Last Saturday (31 December) marked the second anniversary of the end of the Brexit transition period. Next month, 31 January will mark the third anniversary of the UK’s formal departure from the EU. June will mark the seventh anniversary of the Leave campaign’s narrow 52-48 victory in David Cameron’s referendum. So much has changed in the intervening period, and yet so little.
As Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, recently told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, the country remains deeply and bitterly split over the wisdom of Brexit. The issue still divides families, regions and the no-longer-so-United Kingdom. It still separates young from old, rural areas from metropolitan ones, and those with degrees from those without.
The country remains locked in a sterile debate on Brexit or – more accurately – no debate at all, because most people feel the subject is too raw, too toxic even to broach in social settings unless they’re sure they are talking to those who share their views.
Most Leavers still believe Remainers want to overturn a free and fair democratic vote. Most Remainers (myself included) believe the referendum was a travesty of democracy, with a few demagogues wilfully misleading the electorate on a hugely complex issue.
Most Leavers feel patronised, and believe that Remainers regard them as ignorant fools and xenophobes. Most Remainers deeply resent being mocked and ignored by Conservative governments that have made minimal effort to reach out to those it considers sore losers.
Most Leavers believe parliament sought to thwart the “will of the people”, dangerously eroding their faith in democracy. Most Remainers believe that parliament was elected to act in the nation’s best interests, and that it sought to do exactly that.
Even at Westminster Brexit is a topic politicians prefer to avoid. The ruling Conservatives tend to skirt it because leaving the EU has clearly not delivered the benefits they foresaw. Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet treat Brexit as the Great Unmentionable for fear of alienating the Leave-voting Red Wall seats that Labour needs to win the next election.
If they must talk about it, Brexiteer Tories mostly only give interviews to the right-wing press, while Europhile politicians more often talk to the progressive press.
It is true that the opinion polls have shown support for Brexit diminishing as the cost-of-living crisis has deepened, but the headlines are misleading. That support has fallen not because millions of Leavers have suddenly decided they voted the wrong way, but because they think the government has failed to exploit Brexit – not least by curbing immigration. Hence Nigel Farage’s recent threat to re-enter the political fray: “I spent a quarter of a century fighting for us to get Brexit, but I simply couldn’t stand aside and do nothing if this act of betrayal continues.”
This is, of course, a lamentable state of affairs. It is deeply damaging to have one half of the country pulling one way, and the other half in completely the opposite direction, with the split spilling over into myriad other issues. It is absurd that Britain is failing to engage in a mature debate about the advantages and disadvantages of the biggest political, economic, social and constitutional change any of us have experienced. Thwarting the other side has become more important than doing the right thing.
Many good people have been purged from the Conservatives because they voted in good faith to stay in the EU, and even today the government cannot agree what Brexit meant. That continuing disagreement has now contributed, directly or indirectly, to the downfall of four prime ministers in six years.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I was recently invited to sign a parliamentary petition demanding the government hold a public inquiry into the impact of Brexit. It struck me as an interesting idea – quite a compelling one, in fact. An inquiry has been launched into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, so why on Earth would the country not want one into the impact of an event that has proved just as cataclysmic?
Not surprisingly, the government rejected what it saw (probably rightly) as a Remainer ploy to embarrass it. “The UK’s departure from the EU was a democratic choice and the EU-UK institutions are functioning as intended. The government does not believe this to be an appropriate subject for a public inquiry,” it stated.
But sometime, somehow, we have to start healing the Brexit’s wounds and reuniting the country, and something not so different from a public inquiry might conceivably offer a way forward.
Suppose leading Remainers were unequivocally to state the obvious – that we will not seek another referendum for at least a generation; that the EU would not let us rejoin right now even if we voted to (and certainly not on the terms we previously enjoyed); and that not all the Brexiteers’ nostrums are wrong-headed. Levelling up, for example, is a laudable aim, as is weaning British industry off its dependence on cheap imported labour.
Suppose Rishi Sunak, who has to date shown little sign of embracing Boris Johnson’s shameful politics of division, were to create a broad-based, cross-party, independent commission including the devolved governments, business leaders and other interested parties as well as some of Westminster’s more reasonable politicians.
And suppose that commission’s remit was not to look back and apportion blame, but to seek agreement on practical ways to make Brexit work better by, for example, lowering barriers to trade with the EU, making it easier for British professionals to work on the continent, and facilitating British participation in European science and research programmes.
Could such a mechanism help end the toxic politics that have polarised this country and poisoned its public discourse for far too long? Probably not, but I’ve heard no other ideas. I also believe, as we enter 2023, that the mass of the British people are exhausted by the battles of the past six years and yearn to move on.
[See also: Ed Davey: “Voters are not blaming Brexit”]