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How Brexit changed us: The aftermath of the vote was a study in absurdity

If you think there is no possible argument on the side of the 17 million people who voted Leave, you cannot help treating them with contempt. 

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For me the aftermath of the Brexit vote was a study in absurdity. The uber-Remainers who emerged smiling from the Supreme Court in 2019 in the belief that an historic exercise in collective choice could be overturned by a legalistic ruse dispelled any doubts I may have had about whether the referendum would be honoured. Those who tried to thwart Britain’s departure from the EU were self-programmed to help bring it about on what were for them the worst possible terms. There could be only one upshot: a hard Brexit of the kind I favoured.

Like most people, I took for granted that our future relationship with Europe was an issue on which there could be reasonable disagreement. Leading Remainers had a different view. The very idea of leaving the EU was an affront to reason. That it was mooted at all provoked in them a state of bafflement, fury and hysteria.

The novelist Ian McEwan voiced this state of mind with innocent pathos in a speech in May 2017. He utterly rejected “this near mystical, emotionally charged decision… I don’t, I can’t accept it”. Two years later, following a book tour that had left him “slightly unhinged”, he declared: “Let’s stop pretending there are two sides to the Brexit argument.”

If you think there is no possible argument on the side of the 17 million people who voted Leave, you cannot help treating them with contempt. You may leaven your disdain with fantasies of conspiracy, and claim it was Cambridge Analytica or the Russians that engineered the result. But you still have nothing to say to Leavers, other than that they voted irrationally.

There is unwitting drollery in fevered uber-Remainers denouncing support for Brexit as mystical in nature. If they admit any failings in the EU, it is always to insist that the remedy is “more Europe”. The EU is an ideal object, which must be revered as embodying humanity’s most sacred hopes.

Mystical thinking of this kind is at its most sublime among Rejoiners. They concede it may be a generation before Britain is back in its rightful place in the EU. It does not occur to them to ask whether the EU will still be there by then, or if so what kind of institution it may have become.

There is a real possibility of Marine Le Pen winning next May’s French presidential election. Emmanuel Macron has chosen to outflank her by deploying a rhetoric of civilisational warfare in regard to the country’s Muslims. French politician and former EU negotiator Michel Barnier, another potential presidential candidate, has urged suspending the Schengen agreement and closing French borders to further immigration. With centre parties competing on the same territory, Le Pen has joined the political mainstream. The liberal Maginot line that blocked the far right from power in the past has been surrendered.

Whoever wins, there is every prospect of a right-wing France joining Hungary and Poland in shaping the EU’s future. For uber-Remainers, the reality that fundamental flaws in the European project produced this sinister farce is unthinkable. So I look forward to another chapter of absurdities, in which they blame an anti-liberal EU on Brexit, or the machinations of a cabal of satanic lizards.

John Gray is an NS contributing writer

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)