It’s been five years since the Brexit referendum, and nobody is happy. Half a decade since the start of an embarrassing national project of self-harm that was supposed to restore Britain’s dignity, we’re prepared to shatter the UK over sausages, and not only is nobody happy, nobody’s even happy that everyone else is miserable.
Maybe it’s the weather, but something in the British national character has always been most comfortable in situations of universal disappointment; there’s always been that grim solidarity of quiet grumbling as we all try to survive the savage whims of whatever ham-brained aristocrats happen to be in charge. But that’s not what happened this time.
The way the British have spent the past five years almost exclusively bickering among ourselves is final proof that Brexit was never really about Europe at all. Instead, we’re stuck in an endless culture war which, like any war, tends to enrich the morally bankrupt and wreck the land it’s fought over.
What happened to that self-deprecating humour we’re so famous for? Is this the best we can do? Are we really so desperate to be the centre of attention that we’re recruiting the entire continent into the toxic psychodrama of our unrequited self-love?
I think we’re better than this. But the frenzied bullying and petty despair of recent politics was too much for me, for a time. I got so sick of it all that I took a job in the US. I’ve now been stuck overseas since 2019, with thousands of miles and multiple pandemic borders between myself and the UK. In six weeks, though, I’m coming home. I’m homesick for grey skies, the concept of irony and restaurant workers who don’t have the desperate grins of hostage negotiators.
But I’m worried I’m going home to a country that has lost its sense of humour along with its self-respect. I’m prepared for things to have changed. I’ve changed too. I’m married, now, for one thing – to an Anglophile who has never been to England. My husband is one of those gentle men who grew up with a particular idea of Britain as a place of intellectual curiosity, quiet bravery and basic decency, where nobody had to die in an alley from a preventable disease. And I want to be able to take him home to that country, but I can’t. Not because that country doesn’t exist. It does, but so does the country of paranoid snobbery and petty deference, the nation of shopkeepers with nothing to sell but rapidly depreciating cultural capital, the country that would rather stagnate in a sanitised fantasy of its past colonial glories while feckless Eton thugs kerb-stomp the social contract than participate in a century in which it might have to come to terms with its own smallness.
Britain has always been both of these countries at once, but until recently we’ve been able to tolerate our own contradictions. The true spirit of tolerance is putting up with people you can’t stand because you live together and manners still mean something. That’s the bit of my country I want back.
Laurie Penny is an author and screenwriter
This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.