To mark the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum on Wednesday 23 June, I forced myself to re-watch the BBC’s “Great Debate” held in Wembley Arena two days before the most momentous vote in modern British history. It was excruciating.
The Remain team – Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady – warned time and again that the Leave campaign had offered no detailed plan for leaving the EU, no assessment of the risks, and no substitute for the untrammelled trade we enjoyed with the vast market across the English channel, just slogans and soundbites.
“I know the EU is not perfect, but the benefits far outweigh the costs,” Davidson, the then Scottish Conservative leader, pleaded in her final statement. “The Britain I know works with its friends and neighbours. It doesn’t walk away from them.”
The Leave team of Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart blithely dismissed those warnings, accusing their opponents of running Britain down and promulgating “Project Fear”. They deployed the slogan “take back control” in every answer. They invoked the spectre of Turkey joining the EU, claimed immigrants were stretching services to breaking point, and promised a Brexit dividend of £10bn a year.
Johnson used his final statement to present the vote as a choice “between those who have been endlessly rubbishing our country and running it down, and those of us who believe in Britain. They say we can’t do it. We say we can. They say we have no choice but bow down to Brussels. We say they are woefully underestimating this country… If we vote to take back control, this Thursday can be our country’s independence day.”
There was no discussion of the immense complexity of leaving the EU and whether Britain would seek a hard or soft Brexit; of whether quitting the world’s biggest political and trading bloc would enhance or diminish Britain’s global standing; of what would happen if Scotland voted to remain and England to leave, or of the danger to Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process of a resurrected Irish border. The threat to Britons being able to live, work, study and vacation anywhere in Europe without let or hindrance was scarcely mentioned.
Given the debate’s vacuity, it is hardly surprising that Johnson’s jolly jingoism trumped the Cassandras. Nor should it be surprising if this week’s fifth anniversary passes largely uncelebrated, because not even the most ardent Brexiteer could claim that leaving the EU has resulted in the sort of spectacular national rebirth Johnson promised. “Like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity,” he declared after Brexit propelled him into No 10.
Brexit has indisputably caused five years of profound political and cultural trauma, sundering north from south, metropolitan from rural, young from old, relatives from relatives and friends from friends. It has transformed the once sober Conservatives into what the former speaker John Bercow described at the weekend as a “reactionary, populistic, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic” party. It has unleashed the hatred, intolerance and ugly culture wars now scarring the country.
Brexit has indisputably raised the very real possibility of the United Kingdom disintegrating, with Scotland clamouring anew for independence and Northern Ireland being driven into Ireland’s economic orbit.
Equally indisputably, it has damaged Britain’s economy. The true extent is concealed by the still greater damage of the Covid pandemic, but even the most conservative estimates suggest Brexit has lopped around 2 per cent – the equivalent of the entire defence budget – off GDP. Foreign investment in the UK has collapsed from £192bn in 2016, the referendum year, to £35.6bn in 2019. Ask Britain’s fishermen, farmers, food manufacturers, financial service companies, hospitality industry, musicians and artists whether Brexit has been good for business and the answer is a resounding no.
And where is the great “Brexit dividend” we were promised? What great benefits can the Brexiteers point to? What oppressive EU laws have been swept away? Australia apart, where are all those brand new trade deals? Why was it only this year that Johnson got round to establishing an “innovation task force” to explore ways of exploiting our divorce from Brussels? How did our regained sovereignty protect us from the supranational scourge of Covid-19, bearing in mind that EU membership would not have prevented us pursuing our own vaccine roll-out? How come we have taken back control, but may soon no longer be able to send sausages from Birmingham to Belfast?
Far from freeing us from Brussels’ fabled bureaucracy, British exporters to the EU now face a daunting array of border checks, red tape, regulations and additional costs that never existed previously.
Far from saving the £10bn a year that Johnson promised in the BBC debate, or the £350m a week for the NHS that was proclaimed on his campaign bus, Brexit will have cost the UK an estimated £40bn by 2022.
Far from becoming “Global Britain”, we have dismayed the US, which used to regard us as its intermediary with the EU, alienated our former friends and allies in Europe, and trashed our reputation as a stable, law-abiding nation. Indeed Johnson continues routinely to demonise Brussels in order to keep his base fired up.
We may have restored sovereignty to parliament, but the Prime Minister is regularly rebuked by Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, for sidelining, misleading and evading scrutiny by the House of Commons – even proroguing it unlawfully.
We may have abolished freedom of movement, as promised, but Britain now faces an acute labour shortage, our businessmen require visas to work in most EU member states, and millions of British citizens can no longer live freely in France, Spain or Portugal. Record numbers of migrants are crossing the Channel in small boats. Hundreds of thousands of Brits have sought EU citizenship.
Johnson enjoys the great political attribute of luck. The Covid pandemic, a sycophantic press and Keir Starmer’s refusal to so much as mention the “B” word for fear of further alienating more of Labour’s traditional working class supporters, have helped conceal the most baleful consequences of Brexit.
But there will be no joyful celebrations of Johnson’s “Independence Day” this week. There will be no crowing from arch-Brexiteeers such as Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, because they know there is nothing to crow about. Brexit long ago became something we had to “get done”, an issue Johnson now seeks to forget by claiming that “we’ve sucked that lemon dry”.
I will doubtless be accused of being a Remoaner, a sore loser stuck in the past, and worse. I certainly find it hard to forgive and forget the giant con trick the Brexiteers perpetrated on this country. But my response will be this: would the UK really have voted for Brexit five years ago had we known then what we know now? I very much doubt it.