An easy way to measure how much and how swiftly Britain has changed in the age of Brexit is to compare the Britain of 2019 with the image the country projected of itself seven years ago. The last time that pre-Brexit Britain showed itself to the world, the last time it thought hard about its identity, even its own meaning as a country, was on a warm summer’s evening in 2012 when, under the guiding hand of the movie director Danny Boyle, London staged the opening ceremony of that year’s Olympic Games.
It was a spectacular show, of course, but it was also packed with unexpected oddities and comic eccentricities: children bounced on giant beds, Mr. Bean performed a one-note solo on an electric keyboard. It won immediate and near-universal acclaim, and cast Britain in a new light: not as the country of Masterpiece Theatre period dramas, forever looking back to an imperial past for grandeur and glory, but as a vibrant, ethnically diverse, tolerant society no longer embodied by, say, the sight of Kenneth Branagh in a top hat that came at the start of the show, but instead by the couple of black teenagers in sneakers who took the stage toward the end, acting out a tentative courtship in the age of the cell phone. Boyle’s message to the global audience was that Britain may once have been a nation that sailed out and into the world, chiefly to plunder its bounty and, if necessary, subjugate its peoples, but was now only too glad to play a different part, welcoming the peoples of the world back to its shores. For Britons watching at home, the message was fresh and thrilling: we should love the country we had become—informal, mixed, quirky—rather than the one we used to be.
So intense was the collective experience of that evening that it serves as a crucial point in a book that might one day be regarded as the first of a new genre: the Brexit novel. In Middle England, Jonathan Coe shows how the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in a referendum on June 23, 2016, both reflects and reverberates through the lives of characters scattered across the kingdom. Tellingly, he has all of them watching the TV coverage of the Olympic ceremony that night in 2012. Several experience a hitherto unfamiliar tingle in the breast: it is patriotism. One is in tears. Another thinks that “England felt like a calm and settled place tonight: a country at ease with itself.” That sentence describes the obverse of the Britain of 2019.
Naturally, skeptics will say that there was plenty wrong with the country in 2012 too. A Conservative-led government had for two years been cutting public spending—on schools, hospitals, police, children’s centers, local libraries, and much more—in the name of deficit-shrinking austerity. The aftershocks of the crash of 2008 were still rippling through the economy. The summer of 2011 had brought riots in London and several other cities. For all of Boyle’s images of diversity, plenty of Britons were anxious about, or hostile to, immigration, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, facilitated by the EU’s cardinal principle of free movement. The anti-EU UK Independence Party was polling well and putting sufficient pressure on then prime minister David Cameron that, less than six months after the Olympic flame had left London, he would make his fateful promise to hold an in-or-out referendum on British membership in the EU.
Nevertheless, the Britain of 2012 was an island of civic calm compared to the country of today. Back then, the UK was led by a socially liberal Conservative in coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. Together, they had a parliamentary majority solid enough to allow them to comfortably serve out their full term of five years. Boris Johnson was then mayor of London, photographed during the Olympics stuck on a zipwire, trussed up in harness and helmet, waving two Union Jack flags, looking ridiculous—apparently happy to be the mascot of the extravaganza staged in his city. Today the fool has become the king, with Johnson the newly installed prime minister heading a government packed with figures from the hard right of the Conservative Party, whose majority in Parliament—the margin by which its MPs outnumber those of the opposition parties—has been reduced to just one. Another election is likely. If it comes soon, it would take place little more than two years after the last one, which was itself an early election, called two years after the one in 2015.
Still, the struggle between political parties seems almost incidental compared to the larger contest that now dominates British life, the conflict that pits the two tribes of the 2016 referendum—Remain and Leave—against each other in what has become a perpetual culture war.
Johnson’s new government is pursuing not merely an exit from the EU, as mandated by the 52–48 percent victory for Leave in 2016, but an outcome far more drastic and for which there is no mandate: a British exit without an accompanying agreement with the EU. Johnson says he will quit the EU by the prescribed date of October 31, with or without a deal, “do or die.” Johnson, the performer-politician who found fame by acting as a comic who treated everything, including the game of politics, including himself, as a joke, insists he is not bluffing, but is deadly serious.
