Well, here we are. Brexit Day. The first day of our glorious future, as we set sail on the high seas. Breathe in that bracing air! Smell the sovereignty! Taste the sweet, sweet taste of freedom! Hail the bright, glittering, beautiful future. Which starts tonight at 11pm.
You might think 11pm was a slightly weird time to be starting a glorious new future. You might think midnight would be a bit better. It’s 11pm because that’s midnight in Europe and Europe gets to make the decision because it’s bigger and has more heft. But after 11pm tonight, everything will be different. We’ll be the ones to make the decisions, thank you very much. No bullying by another country, or collection of countries, even if they one of the key sources of our national income. We’ll dictate the terms. We’ll show them who’s boss. Oh yes, we will. Just you wait.
Are you going to crack open the English sparkling wine and watch Mark Francois weep with joy in sync with electronic bongs? Are you going to tuck into a nice English spread? Boiled mutton, perhaps, and some bread and dripping, followed by a giant spotted dick?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I won’t. A producer from the Jeremy Vine show phoned this morning to ask if I would go on the show to tell them how I was feeling. “You’ve been with us on this journey,” she said, “for the past three and a half years. We want our listeners to hear how you’re feeling now the day has come.”
So how am I feeling?
To be honest, I think I’m largely feeling numb. But since she asked me the question, let me try to break it down.
When the results of the referendum came through, on 23 June 2016, I felt, like millions of others, as if I’d been punched in the stomach. Nothing in life is black and white, and when the referendum was called I worked hard to educate myself about the implications – for trade, for financial services, for science, for research, for tech, for shared intelligence – before casting my vote. By the time I did, it was clear to me that the consequences of leaving the EU would be severe. It would take decades to build back some of what we had lost. Perhaps even, as Jacob Rees-Mogg said, fifty years.
I don’t have fifty years. I care about my country. I want it to do well. And I would quite like this to happen while I’m alive.
The days and weeks that followed felt like a bereavement. I know a lot about bereavement. I have, in fact, had way too much practice at bereavement. Trust me, it doesn’t feel good.
Two days after the referendum result, I met my mother for lunch. She grew up in Sweden, but Britain was her adopted, beloved home. The pain in her face reflected the pain in mine.
When Donald Trump was elected, she was so upset she tripped on the stairs. On her 82nd birthday, surgeons tried to mend her broken hip. She died five weeks later. Her last diary entry was “TRUMP WON!”.
You can’t separate Brexit and Trump. They are part of the same thing. They are popular movements, led by very rich people claiming to be the voice of those who are “left behind”. The campaign for Brexit, like the campaign for Donald Trump, combined nationalism and a hefty dose of xenophobia with blatant lies. Both campaigns appear to have involved Russian interference and to have broken campaigning laws. Both campaigns made promises that could not be kept. Politician economic with the truth, you yawn? Tell me something new. Sure, but this was on a scale we had never seen before.
And so it started. The streams of abuse. The spike in hate crime. The rise of racist incidents in the street. I was once trolled on Twitter by someone I’d shared a sofa with the night before. It was his first time on Sky News. I had been asked to show him the ropes and was nice as pie. The next day, on his website, he called me a “pompous Remoaner” and encouraged his “followers” to pile in – which, all day, they did. He is now, or was until a few days ago, a Brexit MEP.
Friendships turned sour. Relationships turned sour. Our country turned sour, and still is. The Labour Party, which had elected as its leader a man who seemed to want to turn the country into Venezuela, decided to copy the country and tear itself apart. Racism? We can do that! Division? Bring it on. Xenophobia and protectionism from a bunch of bullying old dinosaurs? My name’s Len. How can I help?
Poor, rabbit-in–the–headlights Theresa May took the reins of the country – and kept us frozen for three years. Did she have a strategy? Well, if she did, she kept it pretty quiet. She had decided that she needed to sound hard, and she was good at sounding hard. She wasn’t, unfortunately, good at anything else. She didn’t listen. She didn’t take advice. She asked for the impossible and sulked when she couldn’t get it. She appeared to hate the job, but held on to it like a toddler who would do anything to stop her little brother from grabbing it. When she couldn’t keep him from grabbing it any more, the tears she shed were for herself.
And the toddler? Well, he’s our Prime Minister. He was always going to be our Prime Minister. It’s the only thing he ever wanted and what Boris wants, Boris gets. He’ll do anything to get it, and he did. He lies, all the time. The journalist Peter Oborne, formerly a columnist for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph (yes, the Mail and the Telegraph) has created a website documenting his lies. Boris promises everything, to everyone. He promised friction-free trade to businesses and farmers in Northern Ireland, and continued to promise it, even after he’d struck a deal clearly spelling out the opposite. Now you see it, now you don’t!
He has promised friction-free trade with Europe, but regulatory freedom. He has promised trade deals with the US, but no lowering of agricultural standards. He has promised more money for the NHS even though the US has made it clear that any trade deal will involve us paying much, much more for American drugs. He has promised the “end of austerity” even while his Chancellor is sending memos to most government departments demanding cuts of another five per cent.
All these promises are lies. It is literally not possible to keep them. And the biggest lie is that Brexit is now “done”. Our new government is going to try to abandon the word “Brexit”. It has banned government ministers from the Today programme, and from critical scrutiny. It prefers to go direct to social media where Facebook, for example, is happy to accept Tory funds for lies.
But Brexit is not “done”. The untangling alone will take years.
So how am I feeling?
Sad, of course. Sad that the forward-looking, dynamic, open country we saw at the Olympics, just eight years ago, seems to have been hijacked by flag-waving fantasists with a minimal grasp of the complexities of running a prosperous, successful nation in the age of globalisation and tech.
You eat turnips on your allotment, if you want to. Some of us have a broader palate.
And, to be honest, I’m tired. I have tried my hardest to argue for a different future to the one we’re now facing. But those arguments are over. Those of us who tried have failed. We can’t save agriculture. We can’t save manufacturing. We can’t save the small businesses who will sink under the weight of red tape. We can’t do anything now. This hard Brexit, hard Tory government has a majority of 80 and they can do whatever the hell they want.
All we can do now is watch and wait. The fight is over. We lost. They won. They have no one else to blame now. You bend it, you mend it. If jobs are lost, it’s your fault. Enjoy the sweet taste of victory while you have it, because it sometimes doesn’t take long for sweet to turn to sour.