Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: Rejoining the EU is now unthinkable except for a diehard minority

In a few years, young people may wonder why Brexit caused such a fuss.

By Robert Tombs

It is more intellectually satisfying – and psychologically reassuring – to explain historic events through long-term causes rather than through accident. The “Rise of the Bourgeoisie” rather than Cleopatra’s nose. So with Brexit: a populist reaction against globalisation, disenchantment with conventional politics, economic and social inequalities, the conflict of “Somewhere” and “Anywhere” sensibilities…

But explaining causes is not the same as explaining outcomes. History rarely follows logical trajectories. The future, even in the short term, is unpredictable. Sometimes, it seems a matter of luck.

So it has been with Brexit. It is not difficult to imagine a very different scenario. The Covid pandemic hits all European economies hard. The Johnson government, keen to “take back control”, controversially stays out of the European vaccine programme. The EU’s coordination of national efforts quickly dampens down the Continental pandemic, while the UK remains gripped by high rates of illness and death, and the economy slumps. Denunciation of Boris Johnson becomes deafening, Jeremy Hunt challenges him for the party leadership, the government’s poll ratings crash, demands to rejoin the EU, led by Keir Starmer, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Nicola Sturgeon, gather growing public support. And so on.

General Joffre, the French commander in 1914, when asked later which general had won the battle of the Marne, replied “I don’t know who won it, but I know who would have been blamed for losing it.” Johnson’s decision to give a Tory peer the job of creating a vaccine programme, had it gone wrong, would have destroyed his career, and perhaps Brexit with it.

Instead, the European Union’s ineptitude, underlined by the antics of Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen and co, unwitting cheerleaders for Brexit, have made rejoining the EU unthinkable except for a diehard minority. In a few years, young people may wonder why Brexit caused such a fuss.

Select and enter your email address Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A quick and essential guide to domestic politics from the New Statesman's Westminster team. A weekly newsletter helping you understand the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Robert Tombs is Professor Emeritus of French History at Cambridge University

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

Content from our partners
How trailblazers are using smart meters to make the move to net zero
How heat network integration underpins "London's most sustainable building"
How placemaking can drive productivity in cities – with PwC