This so-called no-deal Brexit was not on the ballot three years ago. On the contrary, prominent Leavers were at great pains to stress during the 2016 campaign that there would be no moves to quit the twenty-eight-member body until Britain’s departure had been fully negotiated and organized, ensuring a smooth and orderly exit. Leave campaigners gave that reassurance because they knew that British voters would be terrified by the idea of crashing out of the EU without a deal. (So outlandish was the notion that pollsters barely raised it as a possible scenario with the British public until late last year.) After all, Britain has been embedded in an intricate web of relationships with its continental neighbors since 1973. Everything from the availability of food on supermarket shelves to the provision of basic medicines has, for more than four decades, been dependent on supply chains that run invisibly and without friction across the English Channel. To sever those ties, not in a gradual, methodical untangling but with a sudden blow of the axe, risks calamity.
In August, a series of leaks of the government’s internal assessment showed that officials predict that a series of disasters will befall the country in the first month of a no-deal Brexit. They anticipate “consumer panic” over shortages of fresh food, fuel, and medicine, a risk to the supply of clean water, “possible friction at sea” between British and EU fishing boats, “law and order challenges” in Northern Ireland, and “operational gaps” in national security, hardly unexpected considering UK law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts have for so long relied on cross-channel cooperation. Welsh sheep farmers, whose main market is France, warn that they will have to do an instant mass cull of their entire flock—the slaughter of the lambs. Hauling companies have long said that roads surrounding the port of Dover could be turned into an enormous parking lot, as trucks that once traveled as effortlessly between Liverpool and Lisbon as they do between Liverpool and Leeds come to a standstill, halted by new customs checks and demands for paperwork. (Others say that if such gridlock is avoided, it will only be because EU truckers choose to stay away—still affecting economic productivity, just not quite so visibly.)
Meanwhile, the Bank of England has said that Britain crashing out of the EU would cause an “instantaneous shock” to the economy, setting off a rise in inflation, a slide into recession, and a sharp decline in the value of the pound. These are not mere predictions: sterling began to plummet as soon as Johnson took over in Downing Street, as markets braced themselves for no deal. Investors will have read the government’s estimates that, while any form of Brexit will make the UK poorer, a Brexit without a deal would leave the country’s economy 9.3 percent smaller than it would have been had Britain stayed in the EU, projected over a fifteen-year period. It’s a far cry from 2016, when Leavers promised a Brexit dividend, insisting that a UK economy free of the shackles of Brussels would grow stronger than ever. Nor can they easily write off these warnings the way they did three years ago, as mere “Project Fear” scaremongering by weak-kneed Remainers: these are the government’s own figures.
Still, Johnson’s characteristic response has been to dismiss all such talk as doom-mongering born of insufficient confidence in the British spirit. (Career civil servants, even those tasked with assessing the impact of Brexit, can easily be included in that attack.) More practically, he insists that the dangers of a no-deal exit will be averted if government and businesses are prepared for it. To that end, he has put one of his most able ministers, Michael Gove, in charge of no-deal planning, with a promise that a Brexit “war cabinet” will meet daily in the same Downing Street room customarily used to coordinate the UK response to floods or a terror attack.
The other warnings are of catastrophes that cannot be measured in pounds and pence. A no-deal Brexit will be felt most keenly in Northern Ireland— inhabited by two communities, one of which identifies with Britain, the other with the Republic of Ireland—where peace has prevailed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The logic of that accord rested in large part on the notion that if the UK and the Republic were part of the same European Union, there would no longer be any need for a border to separate the north from the Republic. That logic crumbles if the UK is outside the EU but Ireland stays within it. There will be a need for a border once more, a visible target for Irish republicans whose guns have been silent for two decades. Some predict a return to violence. Others suspect that even some unionists will put aside their historic identification with Britain and countenance joining the Republic rather than return to the bad old days of the Troubles.
