Fintan O’Toole: ‘Brexternity of endless uncertainty’ starts today
Brexit as advertised – all the benefits of being in the EU, none of the costs – was a fantasy
In the 1960s, at the dawn of New Age hippydom, posters and badges sprouted in dayglo colours with the slogan: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
Well, today is the first day of the rest of the United Kingdom’s life, the dawning of its post-Brexit Age of Aquarius. Though, as Steve Martin once tweeted, “I thought yesterday was supposed to be the first day of the rest of my life; turns out today is.”
March 30th, 2019, was supposed to the first day of the new history of liberated Britain. So was November 1st. At least six other dates have featured in official agreements at various times over the last three years.
Theresa May was much mocked for her mantra 'Leave means Leave'. But it had a kind of honesty ... the act of departure is its own justification
This stuttering progress is one of the reasons why such an epic moment feels so underwhelming. But the sense of anticlimax has deeper causes. To adapt Bob Dylan, we know something is happening but we don’t know what it is. Britain has opened the exit door – it still has no idea what lies outside. It has weighed anchor but it has not bothered to plot a course or even pick a port of arrival.
In the trenches on the Western Front, British Tommies sang their darkly ironic hymn to futility: “We’re here because/We’re here because/We’re here because/ We’re here.”
The victory of the Leave side in the Brexit referendum of 2016, shocking as it was to the country’s Establishment, was a mere sideshow compared with the great catastrophe from which that song emerged. But its outcome might appropriately have been marked at 11pm on January 31st by a lusty massed chorus of “We’re gone because/ We’re gone because/ We’re gone because/ We’re gone.”
Theresa May was much mocked for her mantra “Leave means Leave”. But it had a kind of honesty: the UK has left the European Union because it voted to leave the EU. The destination is scarcely relevant – the act of departure is its own justification.
Johnson even compared his fellow countrymen to the Biblical Jews enslaved in Egypt
The very word Brexit is a contraction of “British exit” – it does not say what Britain is exiting from. At the obvious legal and institutional level, the UK has formally left the EU.
This is a very big event, one that will influence the future of these islands for generations to come. And it comes wrapped in appropriately grandiose rhetoric. In his speech setting out his new government’s plans immediately after his great election victory in December, Boris Johnson told parliament: “I do not think it vainglorious or implausible to say that a new golden age for this United Kingdom is now within reach.”
In fact Johnson won that victory and secured at last the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, not on the promise of a new golden age (which no one really believes in) but on the strangely grim slogan Get Brexit Done. The real appeal was not to the millenarian euphoria of the dawn of a new era of British greatness. It was: let’s get this bloody thing over with.
This is an extremely odd way to frame what is supposed to be the fulfilment of a great popular revolt, an oppressed nation throwing off the yoke of the EU, which (lest we forget) Johnson has compared to Hitler and his supposedly saner rival for the Tory leadership Jeremy Hunt compared to the Soviet Union, with Britain a “prisoner” within it.
The great allure of the promise to Get Brexit Done was in the idea of 'done' meaning not just achieved but 'done with' – finished, dead, laid to rest
Johnson even compared his fellow countrymen to the Biblical Jews enslaved in Egypt, calling on May to evoke “the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharaoh in Brussels: Let my people go!”
If this self-pitying hyperbole were remotely credible to anyone but a handful of obsessives, Brexit Day would have been a moment not just to be celebrated but to be encoded forever in the collective memory, a British equivalent of Passover for the Jews.
Instead, in Johnson’s successful framing of it, Brexit is “done”, over, gone. It has vanished. It happened already and it is not to be spoken of now. The Huffington Post reported shortly after the December election that the word “Brexit” was to be officially removed from public discourse, with the disbandment of the Department for Exiting the European Union and the renaming of the Brexit press team as the “Europe and economy” unit.
The great allure of the promise to Get Brexit Done was in the idea of “done” meaning not just achieved but “done with” – finished, dead, laid to rest. It recast the period from 2016 to 2019, no longer as a glorious struggle for a joyful emancipation, but as a bad trip from which everyone had to come down.
In the ultimate irony, Brexit has ceased to be a release from the EU and has become a release from itself. Brexit has morphed from Let My People Go to Let My People Stop Banging On About Brexit. In keeping with the wilfully self-generating nature of the whole episode, the relief has become purely autoerotic.
The leadership of both main British parties kept alive the fantasy that everything would change and nothing would change
Why has it ended up so anticlimactically? The sheer weariness of 3½ years of political paralysis is part of it. So is the experience of multiple Independence Days coming and going with no change. So is the reality that Brexit really only kicks in at the end of 2020. And so is the vague awareness that Brexit is not done at all and that, as real negotiations get under way and real choices have to be made, all the tedium and rancour will return. But there is a deeper reason. The whole idea is that the moment of departure marks a historic turning-point, a point of no return when the past becomes the present and the present opens the way to a radically transformed future. Yet the Brexit project could never live up to this promise.
