After the EU referendum result landed in June 2016, I was deeply distraught. I had been pro-European and argued the pro-EU cause well before it was in any way fashionable. Yet once May became prime minister and laid out her Brexit stall, it became obvious to me that leaving the EU was inevitable. We had a PM who had built her premiership straight from the start on negotiating a deal and then leaving the bloc, coupled with a leader of the opposition who was clearly pro-Brexit. All of the parties who were anti-Brexit were either on the floor (the Lib Dems) or specifically regional (SNP, Plaid). Nothing was going to stop Brexit from happening.
Given this, I decided to explore Brexit; to get under its skin and find out what there was to be positive about leaving the European Union that hadn’t occurred to me before. I had a day job for almost two years that was built around understanding how regulation could be better if we left the EU. I set to it with aplomb; if we were going to leave the EU – and I was completely convinced that we were – than it was best to try an understand how this could have upsides.
My work left me none the wiser. In fact, it deepened my like of the EU. In exploring the regulatory landscape, I was constantly reading EU Directives that were remarkably well-constructed – alongside UK regulation that was poorly designed and worded. Far from businesses telling me that they were drowning in EU regulation, they almost always wanted things to stay pretty much as they were, regulation-wise. Throughout this period, I would talk to Brexiteers about leaving to try and understand it from their point of view. Yet the discussions always – always – left me even more baffled. A well-known pro-Brexit pundit talking about how leaving will mean we can trade more with the world, before less than a minute later, complaining about how much food we import. A narrative that told us that Britain held “all the cards” after Brexit, but then finding no contradiction in the fact that the EU are able to “bully” us.
It is always this way. I wrote an article yesterday about how my very Leaver father had become a Remainer where I mentioned that he lived in Canada and that there had been no positive press there about Brexit, and that in fact, there is no positive press about Brexit outside of Britain as far as I have seen. I got this comment beneath the article:
Nick, I am puzzed as why you think this would matter a jot to Leave voters: “there is no positive press on Brexit anywhere outside of Britain”
This comment makes no sense if you’re trying to understand Brexit as a logical process. I thought Brexit was about “unshackling” ourselves from the EU so we could strike our own trade deals with the rest of the world? If that’s the case, the fact that the rest of the world sees Brexit in negative terms exclusively is a massive problem to this plan being successful in the slightest. If we want to trade in our relationship with the EU for a new trade arrangement with the wealthier Commonwealth countries such as Canada, isn’t the fact that the press in Canada is wholly negative toward Brexit – in fact, the centre-right newspapers that my father reads are wholly negative toward Brexit – a huge problem when it comes to wanting to establish a trading relationship with these countries?
But that’s just it: I have always been looking at Brexit the wrong way. I have been looking at it as what happens when Britain leaves the European Union and trying to ascertain from there what that means for British society and its economy. This was always all wrong. Brexit is a completely empty vessel, which is the reason it is so easy to rally around if you’re that way inclined. Just as it was in the referendum campaign, Brexit can mean anything you want it to mean: getting rid of foreigners you don’t like, re-establishing the British Empire, the country being more left/right-wing in its politics. The magic of Brexit and why it has captured half the British population at different times is that it has no specific meaning and can just be a canvass upon which to project whatever it is you need to project.
This is the main reason why I don’t think Brexit will ever happen, or if it does somehow, it will be completely by accident. Brexit must be “betrayed” because it can never become reality; the moment that it does, its allure for the vast majority of Leavers will disappear. It will cease to be the thing they projected their hopes and fears onto and become cold, hard reality. In searching for the meaning of Brexit, I found literally nothing at all.