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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: Covid has proved the futility of nationalist thinking

A referendum could change the terms on which we engaged with the world, but it could not change the fact engagement is in our best interests.

By Gary Younge

For me, the confluence of calamities at the turn of 2020 exemplified the point we had come to. The news was on a split screen. On one, Christmas had been cancelled, Covid deaths were rising sharply, hospitals were struggling. If Brexit really was going to deliver £350m to the NHS then it would have been very handy at that moment. But it wasn’t. It had instead delivered a government of mediocrities selected from the shallow bench of pro-Brexit Tories whose inability to do their jobs had left us with one of the most deadly Covid records in the world.

On the other screen negotiations in Brussels staggered towards their close pretty much the way a drunk might stagger around a cliff’s edge. What little trust remained between Brussels and London was wearing thin, red lines were drawn, crossed, rubbed out and drawn again. Lorries lined up at ports, paperwork piled up on desks, sandwiches were inspected, tariffs were imposed. Supermarket shelves were again left empty. My cynical but sincere belief that the invisible hand of the market would slap some sense into Boris Johnson, in the interests of neoliberal order, was tested. In a moment of weakness I bought spaghetti I did not need. Quite what we had taken back control of and what we would now do with it were not clear.

Covid had, among other things, proved the self-defeating futility of nationalist thinking. No wall or immigration policy could keep it out. We were part of the world whether we liked it or not. It was that interconnectivity that made us vulnerable – it also gave us the means to persevere. The NHS on which we relied was, as it always has been, itself reliant on immigrants. A referendum could change the terms on which we engaged with the rest of the world but it could not change the fact that engagement was not only necessary, but in our best interests.

Gary Younge is a writer and professor of sociology at the University of Manchester

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

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