London: During the psychodrama of Brexit, Britain has been tearing itself apart — politically, emotionally — between “Leavers” and “Remainers.”
The Leavers won, by just a little bit in the 2016 referendum, but big time in December’s general election. And as a result, Britain exits the European Union on Friday.
The Remainers, meanwhile, are like a defeated, shattered army, its university-educated, city-dwelling, europhile troops wondering what to do next, whether to resist or submit, to head for the Chiltern Hills outside Oxford or hunker down in the garden flats of Islington North.
Their leaders have been sacked, their “People’s Vote” websites are going dark, and their invitations to hold forth on TV political affairs shows evaporating.
Gone, gone is all hope that any parliamentary maneuvers could block Brexit. That is so 2019.
The withdrawal bill is now law, both in Britain and in Brussels.
There’s no getting around the fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the cheer-leading Brexiteer, now has a 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. Pundits say Johnson will rule for five years, maybe ten.
Dashed, too, is any hope of a second referendum to reverse Brexit. Parliament and the government would have to agree to stage such plebiscite, and there is absolutely no will.
So, there are no more lawsuits to file, no more marches to attend. Instead, there are very sad dinner parties planned.
As victor, Johnson is planning a “healing” speech on Friday night. And a light show at Whitehall, stressing the unity of the United Kingdom. Down the road in Parliament Square, thousands of ardent Brexit-supporters will gather to party hearty — and cheer pre-recorded bongs of Big Ben.
Paul Bernal, an ardent foe of Brexit and law professor at the Univerisity of East Anglia, tweeted, “Let the Brexiters have their bong. Let them have their festival. Let them have their coin. Let them have their blue passports (even if the old ones were really black). If that matters to them, let them enjoy them. But. Fight like hell to protect our rights and mitigate the harm.”
In the fading last light, Will Hutton, an Oxford political economist and top Remainer, urged his followers on Twitter to “light a candle at 11pm on January 31st as we leave the EU. By yourself or with friends. One day we will be back.”
But, truly, will they?
Hutton said his Remainer friends “feel very emotional about this right now. It’s a very charged atmosphere. They think it is all unbelievable.”
They talk of living in a waking nightmare.
Hutton and his comrades in the grassroots say they will keep fighting the good fight. Not to block Brexit — impossible — but to try as hard as they might to keep Britain as closely aligned with the European Union as possible, on future trade deals, citizen’s rights, climate change, defense and foreign policy.
And then, maybe, someday to return.
Hutton imagined it would take years, maybe decades.
At present there is no major mainstream politician who will wave the European Union flag.
The Remain leadership has been annihilated.
Jo Swinson, who led the Liberal Democrats, the one party to stake its future on reversing Brexit in the December elections, was herself voted out of office, and her party’s numbers in the House of Commons seats were cut in half, to 11.
The opposition Labour Party was also beaten like drum in the elections, and its flummoxed leader Jeremy Corbyn — who could never make up his mind on Brexit — is now on the way out. His replacement may either support Brexit, as many Labour voters do, or just want to avoid the topic all together.
Andrew Adonis, a British politician and leading anti-Brexit campaigner, said he felt “unutterable sadness” about the imminent departure, but added, in the words of Winston Churchill, it may be only the “end of the beginning,” not the “beginning of the end.”
That might be wishful thinking, but he reckoned that Friday’s exit could be the “high point of Brexit” and everything to come will be downhill, because so far “we’ve committed the action without any consequences.” And now come the consequences.
“Most of us who opposed Brexit haven’t changed our minds,” Adonis said, adding that while he accepted Brexit was happening, he still didn’t regard the decision as “fully legitimate.”
“I don’t think this issue has been democratically resolved,” he said. “If all the fears turn out to be realized, in the future I and many of my associates in the remain campaign will return to call for another referendum.”
Diehard Remainers believe they “won the argument” — but lost the war.
Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, with its 52%-48% result favouring “leave,” polls show. a slight shift in favor of “remain.” A poll this month found 52% of people would opt to stay in the E.U., and 48% would vote to leave.
Pollsters say this is more about changing demographics than about people changing their mind. Some older leavers have died, and younger people (the future) are overwhelming pro-E.U.
Doire Finn, 24, managed the Northern Ireland branch of the “Our Future Our Choice” campaign, a U.K.-wide movement for a second referendum.
“I am upset we are leaving on Friday as we, particularly young people in Northern Ireland, will lose out on so much,” said Finn.
“We need to keep momentum with young people who are engaged and encourage them to actively participate,” she said. “In the transition period, we need to make sure our rights aren’t eroded. So, that’s where the energy is going now.”
Those who voted against Brexit didn’t go gently into that good night. There were huge anti-Brexit rallies last year, with a million people on the streets of London, demanding a fresh Brexit vote with the option to remain in the European Union. These were some of the biggest protests in Britain’s history. Where do these people go?
The resistance showed itself in various forms.
There were groups like “Led By Donkeys,” a political campaign group that became something of a national phenomena. Four dads in their 40s began sneaking out in the middle of the night with buckets of wallpaper paste. Their aim was to hold leading Brexiteers to account by taking tweets and quotes from politicians and plastering them on giant billboards for the world to see.
Pictures of their billboards went viral.
One of their signs was a quote from the arch-Brexiteer David Davis, which was held aloft by thousands of anti-Brexiteers during a massive rally last March. The quote read: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
“It showed a real hunger for that accountability,” said Ben Stewart, 45, one of the Donkey activists. He noted the signs were funny, too. “We tried to put humor at the center of it. These were dark times, if you’re a progressive internationalist, and hopefully we made people laugh and help them get through this and maybe contributed a little bit to holding power to account.”
Stewart said that although he was bummed about Brexit Day, “there’s much still to fight for.” He said his group would continue campaigning in 2020. “Our future relationship with Europe has not yet been defined,” he said. “And there’s still a role for groups like us to hold them to account.”
In the European capital of Brussels, many policymakers appear to be struck by grief that Brexit is really happening. Some of the most passionate voices in favor of Britain’s remaining a member of the club have come from non-Brits there, where for decades, whip-smart British diplomats helped guide discussions and shape the direction of the union.
No ceremonies are planned in Brussels to mark the big day on Friday. But on Wednesday, as lawmakers gathered in the European Parliament to give the final approval to Britain’s departure deal, one person after another spoke in passionate tones about close relations with Britain.
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depth of love,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, quoting George Eliot. “We will always love you, and we will never be far.”
Manfred Weber, the German leader of the center-right European People’s Party bloc in the parliament, said that some of his first discussions about the European Union took place over pints of Guinness in London when he was in college.
He said he hoped Britain would someday return.
“To the colleagues who will leave us, I tell you, I hope our work in the next years will make Europe so strong, so attractive, that your children and grandchildren will want to be part of the European Union once again,” he said.
After the vote, lawmakers joined hands to sing Auld Lang Syne and bid Britain a fond farewell.
Actual tears were shed.