Do you know what you were doing or where you were five years ago this week? Half a decade ago I was in London, reporting on the anger and jubilation that had divided the United Kingdom after 52 per cent of Britons voted in favour of Brexit and to leave the European Union.
That referendum day and the astonishing turn of events that have occurred since then have been traumatic, chaotic and polarising, effectively ending the careers of two Prime Ministers, purging the government and Conservative party of a coterie of experienced cabinet ministers and senior officials, severing the political and economic ties with the third-largest global trading bloc on its doorstep, sowing the seeds of anti-London sentiment in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and largely wrecking the centuries-old reputation of Britain for abiding by its word on the world stage.
Yes, Boris Johnson got Brexit done. But was it really worth it?
'Going it alone'
Five years ago, no one — even the most ardent supporter of “going it alone” — could not have had a clue about what this misguided and English nationalist crackpot idea would have if they actually approved this measure at the ballot box.
I can’t tell you how often I have heard since that campaign half a decade ago such sentiments expressed as “Oh, the politicians lied to us” or “We didn’t know that that’s what Brexit would mean.” As any English magistrate would tell any defendant appearing in a local court who offered such a petty excuse for a legal misdemeanour: “Ignorance is no defence.”
David Cameron — remember him? — took a gamble the year before when he offered Scottish voters a referendum on independence. That was ultimately rejected but has done nothing to ease the clamour for the nation of 5.5 million to go their own way. And last week, as England played Scotland in the European Championship tournament, some 40,000 Scots descended on the British capital like an invading army from the far side of Hadrian’s Wall.
The 0-0 draw was treated like a victory, a small payback for that referendum defeat from a pulsating, cheering mob that has a newfound pride in their nationality. The Scots have won before at Wembley and sooner rather than later, in large part because of Brexit and England’s decisive support for leaving the EU, the Scots will win their independence.
Cameron — he who has emerged recently under a scandalous lobbying episode — believed that a referendum on Brexit could also be won when push came to shove. Instead, the morning after that result, he slinked from Number 10, not having the fortitude to see through what he started.
Before Brussels was even informed formally of the Brexit result more than a year later, Theresa May was leading a bitterly divided cabinet, a nation in the throes of recrimination, and charged with fulfilling a popular political mandate that no one had a clue what it meant.
At that cabinet table sat experienced political personnel such as Kenneth Clarke, a cabinet minister for decades, Phillip Hammond, a money man who had overseen the UK finances for years, and Jeremy Hunt, an experienced Health Secretary.
More than 40 cabinet ministers came and went between the time of the referendum and end of May’s ill-fated term in office. (Imagine how much better the UK response to COVID would have been if they were there …) If that’s not the definition of political chaos and division right at the very heart of the UK government — with Brexit to blame — that I’ll gladly sing Rule Britannia.
Who can forget the on-again, off-again talks between Brussels and London, where it seemed as if London had no idea of what it wanted, how to achieve it and Brexiteers were still engaged in a civil war over “Brexit means Brexit” — whatever that meant? — or whether the Brits “could have their cake and eat it too” — whatever that meant.
Let’s not forget that May’s government depended on 10 Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland for support and it was they — and their party’s absolute and historic rejection of any concession towards Irish nationalism — that ended the best hope of a compromise on the vexing question of how the UK would deal with the EU across the only land frontier between the two.
Fast forward five years later, after Johnson recklessly drew a customs border down the Irish Sea, casting Northern Ireland into a union with the EU, the province is on the brink of violence, its supermarkets are struggling to receive British produce and the DUP is in absolute turmoil itself, with the last leader lasting just 21 days and its complains on the Northern Irish protocol being largely ignored in both London and an increasingly impatient Brussels.
Who can forget those tortuous votes on the original Withdrawal Agreement — those meaningful votes that were rejected time and time again by parliamentarians as all tried to fully understand the very serious consequences of what Brexit meant and how it might be effected — and affect millions.
Let’s not forget too that during this tawdry process, Johnson was rebuked by the Supreme Court from trying to prorogue parliament itself in an ham-fisted attempt to “get Brexit done” — and misleading the monarch along the way too.
Fishermen? The great promise of Brexit was that UK fishermen would get their waters back. What Brexit delivered was catches of fish left to rot on quaysides up and down the coast of the UK.
Free trade agreements? Brexit meant the UK would be free to make its own agreements around the world. It signed its biggest deal with Australia two weeks ago — a deal that will add 0.05 per cent to the British economy over the next 10 years.
In comparison, leaving the EU had an immediate 8 per cent hit on the UK’s GDP. That doesn’t quite equate in anyone’s books. Or maybe it does if you’re an ardent Brexiteer. I hope it has been worth it.