- Et Tu, Boris?
Where’s the country at and where will it all end? A long-time British expat makes a rare return trip to southern England to find out just what Brexit has done to his homeland.
One Saturday afternoon in early spring, I found myself in London on a busy day for political gatherings. At The Dorchester hotel in Park Lane, crowds gathered to protest the Sultan of Brunei’s introduction of sharia law. A stone’s throw away in Hyde Park, Turkish nationals flew their country’s flag as they decried their authoritarian president. On Oxford Street, demonstrators railed against the Moroccan government after two political prisoners had their sentences upheld in Casablanca.
Over in Trafalgar Square, the smallest crowd of all stood under Nelson’s Column: a surly-looking, middle-aged group in green raincoats waved Union flags and “no deal” placards, staring blankly at visitors to the National Gallery. A young tour leader, when asked who they were, replied: “Well, let’s see… they’re white, they’re carrying national flags, they support Brexit: Ah yes, racists!”
Aside from an animated discussion I overheard at Borough Market, this was all the enthusiasm that Brexit could muster on this unseasonably chilly afternoon. What a contrast, I thought, to the scenes just before I came back to my hometown, when a petition to revoke Article 50 attracted six million signatories and a million people marched through London demanding a second referendum.
This peculiar mix of ardour and world-weary resignation defines Brexit in 2019. Likewise, with the first deadline for withdrawal from the European Union having already passed, Londoners seem at once impassioned yet thoroughly tired of the debate: by now so inured to the lack of a resolution, they’re almost ambivalent about its outcome, desperate for three years of negotiations to reach some kind of conclusion.
It’s in that spirit, a yearning for life to go on, that new bars are launching, shops are buzzing, tourists are shivering and parents are escorting their kids through the endless, busker-soundtracked rabbit warrens of the Underground.
“It’s called the Jubilee Line because it was built during the Queen’s silver jubilee, and everyone got so excited they named a station after it,” says a father to his son.
Those specifically English qualities—droll worldview, mordant wit—underpin life as they always did. Far from the public “brexiety” that I’d read about, the stalemate so often characterised as a crisis, there’s good cheer on the streets. In Surrey and Berkshire, riverside pubs are alive with happy chatter. When I tell my father’s friend I’m writing about the B-word—soon after the final date to withdraw from the EU was postponed until October 31—he replies: “Ah, so you’ve just had your deadline extended!”
I laugh, just like many others; if we didn’t, there was a feeling we’d cry from the sheer frustration of this whole intractable process. Indeed, humour has become a necessary corrective to the absurdity of Brexit. On the BBC news that night, a voter from the Midlands reacts to the latest deadline: “Now they’ve set a new date to withdraw—Halloween—which is appropriate, because it’s the biggest horror show anyone’s ever seen!” he jokes.
Brexit has even spawned a whole subgenre of satirical literature: Ladybird’s The Story of Brexit, a mock children’s reader, is one of the funniest books I’ve read. “The Prime Minister organised the referendum because he was sure everybody would want things to stay as they are,” it reads. “But it turned out that not everybody was having as nice a time as the Prime Minister. So the Prime Minister ran away.”
This kind of humorous fatalism is a very British reaction to a very British affair, one described by The Economist as “the mother of all messes”. Splashed across the covers of magazines are lines like “The Brexit wreckers: How our political system is self-destructing” (The New Statesman) and “How Brexit Broke the BBC” (Prospect Magazine). When one considers just how far-reaching the consequences of Brexit are—touching on everything from jobs, workers’ rights and travel, to the Irish border and our economic standing in Europe and the world—it’s hardly surprising that this has become the biggest political impasse in living memory.
