Like a never-ending television series that should have been cancelled years ago, the Brexit saga reaches yet another season finale this month with the end of the transition period. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, as in vaguely terrifying at times, and full of hysterical people.
Back on the day of the referendum, four and a half years ago, a curious thing happened as I took my children to school. At the time there was a spate of newspaper features about children saying things that were supposedly profound, which were clearly just them parroting their right-on parents: “Gender is just a word we give to things” or “no human can be illegal, mommy”.
I used to have a regular chuckle at these absurdly pompous New York Times features, and then, on the morning of the vote, my seven-year-old daughter said to me: “Daddy, I don’t want to leave the European Union”. I half-smiled because it had actually definitely happened, and she didn’t get it from me; I just assumed she was repeating something her teachers had told her.
But it was only half a smile, because having been a full-on Eurosceptic for many years, at that point I was riddled with doubt. And as the Brexit process has “advanced”, those doubts have soured into regrets.
People often marvel at how reluctant others are to change their minds about political issues, but politics is hormonal. After the achingly dull 1994 World Cup final, in which Italy lost to Brazil on penalties, researchers found that testosterone levels among Italian men watching the game had fallen by almost 27%. That is why football fans frequently cry in defeat; it’s the body’s response to the shock of defeat, and I imagine something similar is going on with our politics. Realising that your long-held beliefs are mistaken is troubling and emotionally draining, and so few change their minds over big issues — even when, in some cases, the bodies start piling up.
My Eurosceptism was on a fundamental level about the nation-state, which I considered (and still do) the best means of organising society. I’m naturally suspicious of bodies beyond the control of voters, not because I believe in the wisdom of “the people”, but because of the human tendency to self-interest. Technocratic elites are also prone to groupthink; they form their own orthodoxies because they tend to be sociable and so beliefs become markers of belonging and status.
I also thought that democracy was impossible in a body as large as the EU because of the lack of a demos. The euro has been disastrous for countries such as Italy and Greece, but the people in charge — Charlemagne’s descendants — didn’t regard the Greeks as their countrymen. (And if you’re reading this on a train in the north of England, I appreciate that nationality is not a guarantee of solidarity, but it is maybe a requisite.)
I was well-informed about the European issue. I remember reading once that Eurosceptics were much more knowledgeable about the issue than the general public, and took it as confirmation of rightness — as it turned out, the entirely wrong conclusion.
I looked forward to Britain leaving, and genuinely thought we would enjoy better relations with our neighbours. No more bickering, as had been a constant of the Nineties when I was first politically aware. I had voted UKIP in the European elections, which ironically gave people outside the mainstream their biggest voice in politics, far more than the Westminster system. Four months before the referendum I had started working for Eurosceptic Tory MP Owen Paterson; the original remit had been to help with a think-tank he was setting up, but everything got swallowed by the Brexit referendum, as with all British politics in the coming years. So I ended up writing speeches about the EU and reading a vast amount about its workings.
And as I did, I began to have far more serious doubts. I learned, some time later, that climate sceptics also know a fair bit more about their issue than the public at large: more knowledge tends to correlate with more bias, because you learn what you want to learn. The same with Euroscepticism, because in reality the subject was, to use that centrist cliché, far more complicated than anyone could imagine.
It wasn’t just that the British newspapers had told lies about the EU down the years — we all knew about the bendy banana stories, caricatures of a system which was nevertheless genuinely ridiculous. Rather, there were deeper distortions, so that Brussels was blamed for a lot of things that were just unavoidable market forces, technology and globalisation; likewise Westminster politicians used the EU as an excuse to avoid doing things they didn’t want to do.
There are advantages to leaving, of course, in regulatory matters and lawmaking, and we all knew that sovereignty would be a trade-off with short-term economic certainty. But the more I read about it, the more it seemed like there was no form of exiting the EU that wouldn’t bring enormous drawbacks, larger than the limited benefits.
And the problem was that Brexiteers wanted contradictory things; some of us wanted to put the brakes on globalisation, and to have a more egalitarian, high-wage society; others wanted more economic freedom. Clearly those two things contradict each other. Some wanted EEA membership; some wanted out altogether.
