This evening, the 31st of January at 11pm, the UK officially left the EU. It is an odd evening, it’s quite quiet. Sure the extremists, the Brexiteers and Remainers will be celebrating or commiserating amongst themselves, but for most ordinary Britons it’s a much more complicated feeling. In my town, it feels like a typical Friday night. There are no flags being waved. It’s simply been the last day we are likely to see these three flags flying together for some time, if ever.
There is a sense of sadness as the great European project of comradeship across the continent that came from the end of the World wars of the twentieth century hasn’t worked well enough to bring a clear majority of Britons behind it, despite decades of negative press from the UKs far-right media barons.
There is also a sense of relief, that after five years of endless arguments that never reached a conclusion is now over, even if nothing was decided. and families and friends can begin the process of healing.
However, if you’re not a determined anti-EU activist, there is nothing to celebrate, at least not yet. As I’ve argued previously, Brexit wasn’t really about membership of the EU. Brexit has been more about a general discontent with modern politics and the economy. Ordinary people feel that life is getting harder, they have less money in their pockets and politicians seem ever further detached from their everyday concerns. The EU framed as part of the problem serving wealthy elites and big corporations and failed to address the concerns of ordinary people. The Brexit cry was for sovereignty, for democracy, to “Take Back Control”
Yet the great irony of Brexit is that those leading the charge to Brexit have put Boris Johnson’s Tories in charge for probably the next five years. A political grouping that believes in centralisation and supports big corporations and ignores the needs of ordinary people. How this UK government may move forward is disturbing to contemplate. Hence there is no cause to celebrate yet.
It is a great irony as if Brexit was for democracy, for accountability, then surely there would be cries for electoral reform, for greater devolution. Yet there has been little of that, at least from the Brexiteers, the advocates of Brexit.
It is odd that the Brexiteers are against centralisation of political power at an EU level but in favour of centralisation at a UK level. It seems it isn’t about a political creed of where power should lie but instead from a Nationalism about the British state. It may simply be that this democratic argument has been lost amid the sheer weight of populist nationalist fervour whipped up by the Brexiteers.
It’s difficult to accept that this anti-centralisation, democratic argument is that widely held. It is known that the racists, the intolerant of diversity and British Nationalists have quite different motivations for Brexit. It is not known how the support for Brexit breaks down between these two and other groups. From the Remain side, there are calls for democracy, for Independence for Wales, for Scotland and political reunification of the island of Ireland. The way Brexit has unfolded makes this restoration of the nations of Britain more likely as Brexit is perhaps the last huzzah of British Nationalism?
The real issue now is the trade arrangements with the EU. Trade Deals are a giving up of sovereignty, potentially far greater than membership of the EU. Will the UK keep aligned with the EU or become the pawn of the USA and a subsequent huge shift in culture. Instead of unity, the divisions of the UK may continue for years to come. This is all on the basis if the UK survives the next five years in its present form at all.
So, there is just a sense of apprehension, uncertainty and fear. A hope for unity whilst the loudest voices push for more division. Who will the Brexiteers now turn to to blame for the UKs woes, now rid of the EU bogeyman, for fear that ordinary people will notice that they are part of the problem. Yet there is a hope that radical change will come and the nations or former nations of the UK may return to consider closer cooperation with the rest of Europe. A hope that a light is left on the enable the nations of the UK to find the partnership it actually wants. For that is it essentially, the UK is leaving the EU, primary to sort itself out, to deal with its own internal problems, despite the EU not being responsible for them and that process has barely begun. It leaves it vulnerable to wondering if it’s worth fighting for the Union or to reform itself into something new (I think it has to), to then be confident in itself be able to work out the relationship with the rest of Europe it wants.
It seems the nations of the UK have a lot to work out and lack the political apparatus to do that in the short-term. Whatever happens the relationship between the peoples of the Britain and mainland Europe will remain interesting, for the British nations remain European nations. The story of Britain’s romance with Europe has more chapters to run.