Brexit: What the Bloody Hell Happened?
“WHEN IS YOUR LAST SCHOOL EXAM, Benedict?” Bridgit asked as I opened the door. She was attending my mother’s book club. “23rd June,” I replied as we scuttled down the hallway. Turning to climb the stairs to my bedroom, she exclaimed behind me, “Independence Day for both Britain and your school career!” Rolling my eyes and letting out a grin, I muttered, “Let’s bloody hope not.”
Although my story starts here, I believe Britain’s story begins over two decades earlier, if not before. Having continuously struggled with the idea of handing over any form of political sovereignty to the continent since 1973, when the United Kingdom voted to join the European Economic Council, the UK’s relationship to the European institutions had always possessed an “us versus them” quality. In the years leading up to the Maastricht Treaty, which founded the modern European Union, the UK opted out of the European Monetary System (1979) and withdrew from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism a year after entry (1990), following the toppling of Margaret Thatcher. Then on 23 November 1993, the same month the Maastricht Treaty entered into force and a Tory rebellion was brewing, the lead piece for The Spectator declared “Fog in the Channel, Continent Cut Off.”
To this day, whenever I’m asked why Brexit happened, I always begin with those six words. Who knew that six words could so perfectly explain the most momentous political decision my great country has taken since the Second World War? If only we’d have known then that it was the other way around. It wasn’t that the continent was cut off from us, it was Britain that was isolated from the continent.
There’s a saying in politics that traces back to Bernard Baruch, an American advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a passionate advocate of the United Nations: “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” When it comes to Brexit, well, these facts speak for themselves. We are 65 million people in a Union of over 500 million. When we round up, the UK’s economy reaches €2.5 trillion; the EU’s is €16.9 trillion. The EU makes up almost 45 percent of our exports, whereas we comprise just under 10 percent of theirs. They are 27, we are 1.
THIS BEING SAID, the most unforgettable political moment of my life to date has to be awarded to the day of the referendum itself; 23 June, 2016. I was sitting in my last ever school exam. “Brexit day” was how the exam adjudicator introduced to us. Later that night, as my friends and I were celebrating the end of our schooling existence, we sat jolly in the pub, sinking pint after pint at a wholly irresponsible rate, which only the British seem to master. On the way to the club I remember stopping an innocent middle-aged couple and asking in a slurred drunken voice, “Are we in or out?”
“Better the devil you know,” was the response. I couldn’t have agreed more.
The European Union is imperfect: its institutions are complicated, and it seems democratically one step removed. Brussels is more abstract to the British than Westminster, and its “directives” seem like top-down impositions. But it’s the devil we know, and by far the best political experiment this continent has seen—a continent that has witnessed untold violence and conflict. With Brexit, we defied Voltaire’s warning that “the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good,” and dove towards former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown.”
Six hours later, I woke up in a garden shed with a stomping hangover. Blurry-eyed, I saw on my phone that my great country had just taken its most momentous modern political decision. I walked outside and threw up. To this day I’m not sure whether it was from the hangover or the news of our so called “Independence Day.”
Perhaps what was most frustrating, was that the decision had been taken without my consent. I was 31 days too young to cast my vote. To be thirty-one days too late for a decision that will affect almost every aspect of my life was a tough pill to swallow that day. But did we millennials really have anyone to blame? Some of my friends were old enough to vote, but went straight to the pub without stopping at the voting booth on their way. I went to a café and ate a French croissant; more out of symbolic disappointment than enjoyment.
THREE YEARS LATER, British politics has become an omnishambles—an ever-present and totally shambolic state of affairs.
Jacob Rees-Mogg heralds a “no-deal” Brexit whilst simultaneously setting up his businesses headquarters in Ireland. Nigel Farage calls for a “no-deal” Brexit whilst simultaneously securing German citizenship for all his children. Jeremy Corbyn pretends to love the EU despite having previously described it as a “dictatorship” and “Frankenstein.” The woman negotiating Brexit has been a Remainer her whole life, and the man in charge of opposing the government’s strategy has wanted to leave practically since he entered politics. What?
On June 8, 2017, after having called a snap general election in order to secure support for a hard and uncompromising Conservative-led Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May in fact lost her majority. Over the course of 8 weeks, she had managed to throw away one of the biggest polling leads UK politics has ever seen. To compound her humiliation, she had to stand on stage next to a man dressed as a bucket—he had been one of her campaign opponents.
The scene perfectly summed up the state of British politics, both domestically and internationally. Social media took off and the news spread like wildfire on the international stage. Just when I thought the UK couldn’t become anymore of an international laughing stock, a European friend texted me saying, “Could you please explain to me who that woman is standing next to Lord Buckethead?”
But “that woman” had her own moniker, one that would soon eclipse Lord Buckethead in notoriety: “Maybot,” a rigid, uncharismatic automaton.