With many Scots similarly saying they would prefer to leave the UK than leave the EU—and therefore looking anew at Scottish independence, which was rejected in a referendum in 2014—the threat to the United Kingdom is real. The UK might take itself out of the EU, only for Scotland and Northern Ireland to take themselves out of the UK. In June a poll found that among Conservative Party members—the tiny selectorate of 160,000 people that anointed Johnson prime minister—63 percent were prepared to countenance the breakup of the United Kingdom, if that’s what it took to get Brexit.
How did this happen? How did the country “at ease with itself” in 2012 turn into a country that in 2019 is contemplating an extraordinary act of self-harm? The scale of the shift cannot be overestimated. Just one year before the referendum, when asked to rank the most pressing questions facing the country, Britons placed Europe a lowly seventh. Even among Conservative MPs, support for an outright departure from the EU was a fringe position, and that held right up until the eve of the referendum campaign. Before 2016, those who described themselves as Euroskeptic did so to imply, somewhat disingenuously, that they were not hostile to British membership of the EU per se, but merely wary of making those ties closer or deeper. For many years, the arguments advanced by the anti-EU right were about which aspects of EU life Britain should abstain from—participation in the shared currency, for example. They were rarely about leaving altogether.
Now merely leaving the EU is not enough. Nor is it considered sufficient to leave the European single market and the customs union, the option of staying in one or both of which seemed, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, to be a possible compromise. Instead Britain is bent on the most extreme rupture possible, even though polls show that a no-deal Brexit commands only minority support. That process, whereby anti-European extremism has moved from the margins to the center of British politics in three short years, is an object lesson in the way politics can become consumed by nationalism. For the ultranationalist, no stance is ever loyal or patriotic enough; a bidding war ensues, in which you must always go further and harder to prove that you are a true patriot, while all those who disagree are dismissed as traitors.
The explanation for how Britain came to this point says much about the country and its long, tangled relationship with itself and its neighbors. But it also sheds a dispiriting light on the nature of modern politics, with resonance far beyond these islands.
Coe’s novel will not be the last to attempt to explain Brexit, and political journalism in Britain since June 24, 2016, has been concerned with little else. Some of that discussion dwells, as does analysis of Donald Trump’s victory in the US that same year, on those in neglected, post-industrial towns who felt “left behind” by the supposed progress of recent decades and who rallied to a promise of a return to some better, easier yesterday. Just as “Make America Great Again” hinted at a superior past, so did the Leave slogan—“Take Back Control.” The word “back,” like “again,” evokes nostalgia, a nod to an era when the natural order was intact, when things were as they should be.
Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that three of the loudest advocates for Brexit are self-consciously retro figures. Boris Johnson always styled himself as a character from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, peppering his journalism (he was a weekly columnist for the Daily Telegraph until the day he moved into 10 Downing Street) with Latin tags and the dusty vocabulary of the English boarding school and country house: “cripes,” “jeepers,” and so on. His only rival in this game is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member of Parliament who is less a politician than a shtick, a man who has worn double-breasted Edwardian suits since he was a student and who, we recently learned, instructs his staff to address men in written correspondence with the archaic appendage of “Esq.” (Rees-Mogg, long deemed too absurd for a ministerial role, now has a place in Johnson’s cabinet.)
The last member of this retro trio is Nigel Farage, Trump’s pal and formerly the leader of the UK Independence Party, who this year found instant success with his new creation, the Brexit Party. Its animating mission is to push the Conservative government, as Farage puts it, to “honour the will of the people.” Farage too is as much a meme as a man, rarely photographed without a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other, often in pinstripes or country tweeds. Like the others, he harks back to an earlier England, before, as he would see it, political correctness ruined it all.
Of the three, Johnson is the least consistent. He has bounced around the ideological map, sometimes playing the metropolitan liberal, sometimes mocking Muslims—he wrote that women in face veils look like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”—depending on what the moment, or his career prospects, have demanded. On Europe, he has been similarly fluid. Famously, he drafted two columns before declaring his stance on Brexit: one for Remain, one for Leave.* Rees-Mogg and Farage are more predictable, both small-government conservatives in the Thatcher mold. Farage has long been more vicious in his disparagement of migrants. But for both, Europe is the all-encompassing villain that stands in for everything wrong with the present, from multiculturalism to the metric system.
