How Brexit failed the past and stole the future
Once upon a time, progress was inevitable. Wasn’t it? Neither simple nor linear. Trial and error had its piece to play. But we learn from history. Don’t we? I certainly hoped so. But I’m beginning to wonder. I’m a child of the 20th century. And as the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, I’m watching with dismay — and alarm — as we eschew its lessons and squander the fragile legacy we inherited at the Millennium.
Perspective matters. But there’s no doubt that our decision, two years ago, to say au revoir and auf wiedersehen to our European partners, has left that legacy in a wretched state. Brexit isn’t just economic folly. It’s a symbol of a far more profound malaise. In taking back control, we’re turning our back on reciprocity. We are, it seems, past caring about the world. How did it come to this? Surely the hardest lesson of the bloodiest, costliest century of warfare in human history was that inter-dependency is fundamental to building a safer, more prosperous world.
I was born just 16 years after the end of the second world war. In middle age that seems little more than the blink of an eye. Growing up, it was a long time ago. Yet its presence in our everyday lives was palpable. My mother handed down stories of her wartime childhood — of the sacrifices made during hostilities, the austerity that followed and the exuberance of the Festival of Britain in its wake. The national mood lifting — imagine that.
One of my earliest memories is of being taken to watch Winston Churchill’s funeral aged three and hoisted onto the shoulders of a policeman so that I could see the cortege. We were told that we had won the war with Churchill, defeating the Germans in whose presence we shouldn’t mention it. But, despite the claims of Eurosceptics to the contrary, and in particular, the tendency to misattribute his declaration that, ‘We are with Europe, but not of it’, Churchill was a European.
As I grew up, the idea that our lives had been shaped by the war, and the Great War which preceded it, was inescapable. The latter had been ‘the war to end all wars’ but it had only succeeded in creating the conditions for the former. In turn, those wars had been replaced by another — the Cold War. An altogether different conflict, heralded by the fall of the Iron Curtain and an unknowable grey world beyond it. The Soviets were the bogeymen now.
Two competing narratives, neither of which I fully understood, played out in my teenage years. One was of post-war consensus at home and cooperation abroad. I was 14 when the Common Market referendum took place. The other was of a world divided by an ideological schism, an alarming nuclear arms race and international espionage brought to our still black and white television screen in the form of Alec Guinness’ portrayal of George Smiley.
And then, in the space of 10 years, the world I had grown up in changed utterly. The post-war consensus was shattered by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher who, despite her earlier support for the Common Market, was to become a symbol of Euroscepticism. Thatcher went on to play a pivotal role in bringing about the geo-political thaw which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet, even so, she wanted it to remain intact for fears of the threat posed by a unified Germany to European security.
Thatcher didn’t prevail. The pendulum swung back to a social democratic model of sorts, albeit one framed by a new global order, and we clung on at the edge of Europe. Consensus and cooperation regained their places in the way of things. Yet all the while, the seeds of Brexit were being sown by a terminally stubborn conflict at the heart of the Conservative party. And by a Labour Government which gambled with sensitivities about migration from Eastern Europe without ever making a robust and transparent case for it.
And then on June 23rd, 2016, the unthinkable, yet perhaps inevitable, happened. There was only so long we could continue to be part of something we felt such unease about and whose spoils were treasured by some and increasingly resented by others. I was in Sunderland recently. It’s not hard to see where it all went wrong. David Cameron took a colossal gamble and a hapless, Eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn played straight into the hands of the Brexiteers. There were two versions of fear on offer — and the wrong one won.
As I staggered, bleary-eyed into work after a night which had seen hope drain from the television screen, I was overcome by a sense of grief which I was barely prepared for. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it coming. For several months prior to the poll, I had become ever more convinced that the outcome was at best precarious. Even the early noises that Remain had it in the bag on the night didn’t persuade me. Worse still, I knew that Scots would back remain decisively but that it wouldn’t be enough.
But my grief wasn’t borne out of shock at the result itself. What I felt as I cried — albeit aided and abetted by lack of sleep — in my office that morning, was a deep-rooted emotional loss. The world I had grown up in had been turned on its head — again. But this time there was, for me, no upside. My safe European home had been taken away. It was as if the 20th century hadn’t happened. ‘Splendid isolation’ was back.
In the two years that have passed since that fateful morning, the grinding chaos of a Brexit narrowly secured by half-truths and downright lies has played out relentlessly on 24-hour news. Its victors had been plotting for decades but had neglected to give a second thought to what should happen if they actually won.
Catastrophically, neither had anyone else in either of the two largest parties. And yet as the deep disarray and rampant cluelessness of it all has persisted, no one has been prepared to go back to the people and state the blindingly obvious. Not ‘you got it wrong’ but ‘we got it wrong.’ Truth-telling has been found wanting and the last thing anyone is prepared to say in a hung parliament where party advantage is top dog, is, ‘the game’s up — we sold you a pup.’
For those most deserving of an economic miracle — in Sunderland and elsewhere — the worst thing is not merely that it won’t happen but that the true cost of Brexit will only be clear when it’s much too late. Yet, the thing that leaves Brexit most wanting is something more existential — and significantly more dangerous even than that.
And it’s this. We are choosing at a moment in history when international cooperation has never been more desperately needed, to turn in on ourselves — to set our face against our closest neighbours, including one within these islands. We have decided to eschew common purpose, to go it alone rather than work together when confronted by the gravest crises the world has known.
At the turn of the century, we had a chance to learn from the one we were leaving behind. The lessons were abundant and clear. We just had to take note. Progress was possible, but we decided to cash it in for a trip up a blind alley to a place that never was. What needless vandalism. The future was supposed to be better than this.