Contemplating a Christmas this year without turkey, toys or a tree, I wondered to myself what it might take for people to decide that Brexit was maybe not as great as it was cracked up to be, and start thinking about whether being in the European Union might not be so bad, after all. Maybe this is the start of a backlash. Soon the opposition parties will start to mumble about a closer relationship with our closest friends, neighbours and economic partners, with whom we have so much in common. Then there’d be a few brave souls making the case to rejoin the EU. The tectonic plates of public opinion would shift again, and the politicians would follow. Could it happen? Could Brexit be reversed?
Seems not. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey, the most authoritative and insightful portrait of the changing views of the public, reveals that the country is as bitterly divided as ever. About nine out of 10 of Leave and Remain voters, respectively, hold firm to the vote they cast five momentous years ago. They’re not for turning. Maybe it’s not so surprising, given that Brexit still hasn’t been “done”, the government is currently attempting to renegotiate the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, and there is talk of the French cutting the electricity off because they can’t fish as they used to in UK waters. So there isn’t, even now, a Brexit that everyone can muster around in a spirit of shared national endeavour. On the contrary, the bitterness is as ugly as ever.
In an especially nasty exchange in the House of Commons in 2019, Boris Johnson, then using confrontational language and unconstitutional tricks to get Brexit done, told MPs that the best way to unite the nation and honour the memory of Jo Cox was for everyone to get behind Brexit. He was rightly vilified for his performance and, of course, the general election and passage of the necessary legislation merely served to generate fresh traumas. There is little sign among the prime minister’s followers of magnanimity in victory, as Churchill famously recommended. Brexit did not unite us.
Unlike the usual games of party politics, where voters switch sides relatively freely, Brexit seems to be an issue where people feel personally invested in its success, or failure, and inclined to dismiss any evidence to the contrary. They are entrenched, and when bombarded with arguments and experiences to the contrary, they just dig a deeper trench. Brexit is in a different category of political identity to mere party allegiance, and the voters’ devotion to their 2016 vote has something of the quality of religious, cultist fervour, infused with patriotic ardour. By the looks of it, it will last for decades, and the wounds are not going to heal.
Politically, this suits the Conservatives, who can exploit the issue and rerun the 2019 election endlessly, but in the longer run demographics will work against them. Older Leave votes will die off and the younger, pro-EU cohorts will form a more and more substantial pro-EU majority – because they seem unlikely to ever get used to Brexit, or reconciled to the events of 2016. The Remainers will morph into Rejoiners, not reluctant Brexiteers.
The only good news here is that the divisions are so deep that the Festival of Brexit has had to be reimagined. You might remember this jolly project, which was supposed to be a cross between VE Day, the 1951 Festival of Britain and a royal wedding – yes, that grim – supposedly to celebrate our collective “liberation” from the largest and most prosperous trading bloc on the planet. In reality, it was just going to be a giant taxpayer-funded victory parade for the Leave campaign, and it’s so unacceptable that even Nadine Dorries has had to pack it in. Instead, it’s going to be rebranded as “Unboxed” – unhinged, more like – and there’s to be no mention of Brexit. It’s just another arts festival.
Apparently, Unboxed’s Galwad project, based in Wales, will use futuristic streets as a backdrop to live performances and television dramas about a “dystopian 2052 future”. It’s probably not what Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg would want to go and see, but it sounds about right.
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