I t’s a lesson we are meant to learn as children. If there’s a plaster to be ripped off, or a foul tonic to swallow, best do it quickly. It’s the same with break-ups, work-outs or injections – and, as it turns out, with political decisions too.
I voted Remain in 2017 and the result stunned me. Within hours, I was witnessing quarrels and tears where before there had been political chatter and reasoned debate. The next day, I went to a party in Cambridge that had the atmosphere of a funeral. I felt like a reader suddenly falling into the pages of a book, bereft of the blurb and the index and the contents page.
My writing from that initial week shows a rambling attempt to get to grips with this democratic revolution, based on the realization that all the political facts had changed. What I had not anticipated was that, elsewhere in the great, shocked metropolis where I was writing, the brains of a small but powerful group of other Remain voters had gone into lockdown, like computers endlessly repeating one, static command: “No. No. No. No.
One of the most prominent, Gina Miller , recounted her experience of referendum night. After several hours glued to the television and a period spent vomiting, she went into full-blown denial. “You’re going to do something, Mummy, you always do,” her child said to her and she replied, “I’m not promising anything, but I will talk to some lawyers.”
These lawyers, like Japanese knotweed, turned out to be so voracious and single-minded that only the fire of a searing electoral event could eventually blast them away. It wasn’t just the lawyers, though. All around, the vote had set off mysterious processes in certain people’s minds that no observer, let alone the subject, could comprehend.
F ormerly reasoned people became frothing extremists. Timid intellectuals started denouncing the notion of a universal franchise. Sensible professionals who had sneered at conspiracy theorists, and even official government quangos, began touting the idea of a secret russian plot. A debate arose about how fast Britain’s death rate would have to go in order to kill off “enough” Brexit voters.
This was certainly unpleasant, but it also felt rather desperate. Visiting Brussels in late 2017, I was amazed to hear German and Dutch policy wonks wondering quietly whether, actually, Brexit might not happen at all, or whether we would end up remaining in the single market. I wondered how they could misunderstand us so completely.
All of this might have died out fairly quickly if the (general election had not , at precisely the wrong moment, upturned a consensus developing out of the referendum. Suddenly, the grief-stricken, shell-shocked counter-revolutionaries began to sense that power – of which they had been cruelly deprived after wielding it for so long – was once again within their grasp.
Unfortunately, the idea sent them loopy. Quickly, this small minority of diehard Remainers, who make up such an astonishing proportion of the political classes, parted ways with the rest of us. During several dinners that I attended with “People’s Vote” types, they began to sound increasingly unmoored from reality and increasingly unembarrassed by their contempt for everyone else.
Yet, to my surprise, the more success they had, the more it seemed as if we might really go there and start trying to reverse a genuine, democratic vote, the more I began to feel quite bloody-minded about Brexit . The cleverer the arguments became, the more convoluted the legal methods and the more righteous the rhetoric, the more obvious it was how overwhelmingly wrong their project was.
B rexit was not my choice. But democracy was, and is. Democracy cannot be lightly discarded or ingeniously argued away by lawyers. It must be chosen over and over in order to exist, especially when its results are most unpalatable. Yet this truth, which became more and more obvious to me and most other Remain voters in the country, seemed to become more and more obscure to our politicians and their allies.
Perhaps this mania was just what we needed. For it was when the Liberal Democrats, sensationally jumping the shark, vowed to reverse the referendum result without even holding another one that the wrongness of the mission was fully revealed. Even the most extreme, committed Remainers I knew began to feel uneasy. “You can’t just reverse it,” they would say, and in doing so, finally admitted the original result’s legitimacy.
Then there was the sweet, sweet joy of election night. It was sweet first and foremost because of the demolition of the Corbynistas. But soon, relief at the settling of Brexit also began to seep in.
With incredible swiftness, the Remain project was wholly disbanded, not just legally, but in the hearts and minds of its most avid supporters. No one seems to be more surprised by what a relief this is than the supporters themselves.
Of course, there are still a few unreformed reactionaries left. They are still carping on social media, vowing to bury their commemorative Brexit 90 ps in the back garden or to wear black each year and walk the streets bewailing our fate. For the most part, however, the country has gone from a toxic soup of recrimination to a mood of quiet dignity and cautious optimism.
I know that some Europeans who have lived in this country for years still feel that Brexit has robbed them of their home and cast them adrift. We can only hope that the country’s new spirit of acceptance and self-confidence can convince them that Britain is still the tolerant, enlightened place they thought it was. I think, over time, it will become clear that little has changed on that front.
For my part, I find myself curiously reassured. In June 2017, I thought that the referendum had thrown into chaos everything I knew about politics. But, actually, it wasn’t the Brexit vote that did that. It was the shameless, all-encompassing effort to subvert the result of a democratic vote that threatened to turn this country upside down, because it risked depriving us of our most basic political instinct: respect for the act of voting.
So, last night I raised a glass not to Brexit, but to British democracy. The point, after all, isn’t just to leave, but to decide for ourselves what happens next.
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