As for democracy, the dull truth is that international institutions have to be remote and undemocratic. As global trade has become more complicated, so the rules and bodies behind them have had to become more arcane; governing and rule-making in the 21st century has to be beyond the understanding of most people (journalists included).
All the arguments I had previously used to justify leaving, in particular the hope of entering a sort of half-way house with EFTA, I just no longer believed. All that was left was the emotional reasoning; the elephant was in charge, while the rider was basically asleep.
As Richard Nixon aide Kevin Phillips once said, politics is all about knowing who hates whom, and the European question was driven by social antagonism.
In my case — and many others — this wasn’t towards the EU, its emblems or even the fabled “eurocrats”. The EU flag did and does fill me with indifference. The inevitable superstate the continentals were heading towards probably suited people in Lombardy, Alsace or the various other provinces of core Europe in which gradations of language and culture existed in one continuum. It just didn’t suit us, for reasons of geography and history.
The antagonism was towards other British people, a certain sort of London politico type who reads one of the quartet of the Guardian, Economist, FT or Times, who sees themselves as being on the right side of history yet was wrong about the euro, probably wrong about Iraq, identifies with radicalism but is passionately snobbish towards the provincial and non-academic, and has naked class interests at heart. The sort of person who loves Europe but is in reality far more interested in American politics, and almost certainly went to Oxbridge and likes to tweet about “the lack of diversity at my alma mater”.
Having said that, I’m also repulsed by a certain type of Tory Eurosceptic – purple-faced golf club bores who opine about “what this country needs” and “you can’t say anything anymore”. I don’t trust them, either. And the more I listened to the Brexiteers, the more I came to the belief that they were living in cloud cuckoo land, and were going to sink the economy and also endanger conservatism for a generation.
That social hatred has increased since, to levels not seen in England in generations. And even as I have come to conclude that the Remainers were right all along, I also dislike them more than ever. That same insufferable London type has become even more insufferable, knowing that on the big question they are right but totally unconcerned about the root causes of other people’s unhappiness, and how in particular low-skilled immigration helped to break the social contract. (Of course there are benefits to free movement, but class and income-wise the costs and benefits are incredibly lopsided.)
And yet annoying or unappealing people can be right — indeed they often are.
Since that vote our politics has become more emotional and visceral, giving birth to a new sort of public figure, people like Arron Banks, Jolyon Maugham and a dozen other political celebrities, without whose daily presence we would all be much happier and better people.
It’s characterised by MPs like Mark Francois prattling on about D-Day – because it’s always the bloody war for these people — and David Lammy, once a seemingly normal, level-headed man but now transformed into a hysteric comparing Brexiteers to Nazis while — hilariously — writing a book about the dangers of “tribalism”.
Certainly we are more tribal, and the referendum has caused British people to identify in tribal ways unseen since the 17th century, Remainer and Leaver are far stronger affiliations than Labour or Tory were. It has, paradoxically, been a very parochial affair, and even the EU flags flying from London windows are in this context symbols of a particular British identity.
Yet to some extent it has made many British people feel fully European for the first time, me included. On holiday last year I felt deep regret at the thought of separation from our fellow Europeans, especially while in Holland, with which Britain has an especially strong connection.
My sense of being a European has also grown as the potential menace of the Chinese, Russian and Turkish regimes has become clearer. Most of all, though, has been the realisation this year that American political culture is an irredeemably corrosive and dangerous force.
At the time of the vote, I replied to my daughter that it was more complicated than she realised, and I’d explain to her when she was older. She’s now at secondary school, old enough to understand far more about the world, and if I’m honest I’m now none the wiser.
Perhaps it could have been handled better. But it’s feeble for Eurosceptics to complain that they didn’t get the Brexit they wanted, nor is it any comfort to point to root causes, or to blame Remainers for trying to reverse the vote. Ultimately, if Brexit turns out to be a mistake, it’s the fault of Brexiteers alone. After all, taking control means taking responsibility, too.
This article first appeared on 10 December, 2020