There has not been a single constructive proposal from any U.K. government over the last 40 years.

This In vs Out duel seems to be a choice of the lesser evil.

Those in favor of Brexit have the best narrative (though it is a fraudulent one): If we leave we will be free, we will be in control, we will have democracy, we will stop undesirable immigration, we will get back the “huge” sums we give the E.U. Those who wish to remain can only say that things would be even worse if we left. Hope on one side, fear on the other.

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