Brexit day looms. The fight to shape what comes next will be the endeavour of our lives

How can we accept a project we know will cause our country so much harm?

January 30, 2020

And so the moment finally arrives. The climax of three and a half years is just hours away. In truth it is the climax of 47 years and one month of our EU membership. In some ways it is just another milestone amid centuries of unresolved arguing. This journey began long before we joined and will continue long after we leave.

The officially sanctioned theme on Friday is celebration. We can all agree something momentous is about to happen, but cannot agree on what any of it signifies or presages, still less how to mark the actual moment. A couple of weeks ago I provoked right-wing media outrage when, on a radio show, I made a throwaway, non-literal remark that Remainers would organise a larger counter-protest to any formal festivities. My intention was not to re-fight a battle the Remain side had lost, but to express the point that this was no national celebration, no coming together and certainly no moment of healing. How can we celebrate a moment so many millions continue to oppose? How can we unite around a movement which has so resolutely failed to compromise? How can we accept a project we know will cause our country so much harm?

My storm, at least, was limited. Hugh Grant caused a far greater stir when he declared that Britain was “finished.”

The story on Friday will be personal and collective. Millions of Britons who never cared about the EU one way or the other have now concretised their feelings about it into their identity. It is emotional for both Remainers and Leavers. I will be thinking about the first day I visited the European Parliament in 2011, a mild Eurosceptic who didn’t much think about the EU, didn’t much trust it, and who worried about the supposed homogenisation it engendered. I will reflect on the three years I spent working there, when I learnt how the EU actually works and how it drives forward an ethic of cooperation and compromise. And I will think of the progression since the referendum from despair to hope to defeat.

The national story is still being written. Decades from now, historians will question how the Daily Mail proclaimed “Europe, here we come!” when we joined and “Take a bow, Britain!” when we voted to leave. This is a story of at least 30 years of collective disinformation. But it is also a story of the empire, the Blitz, of mutual misunderstanding and bad timing. It is a story of the myth of our own difference, and how that actually makes us so alike others in the EU.

The European Parliament makes a point of celebrating the specificities not just of individual member states but of individual regions and towns. The politicians showcase their local delicacies and highlight the unique character of the places they represent. Never in my time there did I ever see an MEP demand an end to that specificity. Other countries value their identity and individuality just as much as the British. Unlike us, however, they understand that they don’t have to perform it by erecting new trade barriers and destroying thousands of their own people’s jobs.

This is a national breakage. We are breaking something important, wilfully but pointlessly, for reasons our leaders have never been able to explain without mythologizing or lying. This is the fruit of a romantic nationalism freed from libraries and newspaper columns and let loose on people’s actual lives. It is, in fact, less a breakage than a breakdown. We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore—and the whole world is going to know it.

This element of Brexit is frequently underestimated. It is not a show simply directed at ourselves: it is public performance. We know we have made a spectacle of ourselves and that is also the point. Like a child in the supermarket who knows they are being watched, we feel a thrill in direct proportion to the embarrassment of spectators. While the world was taking us seriously it was also looking through us. Now people will see us and will pay attention. This is Brexit as catharsis. Its emotional charge rests in the chains of a real empire we imposed on the world and the chains of an imaginary one the world imposed on us. The legacy of the real one we seek to ignore; the imaginary one we have obsessed over.

There will be a small light show on Friday, and some Leavers will play the sound of Big Ben over a loudspeaker. Both will soon be forgotten. The more significant performance, as ever, will be political. It was brought home, in all its smallness, by prime minister’s botched and swiftly withdrawn appeal to crowdfund the clock’s famous bongs. We have seen it this week with the launch of a commemorative coin, with the facile slogan of “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”—all the things the EU brought and which Brexit risks. And we watched it in a pitiful video from Europe minister Chris Pincher as he left the last meeting of the EU Council with British representation, where he affirmed our friendship and wished our friends luck. He did not explain why we were doing any of this to our friends, and certainly not why we were doing it to ourselves.

But we are doing this. It is happening. The question nobody in power can answer is what happens next. What, precisely, comes after the charge is released? After the light show has finished, the tinny bongs have sounded and the flag-wavers have gone home? What happens after the coins have been minted? What happens after the global performance? What happens after Brexit is done?

Hugh Grant was both right and wrong. A part of Britain—internationalist, pragmatic and serious—is indeed finished. Another part—hubristic, deluded and exceptionalist—remains only too vividly. And yet nothing ever vanishes entirely. If something has finished, something else will emerge. The fight to shape it will be the endeavour of our lives.