Like many capitals, London has always felt like an island in itself, far from the sedate, conformist life of the suburbs. That feeling is exacerbated now, the multiculturalism even greater, the city sliced up into pockets owned by Chinese, Middle Eastern and Russian tycoons. If London, unsurprisingly, voted to remain, 52 percent of the country chose to leave the EU in 2016. As a result of this wafer-thin margin, the country’s economic future has been disputed for three years now in an archaic chamber, with its eccentric, impeccably democratic procedures, by elected representatives ranging from the moderate to the borderline fanatical.
Almost every week, there is a new vote, a fresh debate, a resignation, a clash of egos, talk of a second referendum or a general election. In the House of Commons and in houses all over the UK, in this defiantly independent country, in this hyper-politicised era, one thing remains a constant: everyone has an opinion. There were no shades of grey in the referendum, simply Leave or Remain. But any diagnosis of the 70 percent turnout proves far more complex and nuanced than a simple binary poll might suggest: every Leaver had their reason for voting, whether it was a call for reduced immigration, a less regulated and more democratic EU, or greater self-determination.
I look to my own acquaintances for answers to the questions thrown up by Brexit. One university friend, now a market researcher—who took the same European Studies course as I did in the ’90s—voted Leave, much to my surprise. What he tells me encapsulates the complex considerations individuals faced when voting. “I agree with the ideals of the EU, but the reality is a bloated bureaucracy and unnecessary layer of authority that has no capacity to reform,” he says. “I also think free movement, unintentionally, has helped to create an economy where wages are kept low and employees are not looked after, because the supply of low-priced skills is so plentiful.
“I’m happy to live in a multicultural country and want my kids to embrace that, but I’m not sure what future they have when wages and conditions can be continuously eroded and undercut. Moreover, Britain’s mindset and identity, fundamentally, do not lie in a single European state. But I signed the petition to cancel Article 50 because Brexit has proved impossible. If there were another referendum, I’d vote to remain.”
Other long-standing friends are more trenchant in their opinions. “It’s been a terrible process, and we are a laughing stock in Europe, and worldwide,” says one of my oldest acquaintances.
“I’m sick of it, and frustrated that we continue to tarnish our country’s reputation overseas, and waste so much energy infighting.” Other British friends of mine, living in locations as far-flung as the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, have vowed not to return to the UK until the debacle has simmered down.
“I hate everything about it,” says an advertising professional, who had planned on returning home years ago but now lives in limbo in Singapore.
“We were going to head back, but there’s no way we’re doing that now,” says another friend, a lawyer working in the Cayman Islands.
In April 2019, as if to reflect the deeply entrenched divisions in the country, the Brexit Party established by controversial arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage and like-minded Leavers crushed the two main parties in a May survey.
A Facebook poll gauging opinion on a “no-deal” Brexit—despite all the evident perils of doing so—attracted a million endorsements. In early May, the two main parties received a massive vote of no confidence as voters in local elections aligned with minor parties. The message was becoming clear: we’ve run out of patience, and if our elected representatives can’t resolve this issue, let’s give control to someone who can.
Frustration, yes, but is all the doomy talk justified? I’d agree with my Leave-voting friend that the national mood seems as robust as ever.
“Most people I speak to—and I do speak to a lot, around the country—are pretty sanguine about the whole thing,” he says.
“There’s political turmoil, and a crisis for the two main parties, but I’d see that as long overdue and richly deserved. Talk of a crisis in this country is overstated. The economy is doing fine, and there’s very little social unrest.”
As I filed this story, the outcome of Brexit was as unclear as ever. But in the midst of the uncertainty, the people remain stoic, pragmatic, bracing themselves for a new future. In London, political ennui has even turned outward into carpe diem celebration. At one party I attended in cosmopolitan Marylebone, a sign above the door proclaims, “Talking about Brexit is forbidden: anyone found disobeying will be fined.” Its residents are happy for distractions from the interminable imbroglio. As springtime blossoms with new colour, this most dynamic of European capitals feels as vibrant as ever.
This story first appeared in the July issue of A, before Boris Johnson was elected to be the new prime minister of the UK.