Such people would have been—and often were—mocked back in 2012, deemed out of step with the modern, inclusive feeling of the London Games. (Back then, when he was mayor, Johnson cast himself as a liberal, even cosmopolitan figure, saying all the right things about diversity: he advocated, for example, an amnesty for undocumented migrants, a proposal he has tentatively revived as prime minister, perhaps to reassure liberals that he has not fully surrendered to his party’s nativist wing.)
But, overwhelmingly, it is the nostalgists and anti-PC warriors who have taken back control. Johnson was elected, in large part, thanks to Farage. When Britons voted in May to select the seventy-three people who would represent the UK in the European Parliament—at least until Britain actually leaves the EU—Farage’s Brexit Party topped the poll, thoroughly trouncing the Conservatives who, then led by Theresa May, came in a miserable fifth, with 9 percent of the vote. That jolted the Tories into three firm convictions. First, they should never again face an election having failed to deliver Brexit: to do so would allow Farage to cry betrayal. Second, they should never again be outflanked on the pro-Brexit right, and should instead adopt the hardest possible line on Europe, to deny Farage any political space. Third, they needed a leader who could match Farage’s charisma. Those three convictions explain why Johnson won the July vote for PM among Tory members by a margin of two to one, and why he did so on a “do or die” platform ready to embrace a no-deal Brexit.
That this can even look like a promising political strategy for the Tories is a function of the parlous state of the British opposition. The forces of Remain are hopelessly fragmented, divided among Liberal Democrats, Greens, and the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales. Labour, the main opposition party, is itself divided: members and activists are overwhelmingly and passionately pro-European, but the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his tight ruling circle are drawn from a hard-left strand that has long been suspicious of the European project. Corbyn voted No to joining Europe in 1975, regarding the venture as both a capitalist club and part of the architecture that propped up the West in the cold war. (On the major international questions of the last five decades, Corbyn’s sympathies have rarely lain on the Western side.) Accordingly, Corbyn has wriggled and writhed on Brexit, saying “Labour respects the result of the referendum” and promising to oppose only “a damaging Tory Brexit” rather than Brexit itself.
The result has been—besides a failed summer attempt to agree on a potential government of national unity, should Johnson be defeated in a vote of no confidence—confusion and disaffection among pro-European voters. Strikingly, Labour mustered only 14 percent in the elections for the European parliament, beaten by the Lib Dems and just two points ahead of the Greens. The upshot, in the first-past-the-post system used for Westminster elections, is that if Johnson can consolidate the Leave vote behind him, and if the Remain vote stays splintered, he would have a plausible shot at winning a general election on a no-deal platform—even though no deal itself remains unpopular with the electorate.
The Johnson of the 2016 referendum campaign said it was “absurd” to think Britain would ever leave the EU without a deal. A new free trade arrangement, he said, would be reached “very rapidly indeed.” As it happens, it took the best part of three years, but May did in fact negotiate terms for an orderly exit from the EU. The trouble was, Parliament refused to ratify it. A combination of pro-Europeans who found it too Brexit-ish and anti-Europeans (including Johnson) who found it not Brexit-ish enough killed it off, taking May’s premiership down with it. A major sticking point was the “backstop,” an insurance policy insisted upon by the European Union to avoid any return to a “hard border” dividing the island of Ireland. To repeat, any such border would be seen as a violation of the Good Friday Agreement and would therefore be unacceptable to Dublin and, for that reason, unconscionable to Brussels.
The backstop says simply that, if a new, permanent trading relationship between the UK and EU has not been settled after two years of talks, and until another solution has been found, the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU while Northern Ireland would stick closely to the single market’s rules on goods: that way there’d be no need for heavy-duty checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Brexiters don’t like that, because they think it leaves Britain still under a European thumb. They want the backstop dropped, while promising to leave the Irish border open. But the EU can’t drop it: if it did, it would be leaving an external frontier of its enormous single market of 500 million consumers unpoliced, jeopardizing the entire project. One solution would be to give a special status to Northern Ireland, so that it aligned with the EU while the rest of the UK did not. But that would suggest that Northern Ireland is fundamentally distinct, even separate, from the rest of the UK, with the Irish Sea serving as the de facto border between the UK and the EU. That is unpalatable to Northern Irish unionists (and it’s a tiny unionist party in Parliament that gives Johnson his governing majority).
