That’s it, then. After more than four years of division and argument, two general elections and a turbulence of lies, this is the way we Get Brexit Done: not with a bang, but a whimper.
After the intensity of coverage in the latter part of 2019, prior to the General Election which ended so disastrously for the Labour Party, January has felt like a media wasteland, with Brexit only an afterthought.
There were a few lame-duck attempts at celebration—who can forget the baffling plan to expedite Big Ben’s repair process through crowdfunding, so we could bong on the stroke of Brexit at a cost of £500,000 a stroke? Madness, but set in context, it rather pales: we’ve so far spent more money trying to leave the EU than we paid into it in nearly five decades of membership. At the point of Official Brexit, there was some sort of very odd party going on outside Parliament, full of flag-wavers and tents inhabited by the kind of sociopath who views partying with Nigel Farage as an appealing prospect.
Then 11pm came and went, and we were out. And nothing—really—happened.
I’m writing this on February 1, ostensibly the first day of the rest of the United Kingdom’s life. Nothing’s really changed and, certainly, there’s good reason for that. For the year to come, we will remain bound by the rules of the European Union, although we will no longer have any representation in the European Parliament. Our right to free movement will not be impeded; our trading tariffs will remain the same. And, in the background, the government will try to convince the European Union that it’s somehow in its best interests to give the UK a winning divorce deal, as if they’ve anything now to gain from that.
It was always the plan that the year after Brexit Day would be a year of transition. The trouble is, the government’s platform of leadership through misinformation means that this calm before the storm may be widely misunderstood. We’ve Brexited, people are saying, and nothing’s happened. Project Fear has been beaten down once and for all. We were right to think that Leaving wouldn’t change anything at all, except to make us a sovereign nation once again.
And then, in a year, when Brexit actually takes effect and its impact on our economy really hits, the blame will be placed elsewhere. It can’t have been anything to do with leaving the EU, after all. That was a whole year ago.
Believe me when I say I have no desire to see the majority of Brexiteers proven wrong in ways that will leave them in ever direr states of poverty. I know that the vast majority of working-class communities which voted for Brexit—and then, on the platform of Brexit, voted against their own interests in the General Election, turning Tory for the first time ever—have done so not because of bigotry, but out of a desire to be heard.
Westminster does not care about the post-industrial fringes of the nation. It does not care about Wales, where EU funding powers so much of what keeps communities afloat. Arguably, government in this country as a whole cares even less about the far north of England, which has no devolved government to look after it as Wales and Scotland do, but is so far away from the seat of power as to be viewed as near-mythical. Many in these areas voted for Brexit because they knew it was not what the government wanted, and they needed Westminster to recognise their existence. Had Brexit not been carried out, it would have been still further indication that their votes meant nothing; that they were not viewed as meaningful parts of this disunited kingdom.
They voted to be heard, but in doing so, have likely sacrificed their communities over an issue barely anyone cared about in 2013. Places in the country where EU funding is most needed also had the highest pro-Brexit turnouts. The impact of Brexit will certainly be felt more keenly in these already-impoverished areas than in London and the rich south east of England, which will be cushioned from the blow.
Yesterday a man heard me talking to my father on the phone and came over to see, essentially, whether I was Welsh. I’m not Welsh: but I’m from the North East of England, and I certainly understood the impulse. When I hear an accent that sounds like mine, it’s rare enough that I’ll look up immediately, seeking someone sympatico.
There’s a strong continuity of feeling between the people of both areas, and for good reason. Both post-industrial mining areas, both Labour heartlands. Both rattled heavily by Brexit, and suffering enormous poverty. Even our accents are similar because, historically, we were once the same people: the great Welsh epic Y Gododdin describes the progress of a group from the North East of England, their once-homeland, to Wales, where they then settled. There aren’t many people in the North East, and there aren’t many in Wales, either. We’re united in having been ignored; and now, those of us who’ve left our homelands to work in more affluent parts of the country are united, too, in our horror at what might happen there, now that this quiet exodus has taken place.
As a Remainer, I cannot see any tangible benefit Brexit might have for the nation. But we can’t, we cannot simply allow ourselves to be tired of talking about it. The worst is yet to come, and if we want to remain a United Kingdom, we must be on our guard. Otherwise, it will be the poorest in our society who suffer, as always, for the pretensions of public schoolboys trying to make names for themselves.
(image: Wikimedia Commons)
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