For decades, Britain was a country defined by its disdain for the European Union rather than its enthusiasm. Its governments refused to join the single currency and the borderless Schengen Zone; its newspapers routinely bashed “Brussels”. The Brexit vote in 2016 – the first time an EU member state had backed withdrawal – appeared to confirm the UK as the angry man of Europe.
But on 23 March, in one of the largest public demonstrations in British history, more than a million people marched in London against Brexit and in favour of EU membership. Around 5.7 million have signed a petition to revoke Article 50 – a position only recently regarded as obscure and eccentric. EU flags, once a rare sight in Britain, are now flown with pride. Brexit, a calamitous act of national self-harm, has achieved what no liberal politician could: the creation of a Europhile demos.
History suggests that the consequences will be profound and unexpected. On the left, the movement against the 2003 Iraq War, together with anti-austerity groups such as UK Uncut, founded in 2010, helped create the conditions for Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015. On the right, the Countryside Alliance protests against the ban on fox hunting and Ukip’s surge in the 2004 European elections demonstrated the impulse that later drove Brexit.
Indeed, Remainers have already reshaped British politics. The Independent Group, the biggest party split since the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, was established by Labour and Conservative MPs repelled by their parties’ failure to oppose Brexit. At the 2017 general election, Remainers deprived the Tories of their majority by voting against them in seats such as Kensington, Canterbury and Leamington Spa.
By treating a narrow referendum victory (52-48) as a landslide victory, Leavers invited resistance. From the outset, when the government sought to invoke Article 50 without a parliamentary vote, Remainers and Brexit-sceptic MPs have too often been traduced and ignored.
After becoming Prime Minister in 2016, Mrs May could have sought to reassure pro-Europeans by promising to respect parliamentary sovereignty and by guaranteeing EU citizens the right to remain (as she belatedly did in 2018). Instead, she championed a narrow form of Brexit that prioritised ending free movement and leaving the single market and customs union above all else.
Even after this approach was rejected by voters at the 2017 general election, Mrs May refused to acknowledge reality and seek a cross-party consensus. Her stance continued to be defined by a futile quest to win the support of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party. The inevitable consequence was the humiliating rejection of Mrs May’s Brexit deal by the largest margin in parliamentary history (230 votes).
Having prevented a no-deal exit on 29 March, MPs are now rightly considering possible alternatives to the government’s agreement: a Norway-style “soft Brexit”, a second referendum or even the revocation of Article 50. Leavers, it transpires, are more fond of parliamentary sovereignty in theory than in practice.
Once this matter is eventually resolved, the UK must undergo profound constitutional renewal, as the political historian Anthony Seldon writes on page 22. Brexit has revealed and reinforced deep political, economic and social rifts: an over-centralised and opaque political system, regional inequalities, an incomplete devolution settlement, an antiquated electoral system and an enfeebled public realm.
As our politicians have discovered, Brexit is a process, not an event. The Europe question will never be conclusively settled. Should the UK leave the EU, it will be embroiled in years or even decades of negotiations and a campaign for it to rejoin will begin immediately. Whatever the outcome, the pro-European movement that Brexit has inspired will endure as a permanent force.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty