I am writing this because I am awake in the middle of the night and, not for the first time, I cannot get Brexit out of my head. It is something that feels all consuming, and like some form of political addict it is something that I simultaneously cannot get enough of hearing about, and am heartily sick of. I watch endless current affairs programmes on TV, read opinion pieces and, even buy newspapers now and again to avoid paywalls. It is a process, if you can call it that, that feels like it is laden with jeopardy… a massive dying star into which which we are being inexorably pulled… but one that is somehow mesmeric… a nebula that clouds all other events.
As we get drawn further into this seemingly all consuming political phenomenon it becomes harder and harder to get any perspective… there becomes less and less that is not Brexit. Which is why I totally surprised myself with the thought that, not that long ago, I would have taken the position we are in now compared with the immediate weeks and months after the referendum. This chaos… this uncertainty.. the UK collectively standing on the White Cliffs of Dover arguing what would be the best way to jump off. Better? Really?
In order to explain why let me take you back to the early hours of 24th June 2016. I got up about four in the morning, pretty much the same time as I am writing this, to the news that, in all likelihood, we had voted to leave the European Union. I remember going up to tell my, German, wife who burst into tears and talked about how she no longer felt welcome in this country. The next twenty four hours went by in a haze… I was numb… it felt like a bereavement… I walked about that day like a zombie. The next morning, on the Saturday, I remember lying in bed and just sobbing… mourning the death of what I thought the country that I loved so much had become.
Over the next few months I went through the different stages of grief associated with the death of something you care so deeply about, and was left with the principal emotion that I had had before the vote… fear. This was a fear that the UK would be transformed into some form of right wing dystopia. One in which victorious Brexiteers took their once in a century opportunity to embark on a wholesale transformation of legislation that would ensure that the UK became a post-millennial Dickensian society. Something that seemed inevitable when Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017.
It all seemed depressingly predictable until 21st May 2017, perhaps not a date that sticks in many people’s mind. However, I remember where I was that day. It was the day when May gave here ‘nothing has changed’ speech in Wrexham and, for me, the day when the anti-Brexit thrusters were first fired. I remember that it was a beautiful sunny day, and I was walking along the canal near my home listening to the news and realising that for the first time in a while the tide might be turning. That what I thought was inescapable was perhaps not so inevitable after all.
Then came the emotion of 8th June 2017 when that exit poll was announced and May had effectively stripped herself of her majority… game on I thought.
Everything had changed!
Since then there have been a series of smaller moments that have given me more hope that Brexit would not be the total nightmare that I first feared. The fundamentalist European ‘Research’ Group (which is neither European, does not do research and really is not much of a group) have proved to have a bark that way exceeds its bite. May’s further political miscalculations and inflexibility have brought us to a point where nothing and everything seems possible, which, when I think about it, is massively better than I feared we would be at this point. We still have the fuel left to either escape a hard Brexit, or at least achieve a high orbit where its gravitational pull is less effective.
At the moment it feels like we are in that nebula, but need some fresh impetus to take us out of the clear and present danger that we are still in. Up to now I have been looking at this negatively, as if we are in some sort of purgatory waiting to hear our fate, but maybe that can be turned on its head and instead we can think that we are potentially at the point of profound change… a change that not only the UK is experiencing, and from which something more positive can happen. The potential remains.
The problem with this is that things have become so nebulous that it is hard to see the best path, let alone the preferred goal. In June 2016 I mourned the loss of the country I thought I lived in, not that we had specifically left the EU. I mourned what I saw as the death of openness and the emergence of a creeping introspection that was writ large in the referendum result. Brexit has caused us all to be introspective and has perhaps led us to forget that we are not the only country experiencing change. So while the EU 27 have been remarkably steadfast and coherent in their negotiations with the UK, change is also in the air for the vast majority of these countries too; most of whom have seen advances by parties of the right and far right since we had our ‘defining’ vote. So with European Parliament elections in May 2019 the political make-up of that body may well be very different six months from now.
I guess the point I am making here is that nothing is straight forward and it does feels as if Europe, and I include the UK here, is on the cusp of something quite significant. I am sure that it will be worse than the best that I hope for, but I also think that it will be better than my worst fears. There are clear risks with staying in the EU although, on balance, I would like to have stayed; what is important for me is that we are tolerant of ourselves and the ‘other’, and somehow escape this nebulous cloud of unknowing… but escape it together! Let us hope that this experience of imbalance and incoherence can bring us back into some stability and clear positive thinking, I know that is a big ask, but who talked about ‘Brexit’ five years ago?
NB I am aware that I did not touch on the possibility of a ‘People’s Vote’ because it is one options, and like every option it strikes me as being fraught with risk. I feel that the eventual solution is one that it not yet on the table… no doubt be the time you read this nothing and everything with have changed again.