Jonathan Grant / May 2022
A few months ago I was running a training course for academic researchers in the UK. In the evening we had a dinner and at my table of seven, six were UK nationals married to European nationals. We were discussing the heroism of Ukrainians fighting to save their country when I asked an innocent question - would you fight for the UK? To a person the response was no, and it was because of the way everyone’s European partners had been treated as a result of Brexit. Their partners – and themselves - had been explicitly rejected by a country they had made home. They were not cowards nor traitors, they had just been made to feel citizens of nowhere in a country they used to love.
For transparency I was one of those six. For me the 2016 referendum was a watershed moment. I used to shout for England in football matches, follow cricket avidly, and be proud of Britain’s liberal, tolerant and multicultural society. No more. I do follow the football but deep down am relieved if we don’t do well as I can’t stand the jingoistic nationalism that inevitably occurs. Like the people at my table I am ashamed to be British, or perhaps I should say English.
For the majority of voters the 2016 referendum was a moment of liberation and euphoria, but for others it marked the beginning of a period of deep anxiety, lingering anger and self-imposed isolation. The mental health impacts of Brexit are not widely researched (and with COVID would be hard to isolate), but at a personal level it is hard to over emphasise the impact Brexit has had on myself and my family. I remain angry, constantly moan about its failed implementation, and live in hope that one day this colossal own goal will be rectified.
Shortly after the referendum in 2016 I wrote a piece for Encompass where I argued that “whilst I try to have empathy with those leavers, I believe that we have made a terrible mistake. I cannot see how (what is currently) the United Kingdom will not be a weaker, poorer and a less enriched nation in the future because of this decision. …. I sincerely hope I am proved wrong.”
Whilst I was a passionate and proud remainer, over the past few years I have become a sour remoaner. I like to think that if the government had been honest about the implications of Brexit, managed it competently and did not play a game of populist ‘dead cat’ policy bingo my mood would be different. But it is not.
We - remainers and leavers alike - have been persistently lied to by the UK government. The biggest of those lies is the Northern Ireland protocol which puts a border in the Irish Sea although the UK government pretends that is not the case and when challenged on the issue has the audacity to blame the Commission for something it negotiated, signed and took to the nation as evidence of an ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal In 2019. This was a lie, as is the idea that Brexit allowed the UK to go it alone on the covid vaccine roll out or being able to cut VAT on energy bills.
As much as I try not to, I cannot stop equating this industrial level lying (supported by a compliant media and client journalism) to Nazi Germany. In the 1930s, Amy Buller spent a lot of time in Germany capturing her experiences in Darkness Over Germany (first published in 1943 but recently republished in 2017 with the subtitle ‘a warning from history’). The book is an oral history of how the middle class acquiesced to the Nazi’s. In a prescient passage she summarises the playbook of the populist politics that currently dominates the UK: “You will find it not essential to them to know what is the scientific explanation of these problems in detail, for they say what is essential, is that our experience is the basic experience of historical reality.”
In these dark times it is important to try and have some hope. I do believe that there will be an end to the destructive forces that have shaped the political reality of the past 10 years in the UK, but then what?
The first task for a new government must be to heal a divided country and then repair those critical institutions that have been systematically destroyed. That is not a political rewarding task and for that reason it is wishful thinking that in the near term this will include returning to the European Union.
In a more distant future, I do suspect the idea of returning will become politically palatable. This will be driven by widening economic disparities with the European Union and increased marginalisation on the international stage. All of this will be slow and incremental making it hard to diagnose but as COVID and the Ukrainian war become distant memories the debate will return to the impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom (or perhaps by then England and Wales).
However, over that time the European Union is also likely to change, perhaps with greater integration at its core with an outer circle of aligned membership. Some form of alignment is what I think a return could look like. When the Brexit negotiations were on-going, I was involved in some research (summarised on these pages) that looked at what people ‘really really want’ from Brexit. We asked people to trade on different aspects of a Brexit deal and in two rounds of the study concluded that it looked like EFTA membership (aka the ‘Norway option’). That study is now dated and worth repeating, but I suspect in my lifetime this sorry tale ends with the UK returning to Europe through an EFTA-like membership.
In the meantime I will continue to be a proud remainer, a sour remoaner and a hopeful returner.