The geometry of all this is mind-numbing, a series of irresistible forces colliding with immovable objects, turning not on questions of trade and commerce, but intractable matters of identity. The consequence is that no arrangement has yet been found that is acceptable to unionists, Brexiters, Dublin, and Brussels. Rather than pausing to reassess the predicament, Johnson would rather crash out of the EU altogether—and the opposition is too divided to stop him.
The deeper explanation for this steady march toward the no-deal cliff edge, however, lies less in the current political landscape or the permutations of the parties than in the fact that the forces that shaped the 2016 referendum result are still in place. Those voters in the onetime industrial heartlands of the English midlands and the north who felt neglected in 2016 have not changed their minds, and the historic ambivalence Britain has felt toward its continental neighbors persists.
You can find the roots of that ambivalence in the Tory Euroscepticism that flourished in the early 1990s, dug in by the Maastricht Treaty, which pushed the EU further toward its expressed goal of an “ever closer union,” and aggravated by the series of anti-EU stories that appeared in the house journal of the Conservative Party, the Daily Telegraph. These of course were provided by the paper’s then Brussels correspondent, one Boris Johnson, who knew how to get his readers’ blood boiling with tales of Eurocrats demanding that bananas be straight or that potato chips not come in flavors beloved by British consumers. Most of those stories crumbled on close inspection, but they, and the rest of the coverage served up by the Brussels-loathing, Tory-supporting British press, did the job—turning “Europe” into the convenient, catch-all bogeyman of British life.
This is why a referendum on staying in the EU in 2016 could be taken by so many voters as asking, in essence, “Are you happy with your life?” Given the anti-Brussels drumbeat in the press over the preceding decades, coupled with the repeated, if false, insistence that the EU was responsible for shaping everything around us, along with the failure of even pro-European Labour leaders like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to make a full-throated, positive case for the EU when they were at the helm, it seemed plausible that anyone unsatisfied with the status quo should vote to leave. Some of that has changed as Britons have learned more about what the EU does and does not do—the debate we should have had before the referendum has instead happened after it—but attitudes have not yet shifted in a fundamental way.
You could say the same of the essential disconnect between Britain and the continent, a version of which goes back to World War II. Put starkly, because Britain was neither invaded nor occupied, many Britons never understood the intense need for the EU as continental Europeans felt it and feel it still. The argument that the EU has kept the peace in a part of the world ravaged by a millennium of bloody violence tends to be waved aside in Britain, where many still see the European enterprise not as a project of peace but as a scam designed to swindle the Brits of their money. Of course, that wariness toward continental entanglements predates 1940. It is as old as England. Some anti-Europeans like to suggest that the first Brexit came nearly five centuries ago, when Henry VIII sought to take back control by breaking from Rome.
Factor in too a form of British exceptionalism that imagines that Britain can cut itself off from a free trade area of its nearest neighbors, a single market of half a billion consumers unrivaled in the world, and still prosper because Britannia once ruled the waves. The reality is that a nation of 67 million will suddenly find itself negotiating a trade treaty with, say, the Trump administration, no longer backed by the clout of a bloc of twenty-eight countries. (Trump’s promise, at the G7 summit in Biarritz, to do a “very big trade deal” with a post-Brexit Britain offers less than meets the eye. Not only is Trump’s word something of a junk bond, it’s long been understood that the price for any trade deal with the US will be very high for the UK, exposing British dinner tables to chlorinated chicken and leaving Britain’s cherished National Health Service vulnerable to the pressures of Big Pharma.) For years, bien-pensant commentators said that the Suez humiliation of 1956 had cured Britain of its imperial delusion, forcing it to accept its more modest, realistic place in the world as a medium-sized European power. The Brexit process, and Johnson’s boosterish insistence that Brexit be regarded as an “opportunity” rather than a risk, suggest that delusion in fact lives on.
