On the day the Brexit vote was announced on 23 June 2016 I can remember feeling two things. First, an absolute lack of surprise: I had been travelling around the UK filming and everywhere people were coming up and saying, in different ways, “I want out”. I remember saying to both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove over breakfast after Sunday morning shows that I thought they were winning; and I also remember the look of surprise on both of their faces. My second immediate feeling was that this might signal the end of the UK as support for Scottish independence surged.
It’s too early to tell if I was right or wrong about that. Similarly, I think it’s too early to assess the economic fallout. We haven’t seen many concrete signs of new global trade deals that would replace business lost with the continent of Europe. Remainer predictions of swift economic collapse, emergency budgets and the rest of it didn’t come to pass. On the other hand, the damage felt by fishermen, some farmers and food processors is real and seems to be growing; and there has been a loss of jobs and trade for the City of London. The real problem is that the Covid pandemic has overwhelmed normal statistical observations, blanketing the first years of post-Brexit Britain under a public health emergency. It gave the Brexiteers a first clear domestic win in the speed of the UK’s vaccine delivery, although France, Germany and other EU countries are catching up.
I feel Brexit has left British politics more unpredictable and volatile than even I expected. For the Conservatives, they now own this in total: if trade deals with the US and Australia hammer British farming, and introduce food produced to standards this country doesn’t find acceptable, parts of the Tory coalition will unravel. On Northern Ireland, we still haven’t had a single prime minister explain exactly what Britain thought it was signing, and how the EU can reconcile its single market with greater flexibility. So there is jeopardy on that side.
But there is peril on the other side too, as the opposition finds itself caught in a near impossible dilemma. Pointing out the flaws and failures of the Brexit deal is part of its job; and the large numbers of voters wanting the UK to rejoin the EU demand nothing less. But this risks making the centre left sound irredeemably pessimistic about the future. And if there is one thing that we have learned from Johnson’s victories it is that optimism is a potent political quality – a life-saving buoyancy in turbulent times. Between politicians whose message is, in effect, “This is all ghastly and everything is now going to get worse”; and those who say “Well, there will be bumps and spills but the future’s bright”, I know who I would back to win.
If the left doesn’t find an optimistic, enthusing British prospectus of its own, then, in the short term, it is finished.
Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and author