Five years after the 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom has not only left the EU but the single market and the customs union and signed a new trade deal with Europe. In some respects, Brexit has confounded expectations. Though the UK economy was weakened, the immediate recession that the doomed Cameron government warned of never occurred. Rather than permanently dividing the Conservatives, Brexit has realigned British politics in their favour and fractured Labour’s traditional cross-class coalition.
As Matthew Elliott, who was the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, notes on page 24, in our series of reflections marking five years since the referendum, “Brexiteers are fortunate that the Labour Party and other Remain supporters on the opposition benches didn’t back Theresa May’s Brexit in name only. Had they done so, the Tories would probably have split, Jeremy Corbyn would now be in No 10, Britain wouldn’t have left the EU and we would have had to rely on the EU’s vaccination programme as our escape route from Covid.”
Instead, as Labour backed a second referendum, Boris Johnson used the imperative to “get Brexit done” to win a landslide election victory. The UK’s successful vaccine roll-out – over 80 per cent of adults have now received a first dose – has provided a favourable backdrop for Brexit. Had Britain not left the EU, it may well have participated in Europe’s initially ill-fated procurement programme.
But if the Conservatives take credit for this, they must also accept blame for Brexit’s negative consequences. In Northern Ireland, the sectarian divisions that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement helped diminish have been reawoken. The conflict over the Irish border was both predictable and predicted: in our pre-referendum leader we warned that Brexit would “threaten the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland by encouraging the return of border controls”. And so it has proved.
In Scotland, where 62 per cent of voters backed Remain, Brexit has gifted the Scottish National Party a renewed argument for independence. The UK government now faces the charge that Leavers once levelled against the EU: that it is holding a country hostage without consent. These fractures are a reminder of the carelessness and insouciant style of David Cameron. When he called the referendum, no provision was made for each of the UK’s four nations to approve the result or for a second confirmatory public vote. Rather than grappling with the likely consequences of defeat, Mr Cameron assumed he would win.
The Leave vote that resulted was not only a revolt against EU membership but an expression of mass disaffection, especially in the small cities and towns of England. It followed the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since records began and a precipitous decline of trust in national institutions and in elites.
The Conservatives and Labour have a shared desire to move on from the 2016 referendum, but they are still reckoning with its consequences. Having captured “Red Wall” seats such as Hartlepool, the Tories are seeking to remake themselves as an economically interventionist party committed to “levelling up” deprived regions. But this has sparked a counter-reaction in “Blue Wall” seats such as pro-Remain Chesham and Amersham, which the Liberal Democrats won in a by-election on 17 June. The United Kingdom remains fractious and polarised.
After the UK voted to remain in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975, Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, declared that “14 years of national argument are over”. Just six years later, his party was advocating withdrawal from the EEC. History, as Mr Wilson should have known, is never over. Whenever the European question has been declared settled, it has been asked in a new form. Mr Johnson may believe he is done with Brexit, but Brexit is not done with him or indeed with the United Kingdom.
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us