The Brexit vote four years on: How a project to boost prosperity, democracy and national pride destroyed all three

The anniversary helps us understand the ways in which history is constructed

June 23, 2020
Elisabeth Moseley/DPA/PA Images
Elisabeth Moseley/DPA/PA Images

It is not often that an anniversary of independence is marked with a “shock and awe” campaign, but Brexit is no ordinary liberation struggle. Last week it was revealed that the government is unleashing a multi-million pound information blitz to prepare business and consumers for the end of the transition period in December. It was not clear how they would prepare anyone, given that not even the government knows what those changes will be. And it was just one more remarkable story among a sea of thousands from the last four years. But sometimes even the numbing effect of cumulative shock wears off for a moment. Even a little story can jolt us into asking questions. “Shock and awe” is not a phrase of comfort. It was the official characterisation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, intended to overwhelm and subdue a military opponent. A government which is promising to deliver long-awaited freedom is treating it as a declaration of war.

That is why anniversaries are helpful. They offer a chance to step away from the daily churn and contextualise a given period of time. Four years is not a long time. In the sweep of human history even a century represents a fraction of a second. But more seems to have changed in the last four years than in the preceding 40.

The first thing to do, then, is to explore what has actually happened. One of the problems of Brexit is also a problem of the human condition: when you are subsumed into a chain of events you stop asking questions in a simple effort to cope. Brexit has happened, and we accept it. But that also blunts us to the absurdity, unreality and sheer implausibility of the last four years. Brexit’s changes are so enormous they feel almost indigestible. We knew that Britain was fixated on an imagined history of its own greatness and that it considered itself superior to the rest of the world. But we also thought that prosperity mattered, that the Conservatives were the party of business, and that a British government would promote verifiable political and economic interests above nationalist mythmaking. We were wrong.

Until a global pandemic displaced it on the agenda, the 2016 referendum consumed the national landscape. Indeed, it all but reset the country to year zero. Our commercial and geopolitical realities would count for nothing, and the future would be determined by an illusory past. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but in this case the history was rewritten just a few weeks after it had happened. The promises of the “exact same benefits” and “closest possible partnership” quickly gave way to a narrative of purification designed to expunge all trace of Europe from the British body politic.

We forget now that Brexiters used to promise that “nobody would threaten our place in the single market.” Earlier this month, the OECD forecast that coronavirus would hit the UK’s economy the hardest of the world’s richest countries, and noted that the country might want to facilitate trade with that single market. Before the referendum Boris Johnson declared he would want to stay in it. Tories once considered our participation axiomatic and, indeed, a patriotic duty. It is typical of Brexit that such a commonplace is now taboo.

The anniversary thus helps us understand how history is constructed. We can view, in real time, how ideas become incorporated, normalised and then embedded in a country’s political foundations. The people who used to promote the single market now advocate no deal at all, and not once admit the inconsistency. Brexit is, and always has been, whatever they say it is, and if opponents are not submitting they must be betraying. Not even the most extreme fringes of political debate were suggesting a no-deal exit before the referendum, but what was once unthinkable is now inevitable and even desirable.

This is a reflection of Britain’s smallness. With each shout of greatness we seem to shrink. Last week the prime minister deployed Churchillian war rhetoric to advertise Australian biscuits, and announced that the genuinely effective and influential DfID would be merged into the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, it transpired the government will spend almost £1m painting the PM’s plane red, white and blue. At the same time, the EU has expressed bafflement that Britain does not seek participation in its foreign policy structures, even though they were a British co-invention. The government parades its global credentials in soundbites only. The reality is that we are retreating not just from Europe but the rest of the world too. Brexit has only ever been about the reclaiming of symbols, never about the defence of livelihoods.

This, really, is the most important feature of the anniversary: our recent history is not in fact history at all. It is a live danger. It is not just that the same arguments about Britain’s supposed upper hand, cherry-picking and EU intransigence repeat on a loop each month. It is that we are speeding to our new future with neither brakes nor seatbelt. This week marks four years since the Brexit vote, but one week to spare what remains of our economy.

The deadline to extend the transition is the end of this month. After that, we will have just six months to conclude, ratify and apply a trade deal. It is as close to impossible as any global agreement ever has been, and it is not an esoteric issue of political theory but a basic threat to people’s jobs. The transition was initially dubbed the “implementation period,” a planned 21 months, after a deal, for businesses to adjust to new settled changes. That was cut to 11 months, ends in six, and those changes have not even been negotiated yet. 

And so the ultimate lesson of this anniversary is that we do not have the luxury of looking back. Only we can save ourselves and there is almost no time left to do so. In future years we will perhaps ask how a project designed to enhance prosperity, democracy and national pride destroyed all three, and why so many in power knew that and pursued it anyway. This, in the end, is the truth of shock and awe: a campaign waged by the British government not on a foreign belligerent, but on its own people.