If you have at any point glanced at the news in the last few days, you will probably know that Prime Minister Theresa May has sent (to put it mildly) a rather important letter. In doing so, the PM has officially begun the process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Nine months after the referendum, Article 50 has been triggered. Brexit has finally started.
It seems strangely recent and yet also so long ago, that fateful day in June. So much seems to have changed, even if (until this week) nothing actually had. With the whole saga of Brexit fresh in everyone’s minds (if it ever truly went away), I felt that it was worth writing a little about my experiences of it so far, and how my views have changed over the last nine months.
I have never been an ardent Europhile, it has to be said. However, to be honest I didn’t really think too much about it. The European Union was always just something that was ‘there’, as monolithic (if more distant) than our own national government. When debates came up, my basic argument was similar to that given for taxes – yes, it’s not great, but the world works better with it than without it. Yes, the imposed laws were a pain and it would be nice to have more control over immigration, but I always assumed that the economic downsides would be so detrimental that the UK would always be better off in that out.
In truth, I subconsciously – and certainly naively – always considered these debates a little academic anyway. Everybody knew that when it came down to it, the British public would never vote to leave the EU. Sure, there were some crackpots, xenophobes and anti-establishment types who would, but the majority of people would always vote for the status quo and their economic security, right?
When it came to actually voting in the referendum, I did consider my choice, and was never 100% Remain. I toyed with the idea of voting Leave, probably more to be awkward than anything else, but in the end I was always going to vote to stay. In the future, it would be nice to say I voted at least once for the winning side, I thought.
On the actual day of the referendum, I gave it little thought. I had voted already by post, and I spent the night out with friends. In the morning, I woke up and checked my phone to see how much Remain had won by. I had to glance at it twice before I realised the implications of what I was reading.
Somehow, the assured Remain victory had become a defeat. The British public had decided to Leave.
I was amazed, shocked even, but not horrified. In some ways, I was excited – nervously so – by the prospect of an unexpected future. My interest was stoked. The political animal inside me, dormant for some time out of sheer apathy, woke up.
Recently, I heard Tim Ferriss talk about his reaction to the victory of Donald Trump. He said he had clearly expected a Clinton victory, and when he realised that the opposite was going to happen, he simply thought: what have I missed? I realise now that I had very much the same thoughts – if not consciously so – on the sunny day after the referendum. All political certainty, everything the experts said, had been proven wrong. What had I missed?
Then I went on Facebook. Oh dear.
The vast majority of my Facebook Friends were Remainers, most of them far more dedicated to the cause than I. A lot of them had decided to air their grievances online. From that moment I started to get an inkling of the causes of Brexit.
People who voted for Brexit were all “racist” apparently; “ignorant” and “stupid” as well. These upset people seemed to be claiming that 51% of their fellow citizens were scum, essentially. When I publicly asked people to stop being so abusive, I was shouted down aggressively.
I could understand that they were angry and upset so close to the event itself, were not thinking rationally, and wanted to vent their frustrations. The sad thing was that this sort of talk was being repeated and condoned by a large part of the mainstream media – even by politicians. I couldn’t believe it. Surely these people could not be seriously suggesting that the majority vote for Brexit was entirely based in racism and ignorance?
I started to understand around about this time just how divided British society had become – how whole segments of society barely interacted with, and could not understand one another. How ‘my lot’ – young, liberal-lefty student-types – had such a poor understanding of other Britons that they dismissed them all as ignorant and xenophobic. How in turn some Britons who voted Leave could happily dismiss anybody who voted Remain as elitist and unpatriotic. How our broad similarities had been crushed by our focus on petty differences.
I also realised how so many previous political certainties were wrong. That people always voted for the status quo and primarily for economic reasons; that class was no longer an issue in British politics; that our mainstream political parties broadly represented most of the populace fairly well. Or, finally, that we had reached “the End of History” and that our current political system was to endure into perpetuity. I believe that the victory of President Trump, and the upcoming election in France, confirm that the issues affecting Britain are not confined to these isles.
Since the events of last year, my political beliefs have remoulded themselves, perhaps particularly on Brexit. I realise now that the Brexit result was, in many ways, barely about the European Union. It was more a protest vote against a political climate that really did not work for everyone and had been effectively ignoring the plight of so many citizens for years. As such, I now – perhaps perversely – welcome the result as a chance for our political system to change for the better, to represent the British public as a whole. That does not mean I necessarily believe that leaving the European Union is the right decision, but I do think there is the opportunity for Britain to potentially do very well out of it. This a rather sizeable change from before, when I thought it would be impossible for the UK to have any sort of good deal from the EU, and vice versa. Now, I believe that if all goes to plan (which, admittedly, is unlikely) we could end up with a deal that works relatively well for Britain and the European Union, and which leads to a bright future for both.
This all sounds very optimistic, and indeed it is perhaps naïve. There are certainly huge challenges ahead – trade rights, the ‘divorce bill’ and Northern Ireland being just a few. However, I have faith – for now at least – that there are enough sensible people on both sides of the table who can come to a workable deal.
Perhaps in a few months time I will have to write ‘Brexit Revisited Again’, and reveal another change in heart. But for now, I am cautiously optimistic about the future. We have a few hard years ahead, no doubt, but we will all survive, and in the long run – hopefully – prosper.