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The seven stages of Remainer grief It isn’t just Big Ben that should stay silent today. Stop all the clocks.

What will the Remainers do now? Credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

What will the Remainers do now? Credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

January 31, 2020   4 mins

It isn’t just Big Ben that should stay silent today. Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. We mourners need one last moment to say goodbye. Three and a half years have seen us navigate the ups and downs of all seven stages of grief. We are nearly ready for the final one: acceptance. We just need one last moment with our sorrow.

Stage one was shock. I didn’t stay up for the count. I went comfortable to bed believing my side would prevail. I woke at 3 and checked the news. I didn’t sleep again: the shock wasn’t about the practicalities or about the policy. It was that I didn’t know my country. Was this my beloved home, suddenly now so unfamiliar?

I couldn’t knuckle down to proper work so I trundled off to Ikea to buy furniture for the new office my charity was moving into. Because what more European place is there than Ikea? They even have the right brand colours: blue and yellow. Just as in Harry Potter the cure for a brush with the dementors is chocolate, so the cure for a brush with the Brexiteers is surely a Swedish meatball.

Stage two: denial. I spent a couple of months expecting that we would leave but not really leave. So many leavers had said we’d stay aligned, we’d stay close, we’d still have perfect access to the single market and frictionless trade. I believed them. We could just duck out of the institutions of the EU but play along as if little had changed. Boris Johnson himself helped sustain this fantasy — his first article in the Telegraph after the referendum spelled out a vision of our future as the closest of buddies with our erstwhile partners.

Stage three: anger. All that came to a juddering halt when Theresa May gave her Lancaster House speech, full of red lines, incompatible promises and economic incoherence. I raged about David Davis turning up in Brussels without any papers. I was furious with Liam Fox for his pointless job as Secretary of State for Trade-Deals-We-Aren’t-Legally-Allowed-To-Sign-Yet. I drafted and deleted endless bitter tweets at pundits who thought it would be easy to run a Midlands car factory without just-in-time access to goods, simply because they could ski across the Swiss border on holiday.

Stage four: bargaining. This is when the false hope started to dawn. In the psychological literature, bargaining is the stage where you obsess about what you could have done differently — and try to strike a deal with God (or the universe): “I’ll be different, I’ll pray every day, I’ll be kind to my sister. Just make it go away.”

In Brexitland, bargaining was when we devised a thousand strategies to trip us into another referendum, another election, another chance to roll the dice again and get a different answer. I wasn’t part of those campaigns but I dared to hope. “If we stop Brexit it will be because of them, and their intransigence,” I told myself, almost ashamed that I hadn’t stood with them — that I was the sort of capitulator who assumed that a referendum, when lost, was lost.

Stage five: depression. This started to creep up my spine during December’s general election. The debate was shifting away. The activists in their blue and yellow robes still thought we could stop Brexit but the voters didn’t. They wanted it over, even though few thought it would do any good. Boris Johnson offered relief from the trauma, the opportunity to end it all.

Depression’s power is immense. It brings with it a desperate yearning for sleep, for peace, for finality. As Edward Thomas, one of the most depressed poets England has ever produced, put it: “There is not any book, or face of dearest look, that I would not turn from now, to go into the unknown.” So in our depressive state, unable to summon the energy to fight any more, we allowed the end to come.

Stage six: testing. We asked ourselves: might it be ok? Might it be alright in Northern Ireland? It’s just a little more paperwork. Can the Union with Scotland hold? Will this new government adopt a liberal immigration policy, and an active industrial strategy to alleviate the damage of our departure? Will the new Conservative seats in the North give the party impetus to govern differently? Would it be better for all of us if we found a way to get along? Were we ready to forgive?

Stage seven: acceptance. To end the grieving process, acceptance has to be unconditional. It isn’t whether Brexit is better, or worse, or better than it could have been. It simply is. An unchangeable, immutable fact.

The prayer used at Alcoholics Anonymous is well known: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Well, I have lived in politics for nearly twenty years. Politics is about training yourself to file almost everything in the “things I can change” box. It’s about never settling for a world less perfect than you can imagine. So accepting this loss is hard. It goes against my soul. I loved my place as a European citizen. I loved the freedom. I loved the belonging. I loved the solidarity. All this is lost to me and to my friends, and my countrymen. But worst of all, this is a thing I cannot change.

Some people will laugh at this article. How could I possibly equate the process of leaving a multilateral organisation as equivalent to losing a loved one? Laugh away, if you like. When I spoke about my sadness a couple of years ago, on Newsnight, the Express wrote that I had “sparked anger” by doing so. Someone emailed to tell me that my “liberal tears” tasted sweet.

I know it is not easy to be gracious in victory. You have put your all into fighting, and you deserve a moment of glory, and celebration. But the others fought too. Their tears are not sweet. They are as bitter as yours would have been. Don’t demand grace from the losers, the ones with nothing to show for all their work, ambition and hope. Their hands are empty; yours are full. So show compassion.

To all those who raise a glass as Britain leaves the European Union: you have your Brexit. Leave us our grief. It’s the least you can do.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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