Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
31 January 2020

Brexit Day is no cause for celebration – this is a moment of profound national shame

The UK will tonight leave the most successful experiment in multi-national collaboration the world has ever seen. 

By Martin Fletcher

It’s here. The day the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. The Brexiteers’ long-awaited “Independence Day”.

Apart from a few government-sponsored “celebrations” in Westminster this evening, and the gloating triumphalism of our pernicious tabloids, I detect no great outpouring of national joy over this rupture. Why would there be? The latest opinion polls show half the country still opposes Brexit. Moreover the “will of the people” manifestly excludes the peoples of Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and most of the rest of metropolitan England.

The myth that has taken hold since last December’s general election is that Boris Johnson was swept into Downing Street on a riptide of popular enthusiasm for him and for Brexit. That is simply not true. 

Johnson won the election, but only because he faced a deeply divided opposition and a spectacularly unelectable Labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn. He won because the first-past-the-post system meant he could do so with a Conservative vote share of 43.6 per cent of the vote – barely a percentage point more than the hapless Theresa May won in 2017 and less than the combined vote for the pro-Remain parties. He won not because the electorate was gagging for Brexit, but because exhausted voters were seduced by his latest lie – “Get Brexit Done”. He won by running a vacuous campaign of gimmicky photo-ops and studiously avoiding tough interrogations. In that mission he was aided and abetted by a disgracefully sycophantic press.

And so a small band of fanatical right-wing ideologues, once confined to the wilder fringes of British politics, successfully completed their hijacking of our country. Tonight, thanks to them, the UK will leave the most successful experiment in multi-national collaboration the world has ever seen. We will withdraw from the biggest free-trade area ever created. We will walk away from institutions in which, contrary to the Brexiteers’ lies, Britain was a big, powerful member with plenty of allies and a long record of winning big strategic arguments. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Instead of seeking to lead Europe and to shape it in our image as a genuinely great country would do, we will be cutting and running. After 47 years of overwhelmingly beneficial – if sometimes fractious – EU membership, we will be turning our backs on loyal friends and allies. We will be undermining a pan-European construct which, for all its faults, has brought peace to the continent after centuries of war. It will be a moment not of pride, but of profound national shame. 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

It will also be an act of epic self-harm. The economy will not suddenly implode tomorrow morning, but it will gradually deflate as we prepare to leave a single market of 500 million people with no alternative or remotely comparable trade arrangements in sight, and as foreign investors understandably choose to go elsewhere. Our car industry is shrinking already.  

Far from Brexit being “done”, the truly hard negotiations to secure a trade deal with the EU have yet to start and the spectre of a disastrous no-deal Brexit will return with a vengeance as the end of the transition period nears this December. Our “liberation” from the EU will mean growing subservience to Donald Trump’s America. It will impair our freedom to live, work, study and travel anywhere in Europe. It will mean the loss of any say in EU decision-making although decisions made in Brussels will inevitably continue to affect us.  

The ability of Johnson’s “Global Britain” to rally the rest of Europe around initiatives to fight climate change, counter Russian aggression or halt Iran’s nuclear programme will be diminished. But our influence in Washington will also diminish because we will no longer provide a “transatlantic bridge” into the heart of Europe.

The Brexiteers will claim that Britain has regained its sovereignty, though in truth we never lost it: we joined the EU because it was in our interests to do so, just as it was in our interests to join the UN, Nato, the WTO, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and a host of other multinational organisations. But the price could well be the break up of Britain if Scotland is allowed to exert its own sovereignty and secede.

No matter that the ugly reality of Brexit bears no relation to the sunny promises made during the 2016 EU referendum. With characteristic bombast, Johnson still predicts a new “golden age” for the slumbering British giant as it pings off the guy ropes that have held it down. I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister is right, but the truth is that he and his fellow Brexiteers have taken a huge and reckless gamble with the country’s future. And if it fails those self-styled “champions of the people” will not be the ones who suffer. The victims will be the disgruntled blue-collar workers from the “left-behind” North and Midlands whom the Brexiteers misled with their lies and jingoistic, xenophobic populism. 

So forgive me. I will not be out celebrating in Parliament Square tonight. I will stay at home, turn off the television, and mourn our divorce from the rest of Europe and what I fear will prove this nation’s greatest mistake.