Of course Ed West’s typically excellent piece on Brexit regret caused such a stir yesterday: the whole topic’s become so poisoned and rancorous, and the two opposing sides have radicalised so much, that any ambivalence or nuance has been more or less extinguished from the debate.
In truth, the arguments for and against Brexit were always finely balanced, so much so that the opinion of anyone who voted with absolute certainty for either side should probably be discounted. But I voted for Brexit myself, and the events of the intervening years have confirmed my opinion that this was the right decision, for us, and for the European Union.
We all know the Lexit arguments against the EU by now, and they remain true: the bloc’s political structure is built to be unresponsive to the demands of voters, and locks in neoliberal economic policies by design, forcing us to adhere to a failed ideological doctrine rightly hated by the majority of the country.
But I don’t hate the EU: generally speaking, it’s a good idea, and we should hope it prospers and finds a way to reform itself into a workable, stable institution. The stronger, more coherent EU now coming into being may be far from the starry-eyed ideals of Remainers, in which it’s nothing but a gigantic NGO with a flag, but it’s a natural partner and ally to Britain — we should want it to work.
Indeed, if Remainers feel the affection for the EU they claim, they should be pleased that Brexit has, paradoxically, helped the bloc assume a more coherent form. We should hope that our relationship with the EU from the outside, over decades, develops into a happier and more stable arrangement than it ever was with us on the inside, constantly grumbling and blocking its consolidation.
But in truth, the real target of Brexit wasn’t the EU itself but what it represented in this country, and that isn’t a bad thing. The Brexit vote was a powerful symbolic vote against the depoliticisation of the past few decades: a world of There Is No Alternative governance where the decisions that matter were no longer in the hands of voters. It was a vote against British elites, and not Brussels ones, which is precisely why they took it so badly.
I keep coming back to this piece by the academic Philip Cunliffe on Brexit as an expression of Britain’s revolutionary tradition: like Covid, Brexit can be seen as a necessary crisis, a catalyst breaking the stultifying deadlock of the past few decades and forcing us to reshape how this country’s politics works. All of the problems revealed by Brexit — the centrifugal pressures threatening to break the union, the political dominance of an unelected para-state, the dangerous constitutional tinkering of New Labour, our weak manufacturing sector and dependance on finance, the economy’s regional imbalances — all these problems were already there, and it took Brexit to bring them to the foreground of political debate.
Now we have to deal with them, because we have no choice. We can’t blame distant Brussels bureaucrats anymore, our politicians can’t shrug and say their hands are tied: Brexit has re-politicised the country, making our leaders play for higher stakes, directly subject to an electorate with an awakened sense of its own democratic power — and newly radicalised against the sclerotic institutions blocking that power.
It will be messy, and in the short term probably painful, but both parties now have a democratic mandate and a historic opportunity to rethink how this country functions at every level. Politics is back, with a vengeance: this is an opportunity to be grasped with both hands, not squandered or lamented. Everything’s up for grabs, the future’s in our hands, if we want it: that’s exactly what Brexit voters wanted and it’s precisely why je ne Bregret rien.