In the years since the referendum, it has become a myth that the impetus behind Brexit was a demand for pure sovereignty, with any economic effects being irrelevant. It’s not true, because many of the Vote Leave arguments were economic, whilst the effort put in to discrediting ‘Project Fear’ shows that Brexiters realised that ‘sovereignty at any cost’ would not have enough appeal to win the vote.
Even so, it’s true that for some of the most committed and, in a sense, idealistic Brexiters leaving the EU was a revolutionary project of national liberation akin to escaping colonial rule or foreign occupation. Such a comparison may seem not just absurd but downright offensive to countries that have escaped such tyrannies, as well as to the remaining member states of the EU, but for some it was a genuinely held belief. Thus it would seem reasonable, now that Britain has left the EU, to evaluate Brexit in those terms, quite aside from those of the economic impact.
A national liberation?
Viewed as such a national liberation, Brexit looks distinctly odd. At the referendum, it was supported by only a slim majority of those who voted, and without a majority of those who voted in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Opinion polls before and since almost invariably suggested it has minority, and now dwindling, support. The most recent shows just 38% think that it was right to leave and 50% that it was wrong, rising to 66% amongst the 18-24 age band. This isn’t to deny the referendum result, but to say that it is a very strange kind of liberation that so many, perhaps most, people don’t want.
While Brexit has now been done, in the key sense that Britain has left the EU, it has happened despite the often bitter opposition of a very significant chunk of the population. The consequence is that this national liberation has fractured the nation, because the referendum in itself simply didn’t have enough political fuel to embed Brexit as a national consensus. Brexiters seem to have realised this, because from the outset they sought to rush the leaving process, as if knowing how fragile their mandate was even as they insisted it was ‘the will of the people’.
This situation arose in large part because of the set-up of the referendum, with no requirement for a ‘super-majority’, or for majorities within each constituent nation, to make a change of such magnitude, probably because David Cameron assumed that ‘remain’ would win. That was not the Brexiters’ fault: they won the contest that was set. Their fault was not to have specified in advance what form Brexit would take, and then to take a narrow victory as a mandate for just about the ‘hardest’ version. The winners showed no magnanimity, and made no attempt to build a post-referendum consensus for Brexit. On the contrary, they stoked dissensus by denouncing real and imagined opponents as ‘enemies of the people’, and mocking them as ‘cry babies’.
The worst of all worlds
Having forced Brexit through, the liberation delivered has proved anaemic. Leaving aside the lack of economic value, freedom to make trade deals has required the UK to conform slavishly to other countries’ demands, partly precisely because of a desperation to symbolically demonstrate ‘independence’. Net migration levels are likely to remain similar. Control of fishing waters has been illusory and bitterly disappointed fishermen. Much of the supposedly externally-imposed law and regulation of the EU has turned out to be the necessary technical infrastructure of trade, with little room for divergence. Thus, so far and for the most part, all that has been achieved is to duplicate domestically very similar rules to those of the single market but without having any say in them. In any case, diverging from this or that directive on widgets lacks the grandeur of an escape from the colonialist yoke.
The outcome, then, is the worst of all worlds. Far from striding into the future as a confident nation freed from the shackles of EU dictatorship, Brexit has created a country riven by conflict, pursuing a path as unsatisfactory to its proponents as it is loathed by its opponents. Indeed the most remarkable feature of Brexit is not how unhappy it has made remainers but how little happiness there has been amongst leavers.
One reason for this is that the Brexiters’ idea of liberation led them to treat leaving the EU as the end of the matter, when it was actually the beginning of something much more difficult and complex, for which they were wholly unprepared. Then, rather than take responsibility for that, they ascribed the problems of delivery to ‘remainer sabotage’ or ‘EU punishment’.
Over five years later, this leaves Brexit done but not embedded, with some pushing to go further to achieve ‘true Brexit’, others to go back and reverse Brexit, and still others to seek various ‘softer’ forms of Brexit. There is certainly no durable consensus that Brexit was desirable, and there have been no shared national celebrations of ‘independence day’ with church bells ringing out. Even the long-proposed ‘Festival of Brexit’, if it happens, has been rebranded as ‘Unboxed’, whilst civil servants have been instructed not to use the word ‘Brexit’ where possible. What liberation is it that dare not speak its name?
Far from having been a national liberation, Brexit has simply bequeathed a nation divided. Those divisions are defined in terms of the country’s relationship with the EU, and that relationship is inescapable for reasons of economics, history and geography. Brexiters used to say ‘we are leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe’, and they were right. But it means that liberation was chimerical, as indeed it was bound to be when there had been no occupation, whatever some Brexiters may genuinely have believed. Their revolution was founded on an illusion.
Chris Grey is the author of Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) published by Biteback in 2021.