A week ago I made some intemperate remarks about the poverty of Theresa May’s language. Today I feel impelled to protest in equally strong terms at the insulting feebleness of the debate about Brexit.
Part of the trouble is that I have just been reading some of The Federalist Papers, the magisterial series of articles in which in 1787-88 James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay made the case for the new Federal Constitution of the United States, which had just been been drawn up in Philadelphia and now needed ratifying by the 13 states.
Between 1775 and 1783 the states had won, by force of arms, their independence from Great Britain, but they were now in danger of making a complete mess of self-government, with populists running riot in the state legislatures, printing paper money and undermining property rights, while the central government was so weak that men of sense feared a collapse into anarchy.
Hamilton himself said “a torrent of angry and malignant passions” had been let loose in the “great national discussion” about the Constitution. He wanted to rise above “the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives”, which he and his fellow authors proceeded to do.
We are by no means in the same situation now as the Americans were in the 1780s. We and our friends in Europe suppose we are in a less acute crisis, nor have we ever been united under the British crown, and then in opposition to George III and a Parliament which insisted on taxing us without representation.
But the referendum campaign and its aftermath have helped to arouse, or release, a torrent of angry and malignant passions, and no Madisons and Hamiltons have managed to rise above these passions by making, in lucid, rational and historically informed terms, the constitutional case for a Federal Europe.