Five years ago last Wednesday evening, I left a party to sit in a stairwell and send miserable texts to my friend Jim, because I’d seen what pollsters were saying about the EU referendum on Twitter and I no longer felt much like being at a party.
In retrospect, that whole affair feels uncomfortably symbolic. The friend who’d organised the evening had been noisily determined to make clear both Remainers and Leavers were welcome, but I’m not sure there were any Leavers among us. When the first result had arrived, I had called for attention, and then gleefully announced it to the room (“Gibraltar! 96 per cent Remain!”). Even before that, Nigel Farage had appeared to concede defeat. Maybe it’s just the knowledge of everything that was to follow – I surely can’t have felt that relaxed about the result for the entire campaign – but looking back now all I can see is complacency.
Newcastle was when things clearly started to go wrong. I read that result out too – a narrow Remain win, 51/49, as close as you could get – and the BBC, determined to stick to tangible facts, still showed Remain ahead. But on the internet, people were saying that this wasn’t enough, that if a place like Newcastle upon Tyne was barely voting Remain, then there was no chance the UK was staying.
Then the result from Sunderland came through. I didn’t bother to read that one out.
“Remain is still ahead, look,” someone who spent a lot less time staring at Twitter than I did kept saying. “It’s not over yet.” But everyone who seemed to understand the numbers agreed that it was over and, sick of feeling like Cassandra as the horse was wheeled through the gates of Troy, I went off to hide in my stairwell.
The next day I awoke to the novel sound of someone sobbing to the Today programme, and found that, at some point during the night, I had changed my Twitter profile picture to an EU flag. I changed it back and decided not to mention this to anyone.
A lot of things followed directly from this result, many of them – I’m tempted to say “most” but, well, I would, wouldn’t I? – bad. Three and a half years of political chaos. Three and a half years of uncertainty for business. The increasingly uncomfortable situation in Northern Ireland, which has realised the hard way how little the rest of the UK understands or cares about it. We’ve barely even started to feel Brexit’s economic impact yet, and while many EU citizens have already left a country in which they no longer feel welcome, there will no doubt be more after next week, when representatives of the Home Office, imbued with competence proportional to their compassion, start to ask for their papers.
But none of these things have hit me personally. So why, five years on, does that night in June 2016 still hurt?
It can’t just be because we lost. Contrary to what many Leavers said about liberal metropolitans being shocked not to get their own way for once, liberal metropolitan types are actually quite used to losing elections. (We have, after all, had rather a lot of practice.) And I don’t think it’s just because the referendum was irreversible either: there have been times when, however foolishly, the result felt very reversible indeed.
At least part of it, of course, is that – rather than bringing the country back together – the Conservative Party has done everything it can to keep us divided, for shabby electoral reasons. But even that, I think, is not all of it: Brexit didn’t just hurt because we lost, or because we kept losing, but because of what we lost.
Before the referendum, I had a sense – vague, unexamined, but definitely present – that the continent wasn’t quite abroad; that I wasn’t just English or British, but part of something bigger. For all its many, many flaws, the European Union was the manifestation of that.
It wasn’t that the referendum showed me I was in a minority in feeling this way: that, I’d always known. It was that it ripped that identity away from me. Those of us who quietly rather liked having burgundy European passports will get dark blue British ones with the rest of them. We’re British now, and nothing more, and if we don’t like that, well, tough shit.
We’ve heard a lot, in the years since, about how arguments about collapsing exports and lost GDP didn’t sway Leave voters, because their vote was never really about economics. We’ve heard much less of that argument being applied to those who voted Remain. But it applies all the same: how else to explain the vast scale of the anti-Brexit marches, or the rise of #FBPE Twitter, or, yes, those tits who briefly put EU flags on their profile pictures? How else also to explain the fact that, even now, polling shows that 49 per cent of the country wants to rejoin the EU, mere months after we finally properly left the bloody thing? Some of this is about boring practical matters such as trade and immigration. But a lot more of it is about who we thought we were.
The Remain side was complacent before the referendum – about our chance of victory; about the needs and feelings of those parts of the country that were losing out from the status quo. But there was another thing we were complacent about: quite how much we valued what we were about to lose.