Brexit is a bit of a mess. It threatens to have dire effects on the British and European economies, permanently undermine the continent’s security institutions, and leave behind a culture war which could divide Britain for decades to come. The old are pitted against the young, the elites against the working class and the ‘Brexiteers’ against the ‘Remainiacs’. A marginal Brexit victory of only 4% two years ago has fatally undermined any attempt to form a consensus about which Brexit (hard or soft) should be attempted, resulting in Prime Minister May’s kerfuffle negotiations. This has left Britain with a choice of: (1) no-deal Brexit (which Remainers dread); (2) remaining in the EU (which outrages Brexiteers); or (3) May’s deal (which is happily despised by all). This wasn’t what David Cameron expected. Brexit began as a bit of internal housekeeping within Cameron’s Conservative Party and as an attempt to finally settle the decades-old rift which had kept the Tories out of government for 13 years. But this intellectual dispute within the Conservative Party led to a most serious outcome that may now change Britain beyond recognition.
The history of Brexit goes deep. It is underpinned by the memory of the Blitz spirit and Churchill, the triumph of Trafalgar against the wee Napoleon and the very first Brexit, when King Henry VIII separated with the Church of Rome. But for brevity’s sake, we begin in 1990, when Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, said “No, No, No” to the radical European integration agenda of Commission President Jacques Delors. She feared an erosion of British sovereignty. The speech was a reversal of her earlier support for the creation of the European Single Market (Customs Union) in 1987, and it injected euroscepticism into the Conservative Party. Strange as it sounds now, in the 1980’s, the Conservatives had been Britain’s pro-European party, while the Labour Party had proposed leaving the European superstate at the 1983 election. Thatcher’s new found euroscepticism was one of the key factors leading to her forced resignation, alongside the poll tax scandal and poor popularity polls. Her successor as leader of the country and the Conservative Party was John Major, who would now have to navigate the passing of the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament.
The Maastricht Treaty formally transformed the European Economic Community into the European Union, replacing a club for economic cooperation with a political union that had an ominous commitment to “ever closer union”. Major was committed to a shared European future but knew many on the Conservative Parties’ backbenches saw it as affront to national sovereignty, meanwhile many Thatcher loyalists were angry at the new regime. Major negotiated a series of opt-outs for the UK, including the right to not adopt the Euro or the European Workers’ Directive. This was enough for most of the party, and the Maastricht Treaty was ratified by Parliament in 1992. However, as the magnitude of the competences Britain had acceded to the EU became clear, a large faction grew in the Conservative backbenches of eurosceptics angry with Major’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain. Major branded this group “the bastards” and they would be a constant thorn in Major’s side until his crushing defeat to Tony Blair in 1997. It must be noted that through all this (and upto 2014) very few members of the public really noticed that the European Union existed at all.
At this point, two of Brexit’s greatest characters enter the story: Boris and Nigel. Nigel Farage had been a market trader and Tory party member who quit both following the betrayal of the Maastricht Treaty, choosing to devote his life to the recently formed United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was a young Telegraph journalist based in Brussels who began building his fame with a series of spectacularly witty articles lampooning the ridiculousness of EU regulations. Nevermind the articles were full of distortions and half-truths, Boris had began his path to stardom. In 2016, Boris and Nigel would find themselves the public faces of the Brexit campaign.
In 2005, David Cameron was elected Conservative Party leader, promising to get the party to “shut up about Europe”, and to end the constant infighting that had undermined the party during the Major era. Thereafter, riding a wave of political disillusionment, UKIP (lead by Farage) won the the 2014 British elections to the European Parliament. Cameron considered UKIP to be a party of Conservative voters in rebellion, and he thought that by promising a referendum he could win voters back from UKIP in the 2015 election. It was all so simple, then the Brexit campaign began.
The moment the Leave campaign became real was when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove announced their support, Cameron had expected both to begrudgingly support Remain. The support of two of the Conservative Party’s “big beasts” gave the Leave campaign the legitimacy needed to make Brexit believable to the public. For the first time in 30 years, leaving the European Union was a decision supported by major politicians, not fringe figures such as Farage or Enoch Powell. The campaign focused on the simple message of “take back control”, which hit a chord with the left behind of British society. The Brexit battle bus was decorated with the immortal line “we send 350 million to the EU a week, let’s give it to our NHS instead”. A brilliant lie. Britain’s contribution to the EU is offset by millions of EU development funds and subsidies, the real figure would have been around 80 million. But all the British people heard was that millions were sent to Brussels. Exactly what the Leave campaign wanted them to hear. In the end, Britain voted by a narrow margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union.
Then the chaos began. Hoping to encourage support for Remain during the referendum, Cameron had prevented contingency planning for a Leave victory by the Civil Service. And the day after the referendum, the British political class was in crisis. For 30 years, support for the European Union had been a consensus across the ruling elite in London. None had expected a Brexit and none were ready to accept it. Following Cameron’s resignation on the day of the vote, the Conservative Party turned to Theresa May (a Remain supporter) to be the next Prime Minister. She was seen as the only adult in the room, a safe pair of hands who could solve the crisis of a nation voting for a policy which none of its social, political or business elite supported. That was was 2016, two years later after a litany of mistakes: the failed general election, a ‘dementia’ tax and the European backstop, it has become clear she was not up to the job.
Now Britain is paralysed. Experts rightly warn that a no-deal Brexit could cause food shortages, power outages and grounded planes. But if Britain chooses to stay in the EU now, after all that’s happened, something greater could be lost. I’ve spoken to family members who say that if Brexit is cancelled they will never vote again. The working class and their long running suspicion that democracy was ‘bollocks’, that no matter what happened, the elite would always have the power, would be horrifically confirmed. Britain was arguably the world’s first true democracy, its Parliament is the mother of the world’s legislative bodies. Brexit began as an internal squabble within the Conservative Party. But now, if it’s abandoned, the legitimacy of British democracy itself might be permanently undone. There are no easy solutions to this crisis. At the very least this article may have given you a idea of how we got here, what happened and who to blame.
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