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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: Brexit belongs to a time when complacency still permeated UK politics

 When an MP was murdered and the dangers to the Union seemed self-evident, it is disconcerting to think of the referendum as a time of innocence. 

By Helen Thompson

There was a point quite early on during the night of 23 June when the running totals on the television screen were at exactly 50 per cent for each side. Although it seemed likely that Leave was going to win, two different futures appeared for a moment in perfect balance. But the sensation of a profound parting of alternate futures now seems decidedly innocent: whatever option a majority of voters had chosen, there was no path from that moment to Brexit.

Everything was still in motion. When an MP was murdered and the dangers to the Union seemed self-evident, it is disconcerting to think of the referendum as a time of innocence. But from this vantage point it seems to belong to a time when complacency still permeated the country’s politics, yielding a culture where posturing about positions substituted for answers to substantive questions.

When David Cameron came out on the morning of 24 June to announce his resignation, the unreality of that carelessness began to dissolve. Cameron had not meant what he had said: his government was not going to implement what the electorate decided. Indeed, he hadn’t made the slightest provision for the voters taking him at his word, that he would execute what they collectively voted for. The chaos began. That autumn of 2019, it seemed the UK could head in any number of different political directions. But in the end the electorate, seasoned to have many more views on all kinds of Brexit matters than most of us had entertained when the referendum started, went out to vote again.

The binary question had gone. The new one mixed the issue of Brexit up with the question of who between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn one could tolerate as prime minister.

Yet when this seemingly messier vote was over, there was, perhaps from exhaustion, finally a path, for better or worse, that could and would be taken.

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Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University

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

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