Will Brexit happen? Given that a majority of U.K. voters opted to leave the European Union in this summer’s referendum, that may seem an unlikely question. Strange, then, that Theresa May, the U.K.’s new prime minister, used an address to the Conservative Party’s annual gathering on Sunday to warn against those trying to “subvert democracy” and “insulting the intelligence of the British people” by delaying Brexit so as to “kill it”:
The people gave their answer with emphatic clarity. So now it is up to the government not to question, quibble, or backslide on what we have been instructed to do, but to get on with the job.
Most voters have moved on from June’s referendum and, however they voted, are now engaged in a national conversation about the country’s priorities throughout the process of leaving: debating the relative importance of tariff-free trade with the EU, the supremacy of British law, control of the border, and other considerations. At the heart of the conversation are a great many public figures who fought on the losing side of the referendum. Indeed, Mrs. May herself, who was swept to power in the wake of the vote and whose administration will be defined by the nature of Britain’s departure, campaigned — albeit conspicuously half-heartedly — for the Remain side. Her insistence that “Brexit means Brexit — and we’re going to make a success of it” has been repeated and parodied ad nauseum in the U.K., but her words contain an essential truth: The democratic mandate of the referendum means there can be no going back on departure from the EU.
Unfortunately, not everyone has entered into the spirit of “making a success of it.” Some have instead opted to yell into an echo chamber populated by those who, like them, voted to remain in the EU and refuse to accept that most voters disagreed with them. To take one prominent example, the philosopher A. C. Grayling insists the referendum was merely “advisory” and urges members of parliament to simply ignore that advice. “There is resistance to #Brexit in parliament, the City, business, the universities, the legal profession, education,” he tweeted last month. “With the power of this resistance the madness of #Brexit can be stopped. Organise!” More recently, he insisted that “90% of informed opinion is for Remain.” On Saturday, his plea to followers was simply: “Don’t give up.”
So significant is the appetite among some Remain-supporting corners of the electorate for this head-in-the-sand response to the largest and arguably most important democratic act in British political history, that the echo chamber even has its own house publication. The New European, a new weekly newspaper launched with admittedly admirable speed in the wake of the referendum, sells itself as the voice of the losing side and is available on newsstands nationwide. It is 48 pages long, to represent the 48 percent of the electorate who voted Remain, and to read it is to endure a nauseating mixture of political illiteracy, tokenism, and moral superiority. It offers readers “48” T-shirts; for just $20 you can conspicuously set yourself apart from the hoi polloi who voted for Brexit.
Its most recent issue includes “a poem for Europe” by Richard Pierce, called “I Reject,” which features the immortal lines:
. . .
I reject that austerity is a sound economic principle.
I reject that the poor should pay for the crimes of the rich.
I reject that immigration should be limited.
I reject that there is any difference between races.
I reject that there is any difference between individuals.
I reject that the EU referendum was anything but advisory. . .
On the letters page, Gillian Woodward from Stockport, near Manchester, in the north of England, reports that she corresponds with someone on death row in Texas and that “recently he wrote to me: ‘So, Gill, what do you think about England voting to leave the EU? We’re all in complete shock about it.’” Elsewhere, contributors refuse to accept Brexit, instead planning “how to win the next referendum.” (There are more than 4 million signatories to an online petition supporting a second vote and the center-left Liberal Democrats, the country’s fourth-largest party, back another vote on membership once Brexit negotiations are concluded.)
When New European readers are not signing online petitions, they are likely attending one of the several “rallies for Europe” that have been held since (though, bafflingly, not before) the vote. Their message is that the voters were lied to and hoodwinked by nasty xenophobes and that therefore the vote is not valid. At this year’s Last Night of the Proms — the conclusion of the summer classical-music festival traditionally marked by the audience waving Union Jacks as the orchestra plays a series of patriotic songs including “Rule, Britannia!” — Remain campaigners distributed EU flags to concert-goers in a largely unsuccessful attempt to turn the event into a protest against the referendum vote.
As time passes and more and more Brits realize the sky has not fallen in, stubborn Remainers will find themselves in an ever-shrinking minority.
The biggest problem for the protesters is what has happened since the vote. The Remain campaign was built on doom-mongering that, so far at least, events have proven wrong. The country has not dived into immediate recession, as voters were told it would. The government has not had to raise taxes and reduce spending as the then-chancellor of the exchequer warned it would. Business confidence is high. Economic forecasts have been revised upwards. The overwhelming majority of those who backed Remain did so not because of an abiding love of, or loyalty to, the EU, but out of fear of the consequences of leaving. There is much uncertainty ahead for the U.K., but as time passes and more and more Brits realize the sky has not fallen in, stubborn Remainers will find themselves in an ever-shrinking minority.
Whether the Remain rump likes it or not, Brexit will happen. Indeed, we now know when it will happen. In her speech, Mrs. May announced that she will invoke Article 50, the means by which a country formally notifies the European Union of its intention to leave, by the end of March next year, starting a two-year countdown to Brexit. By the spring of 2019, the U.K. will be a fully independent and sovereign country again. The prime minister also announced her plan to bring forward a Great Repeal Bill, which will be introduced to parliament next year and, if passed, will replace the legislation that took the U.K. into the European Union more than 40 years ago, incorporating EU legislation into domestic law until it is, piece by piece, reviewed and, potentially, scrapped. In a stroke, it will reassert the sovereignty of parliament, giving effect to the central argument for Brexit: that laws affecting British people ought to be made here in Britain.
The Remain rump see the Repeal Bill’s passage through parliament as a chance to spoil the Brexit fun. They have also taken the fight to the courts, where they will argue that the government has no right to trigger Article 50 without the approval of parliament. However passionate their opposition to Brexit, they surely realize that the consequences of ignoring a vote of such importance would do untold damage to British democracy. Will Brexit happen? It has to.