Having lost her mandate, and with the Commons utterly divided, there was no chance that May—or anyone for that matter—could achieve a Brexit deal on their own. The election set in motion an unimaginable course of cross parliamentary compromise, weakened hands, and political tightrope walking for Theresa May—which our combative system of democracy had never experienced before.
In a nutshell, it meant that May, instead of being able to set her own Brexit red lines and force them through parliament using her majority, would now have to listen to every side of the argument, be it pro- or anti-Brexit, and come up with a plan that she believed would have the support of enough members of parliament. In the words of Stevie Wonder, a Brexit that would be signed, sealed, delivered and “hers” proved to be an impossible task.
There is no single majority for any kind of Brexit in the House of Commons, and even less amongst the people of Britain. Today, Brexit is more than just a mishandled situation, it's an unstoppable force colliding with multiple immovable objects, and it’s tearing us apart. Brexit has become a national embarrassment. From the deceptions and total lack of preparation of Vote Leave, to the incompetence of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats’ willingness to ignore the referendum and attempt to remain, and the Labour Party’s cowardice in its failure to choose a coherent, and realistically deliverable, Brexit strategy for nearly three years.
THE TRUTH IS, none of this is surprising. Our family dinner table is no more united than the state of the country.
I have a mother and brother who support Brexit, a father who craves a United States of Europe, and another brother who I haven’t heard mention Brexit, except for in a satirical manner. I have one set of grandparents who are staunch Remainers, and a grandfather who flirted with Nigel Farage’s’ UK Independence Party. “You don’t understand”; “shut up!”; “out of touch with the common man” and “are you really that dense?” are frequently thrown around the table as we eat my mother’s delicious food. Even the “golden ticket” Brexit argument, which goes something along the lines of “what’s wrong with wanting to control our borders, laws and money?” occurs to this day at our dinner table.
My friends are no different: two are strong advocates of Brexit, and two others fight Brexit every step of the way. Their families are equally divided. Divorce was even on the cards for one of my friend’s parents. It was only quelled by them embarking on weekend country walks with the dog in an effort to escape the political cauldron family kitchens and living rooms have all too often become since the Brexit referendum.
What’s clear is that, if my family and friends were given the responsibility to reach a compromise on what Britain's departure from the EU should look like, we would fail miserably. It is this, simple, and yet nuanced explanation of the dire state of division—not just amongst parliament, but the country itself—that shows the oversimplified and fatally flawed nature of the in/out referendum. Nobody knew then, and indeed nobody knows now, what exactly to do next. Untangling the close economic and political cooperation of the last 40 years, between the UK and the EU, was never going to be a simple task. More poignantly, it certainly could not be solved by a binary question on 34 million ballot papers.
Brexit was never a two sided debate with a yes or no answer, and should never have been offered in a yes or no question. It’s always been made up of a plethora of opinions, and when all but one of those opinions unite against the odd one out, whatever that one option may be, it will always be the least favoured option. There is no simple answer, which is why it should never have been presented as such a simple question.
There is a majority both within parliament and the country against a no-deal Brexit because of the drastic political, economic, and social consequences it would hold—particularly for the most vulnerable. But both a second referendum and a “soft Brexit” are deeply polarizing—let alone flat out revocation of Article 50.
For decades, many have felt let down by Westminster and the metropolitan elite. Rightly or wrongly, many of them voted leave, believing it would bring about change. A re-run of the referendum would be confirming the very reason why a large proportion of the working class voted for Brexit; they felt ignored, and a second vote would do nothing but reinforce their sense of alienation.
These irreconcilable truths have been exacerbated by politicians more concerned with their domestic constituencies than in telling hard truths, and compromising. The hard Brexiteers of Vote Leave were deceptive and totally unprepared; the Conservative Party has been riven by infighting and incompetence; the Liberal Democrats are willing to outright ignore the referendum result in the hopes of remaining; and Labour has been cowardly in its attempt to play to both its Leave and Remain constituencies, and in so doing, propose no real coherent and deliverable Brexit strategy for nearly three years.
The British have a reputation for being level-headed, steadfast in the face of adversity, and brave in the face of danger. The stiff upper lip, head down approach I believe now to be a thing of the past. The divisions unleashed by a single vote in June 2016 cannot be underestimated. The consequences will affect not just my life, but the lives of my children and children’s children. Be them good or bad, I believe it is too soon to tell: the divisions unleashed will not go away with a hard Brexit, second referendum, or time.
Jo Cox, a pro-EU Member of Parliament who was shot and stabbed to death in a politically motivated attack just days before the 2016 referendum, left words that should guide us: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” In a ruptured country, the only answer to polarization is inclusion. There is something bigger than Brexit, and that is that we must strive to retain the middle ground that allows us to function together, to include those who share different political values and ideas. The Westminster establishment and the European Council must work hard to address the very people who feel threatened by their very existence. This is a lesson which both the UK, and indeed the EU, should ignore at their own peril if they wish to emerge at the end of the tunnel with their heads held high.
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue