Two years ago, I wrote an article for The New European about how I thought that perhaps the country needed a hard Brexit in order to move on from the Brexit wars. That enough people were never going to turn against Brexit unless they experienced the downsides of it first-hand. Between then and the present day, I went through a phase of chucking this aside and hoping that Brexit could actually be stopped. This feels naive now for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that stopping Brexit would have been difficult even if we’d had a leader of the opposition who was both brilliant and passionately pro-European, and Corbyn was certainly neither of those things.
So, now here we are, the day the UK leaves the European Union. Sort of, at least. Everything stays the same until the end of 2020. But certainly, the Brexit experiment is going ahead. As I thought in February of 2018, it had to. Yet I believe there are many reasons for Remainers to keep their chins up today.
One, the period between the 2017 general election and the 2019 one was not a total write-off for pro-Europeanism in Britain – in fact, far from it. Those heavily attended marches, the six million revoke petition, the fight to Remain in those years that came weirdly close to succeeding given the range of forces against it, none of that was in vain. It created what may well be the largest pro-European movement in a single country throughout all of Europe. While there is nothing for this movement to do in the immediate future, it’s still there and it won’t go away. The country remains divided on Brexit, which many people point to as proof of the failure of the Remainers but the opposite is true – the country should be solidly behind Brexit now, by at least 70-30. Yet there isn’t a majority in favour of it on the day we leave. This is the legacy of what pro-European campaigners and MPs have done over the past two and a half years.
Why this matters is it puts a lot more pressure on Brexit to be a success in order to remain the status quo. The young are overwhelmingly pro-European, which means that Brexit will struggle to hang on unless it is a sizeable success. Some pro-Brexit Conservative pundits have pointed to the fact that as people get older their politics change and they tend to become more conservative. Fine, except that pro-Europeanism isn’t a left-right issue and there is nothing to suggest that as people get older they will become less pro-European, particularly if Brexit entails job losses, institutions crumbling and a loosening of fiscal rules that results in the country going deeper into massive debt.
Let the Brexiteers have tonight to celebrate. It could be the last time they do so as a collective force, with the choices Brexit inflicts on the country becoming more stark, more depressing, more difficult as time goes on. Listen to the Brexit end of punditry and you’ll find a weird note of panic in there. The next thing they need to do is to try and destroy the European Union itself, some of them are now saying. Yes, because they know that if there is an EU to go back to, that may well be where the next generation takes us a decade or a decade and a half from now. They are the victorious revolutionaries, like Lenin, looking at what comes next and realising they now have to put their theories into practice – and feeling more than a little unsure about how they might work in reality.
We are entering the Brexit years and I know that isn’t a pleasant thought. But keep your heads held high and look to the future. Despite what Brexiteers dearly hope for, the EU isn’t going anywhere. Brexit has strengthened the EU, not weakened it, as any objective viewer would tell you (which I appreciate, I am not among). Brexit now becomes reality with all of its foibles. A pro-European who is also a decent man is about to become leader of the Labour Party, mostly because of the work of Remain campaigners. Don’t despair.