The Declaration of War against Germany: met with war-fever and buzzing excitement above the dread. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulston Archive/Getty Images
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From the archive: Desmond MacCarthy’s diary “August the Fourth” on the outbreak of the First World War

The Bloomsbury-group writer and critic describing the night the First World War began for Britain, observes the madness in London, the onset of war-fever, and laments the irony of international conflict.

NATURE, I believe, meant me to be a special reporter, only she forgot to endow me with the knack of always being on the spot to which most attention is directed. Still, sometimes the many-eyed stare is not fixed on significant scenes, only on noisy ones, and, again, sometimes so much worth noticing is going on everywhere that it does not matter much where you are. The night of August 4th was such an occasion. It does not disqualify me as a re­porter that I was not in the pushing, yelling, chaffing, music-hallish crowds which thronged the Horse Guards or in the cheering ones outside the House of Commons.

I met at two in the morning, in the far and quiet west, in a shining-clean, empty residential street, an old eager, one-eyed vendor of papers with a Union Jack in his billycock. A tattered bill fluttered before him as he shuffled wearily and hurriedly forward. “Thrippence. Declaration of War,” he was shouting in a monotonous quinsied whisper. I stopped and bought. It's not in it,” he added, confidentially, pocketing the coppers, “but it's true; God's truth it is – I couldn't get the latest. I was an hour and a quarter getting through the crowd.” I looked at him and felt as if I had been in that crowd myself – yes, and could describe it, too. “If Mr. Disraeli was alive!” he croaked huskily; and after this unexpected comment he lunged on again with bent knees, leaving me under the street lamp staring at the columns of the new but already familiar heavy-leaded type.

Though the region where I parted from my friends was fairly well known to me I had lost my way. After walking about an half an hour I had come out somewhere below Holland Park. How late the ‘buses were running! And the taxis were bizzing one after the other down the main thoroughfare, just as if it was 10 o'clock. I recalled vaguely printed public injunctions about economy in petrol. Of course, of course; but economy was impossible to-night; on this night of good-byes, of slow intimacies and friendships huddled into climaxes ; night of sociable, equalising forebodings, night ominous to the solitary, but gay, positively gay, to the gregarious. For under the threat of common danger and of widespread suffering, narrow-minded, sparrow-minded humanity suddenly discovers how inspiring it is, after all, to be in touch with everybody, all; in consequence becomes much happier than usual in spite of dread and worry.

I had noticed on my late ramblings and strayings that good-nights were more frequent, and that they had a different ring. People seemed to like being stopped and asked for a match or to point out the way; their eyes were more alive, less preoccupied, more conscious of one as an individual. When I joined a group round a coffee-stall to drink a cup of hot slop, I did not feel that customary embarrassment at not being suitably dressed. The silence was more friendly; some sort of barrier was down; no one asked me for money. Beside me as I drank stood one of those little, odd, undersized fly-by-nights, her grubby hands resting side by side on the oil-cloth of the counter. She looked up under her feathers and smiled. It was a different sort of smile.

As I crossed, striking southward, some idea – what was it? – began to peep through these impressions. Then a taxi full of people and flags whizzed by, down the now empty road. A girl in a pink jersey and a man, sitting on the half-open roof, set up a long hooting screech like a siren whistle as they passed; I felt I had sampled the patriotic enthusiasm of Piccadilly Circus without going there. What luck! If I had, how depressed I should have been. For there is nothing to equal the heart-dampening sensation of being crushingly convinced by a crowd that it is only occasionally when people feel strongly that they feel like oneself.

In a road of modest villas (it was quiet and dark) I passed first one and then another waiting taxi… close on three o'clock, and in this region of prudent living! Behind the shivering acacias a door opened and a woman ran down the steps waving back to a man standing in the lighted oblong, signalling and nodding at her, agitated encouragement. In she sprang and flung herself back with that rapid preoccupied movement which seems equivalent to exclaiming “this is life,” and off she went. This hectic communal excitement we call fever,” which overlays gloom and forebodings – my idea had something to do with that. In some places, and at some times, it expressed itself in confused uproar and romping, in others in more intimate ways.

I had not come up against those blatant manifestations of it, that swaggering contempt for suffering which suggests in people such an ignominious combination of cowardice, stupidity, and cruelty. The great majority loved war unless they feared too much for themselves or for the lives of those nearest them. There was exhilaration abroad to-night, though the crisis was too apocalyptic and ominous for it not to neighbor heaviness and gloom. Close beneath lay forebodings of dreadful days and a dumb resentment at the cold-blooded idiocy of diplomacy. Still, there it was – a kind of happiness. Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy? Was it only love of excitement? Where exaltation roared and romped and streamed along the streets, it seemed it might be so; but where I had surprised it, in quieter eddies, there seemed to be another element involved. 

I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men; never are they so conscious of the humanity of others as when they are out together, sharing risks, to smash the self-respect and mutilate the bodies of those who might, but for a few politicians, just as easily have been fighting alongside them, hoping with them, dying with them side by side.

Earlier in the night I had seen a party of French recruits doubling through the streets singing; everybody had hailed them as they went by. Coming towards me now under the lamps was a man in spectacles and a small straw hat. He looked Teutonic, so “Gute Nacht,” I said as we passed. He stopped for a second. “Ach Gott, Ach Gott! Mein liebe Freund!”

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.