Plenty of Remainers put their hopes in the persuasive power of evidence and warnings that Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit, will damage the British economy, reduce British influence abroad, and shrink the horizons of the next generation, as young Britons would lose the right to live and work in continental Europe. That evidence and those warnings have not been in short supply. Besides the leaked government memoranda, the big automobile companies have made clear that they could not continue to make cars profitably in a country wrenched out of the smooth supply lines of the single market. In July Vauxhall, once part of GM, announced that it could shutter production in its plant in Cheshire, just as Ford warned of “catastrophe” if the UK makes a disorderly exit from the EU.
And yet none of that seems to have had much effect. The Brexiters’ ready-made rejoinder, “Project Fear,” lives on, deployed against anyone—central banker, trade union representative, or economist—who dares point out the obvious: Brexit will hurt. On his first day in office, Johnson dismissed those voices as “the doomsters, the gloomsters” who would “lose their shirts” betting against Britain. He urges everyone instead, like Tinkerbell, to shut their eyes tight and believe.
That Johnson has risen to the top, with the Conservatives currently ahead in the opinion polls, suggests that feeling continues to trump fact, that emotion still outweighs evidence. Perhaps it was always that way in politics, but the presence of a documented liar in Downing Street—a match for his serially dishonest counterpart in the White House—confirms that the phenomenon is particularly sharp today. If all this seems familiar, it’s because Johnson and his no-deal Brexit fits into a pattern of populist politics that stretches far beyond Britain. Brexit was always a populist project. If populism pits a noble people against a wicked elite, then Farage and his allies were playing that tune in 2016 and for at least two decades before—with “Brussels bureaucrats” cast in the role of the elite. Now the elite has expanded to include anyone—judges, the mainstream media, the universities, the Bank of England, the trade unions, business, foreign investors, scientists, and, arrestingly, Parliament itself—who might frustrate “the will of the people,” a formulation that glides over the fact that 48 percent of the people wanted Britain to stay in the European Union.
The demonization of Parliament is especially significant. Farage and friends have taken to referring to Britain’s elected legislature as the “Remainer parliament,” language redolent of the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, when the Rump Parliament stood ready to try King Charles I for high treason. The rhetorical move is striking because the great rallying cry of 2016 was the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, held to be necessary given that Brussels had usurped the ancient seat of British democracy.
But now that MPs, including a substantial number of Tories, say they will not countenance a no-deal Brexit, Parliament itself has been cast as illegitimate, part of that hated elite bent on thwarting the people’s will. Theresa May tried that ploy herself in a disgraceful speech in March when her Brexit deal was rejected, but Johnson has doubled down on it. During his summer campaign, he refused to rule out proroguing Parliament (more seventeenth-century language, meaning suspending it) in order to drive through a no-deal Brexit. Even Trump hasn’t (yet) suggested suspending Congress in the pursuit of unchecked executive power. Nor has Viktor Orbán.
Nevertheless, on August 28, Johnson requested from the queen the prorogation of Parliament from mid-September to mid-October, pushing MPs out of the way for a full and near-unprecedented month to ensure his will is done. The Speaker of the Parliament, by tradition a nonpartisan umpire, branded the move a “constitutional outrage.” It does not entirely prevent MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit, but it gives the opposition parties—which the previous day had agreed to seek a “practical” route away from the cliff-edge—precious little time to do it.
Toward the end of Coe’s Middle England, a few weeks after the referendum two children’s entertainers come to blows. It’s written up in a local paper under the headline “Clash of the Clowns.” The same character who had noted the gentle mood in the air on that Olympic night in 2012 notes that “the world was changing now, things were spinning out of control in unpredictable ways.” This, then, is the Britain of 2019—in the grip of a populism that is trampling on the norms and constraints of liberal democracy, that is contemplating a collective act of self-harm without precedent, that is bracing itself for disruption, shortages, even civil unrest unknown in peacetime. This is not the consequence of unavoidable war or an unforeseen natural disaster, but is entirely of the country’s own making. It is “a calm and settled place” no longer.
—August 28, 2019