On the surface, it proposes a linear historical motion: from the “then” of 1973-2020, when Britain was enslaved in the EU, to the “now” of the moment of destiny on January 31st , when it entered a new phase of existence, to the future state after liberation when Global Britain would re-emerge to lead the world again. But not very far beneath the surface was the illusion that the new “now” would still have all the good things from “then”. Brexit was simultaneously imagined as both a decisive break from the past and an easy continuation of it.
This was the essence of the “have cake/eat cake” fantasy. The then Brexit secretary David Davis told the House of Commons in January 2017: “What we have come up with . . . is the idea of a comprehensive free-trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.”
The opposition Labour Party then laid down six tests for what an acceptable Brexit would look like, and one of them explicitly echoed Davis: “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?”
This meant that the leadership of both main British parties kept alive the fantasy that everything would change and nothing would change, that the day of departure from the EU would be at once a defining date with destiny and a casual hook-up over a shared love of cake.
It also meant that the core of the British political system was caught in a state of self-induced paralysis, willing neither to oppose Brexit itself nor to accept what, in the real world, it would actually look like: a voluntary swapping of first-class membership in the EU for a subordinate, second-class membership.
Brexit as advertised – all the benefits of being in the EU with none of the costs – was always a project that could not survive contact with reality
Both main British parties were thus unable to articulate a tangible sense of either the “before” or the “after”, clear neither about the supposed wrongs of nearly half a century of EU membership nor about the future that supposedly begins today.
The “special place in Hell” that the then president of the EU council Donald Tusk reserved for those who had led their country into such a momentous shift with no plan for what lay beyond it, is really an especially hellish kind of time, in which Brexit is both “done” and eternal.
Brexit, from the moment of its triumph on June 23rd, 2016, was always already finished. It was dead on arrival. The “ex” was built in: it could not survive its victory because victory moved it from the invented to the real, from the struggle against imaginary oppression to the impossibility of freeing yourself from non-existent tyranny.
Brexit as advertised – all the benefits of being in the EU with none of the costs – was always a project that could not survive contact with reality.
But alongside this instant ex-Brexit, there runs what 40 former senior British ambassadors and high commissioners called, in an open letter in February 2019, “a ‘Brexternity’ of endless uncertainty about our future”.
Brexit is the afterlife of dead fantasies, but the thing about afterlives is that they are infinite. Brexit is in the past but it is not over. No one can really imagine a post-Brexit Britain, partly because the upheaval has made it impossible to be confident that the UK will continue to exist as a political entity and partly because, however it unfolds, its long-term consequences will be as profound as they are unknowable.
The EU will continue to exert a huge influence over Britain, setting the primary terms on which it will trade, while Britain is giving up all of its very considerable influence over the EU
For Brexit is a phony answer to very real questions. We know what has led to it: the deep uncertainties about the Union after the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the Scottish parliament the following year; the consequent rise of English nationalism; the profound regional and social inequalities within England itself; a generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state and its promise of shared citizenship; the contempt for the poor and vulnerable expressed through a decade of austerity; the emergence of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class.
But leaving the EU does not resolve any of those tensions and it makes some of them (the fragility of the Union and the generational divide) much deeper.
This is why, as Andrew Cooper, a former adviser to the British government, put it: “There’s no such thing as post-Brexit, I think it will define us for the rest of our lives.”
And it provides little sustenance for that long journey into the afterlife. An appeal to the plucky English ability to endure pain must wear thin when the pain is self-inflicted. A tragicomic self-parody of an Englishness that draws on distorted memories of the second World War, strange reversals of imperial attitudes and recycled myths of heroic failure cannot form the basis for a genuine departure from the past. The promise of a golden age is not a plan.
Back in 1971, when the British government published the White Paper that led to the UK joining the European Communities, it said that failure to join would mean that “In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would . . . rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world.”
It also spelled out the brutal reality that Britain would be profoundly affected by Europe even if it stayed out: “Our power to influence the Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”
Those two realities have not altered. A European future was and is the only real alternative to an imperial past. The very uncertainty about its place in the world that led Britain, however reluctantly, to take its place at the European table, now returns with a vengeance.
The post-imperial delusions of grandeur that could not be sustained even immediately after the end of Empire cannot be made real half a century further on. The old imperial possessions – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India – have long since gone their own way and will not be returning to the fold.
And it remains as true today as it was in 1971 that the EU will continue to exert a huge influence over Britain, setting the primary terms on which it will trade, while Britain is giving up all of its very considerable influence over the EU.
As those realities gradually dawn, today’s shining new daybreak will look a lot more grey.