On January 31, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. For a short time that nation will enter a transition period in which its laws and customs regulations align with the EU’s until a more permanent trading arrangement can be negotiated, but after this week it will no longer be a member state, it will not be part of the political project. Even as I write, the last cohort of the United Kingdom’s ministers to the European Parliament — most of them Brexiteers — are giving sassy farewell speeches.
Leaving the European Union is a momentous act precisely because it breaks a political spell. For decades, a powerful intellectual clique has insisted that the gradual erasure of borders and the enfeeblement of national governments was the natural next course of human enlightenment. Often it was implied that some iron law of history drives this trend. The moral progress of mankind, or the exigency of markets, somehow demands it. A kind of sour, smirking Whiggish mind came to believe that human hatreds could be extinguished, that it would just require ditching national and local loyalties. A mind possessed of powerful illusions and messianic dreams like this is disenchanted only with a great struggle.
Since the vote in 2016, columnists have won awards for portraying Brexit as an act of suicidal self-harm by a patient who was suffering psychosis. That these columnists switched between accusing the patient of being a parochial Little Englander and an imperial nostalgist mattered not at all. Institutional and constitutional brinkmanship aimed at stopping Brexit, by the speaker of the House of Commons and the supreme court, were esteemed as brilliant in the press.
A small number of elite supporters of remaining in the European Union admitted frankly that they were becoming “Remaniacs” — people who brooded constantly about the subject ever since the 2016 referendum that Brexiteers won. A mythology began to grow up that the Brexit campaign was helped by — you guessed it — the Russians.
In actual fact it was the haughtiness, sneering contempt, and unwillingness to compromise from European integrationists that caused Brexit. Angela Merkel offered David Cameron no compromises he could sell ahead of the referendum, no token to show that the United Kingdom had as much sway as a France or a Germany.
Alongside that myth grew another, that the Brexit campaign was won on lies. In a recent column George Will referred to one of the supposed untruths of the campaign: the famous Boris Johnson bus ad that said the United Kingdom’s membership cost it 350 million pounds a week, money that could otherwise go to the National Health Service. This, he strangely suggested, is what inspires secessionists in Spain and other democratic publics who don’t vote for classical liberals to swallow a “soup of fictions and paranoia.”
While the amount of money that membership costs has been disputed as both too small and too large since the campaign, the truth is that Johnson’s government is massively increasing the budget for the NHS.
But I think it is worth remembering that in fact it was the Remain campaign that served a “soup of fictions and paranoia.”
Let’s review some of it. In the 2016 campaign, the U.K.’s chancellor said that a vote for Brexit — just the vote itself — would send the United Kingdom’s economy reeling, that taxes would immediately have to be raised, and that an emergency budget would have to be passed. None of that happened. Predictions of imminent recession and economic contraction were instead met with uncertainty-fed expansion, though on a slower pace than expected.
We were told by former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major that the peace process of Northern Ireland was at risk from Brexit. In fact, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement fell into dysfunction and disuse in 2017 owing to an environmental-credits scandal and disagreements over an Irish-language act favored by Irish nationalists. And one of the first acts of Johnson’s government was to help restore the power-sharing arrangements of the Northern Irish executive.
The Union of Great Britain itself was under threat, we were told. And in fact the Scottish Nationalist party came roaring back in 2019. However, it is unclear whether this bounce is due to a marked increase in secessionist sentiment or reflects both the more general collapse of the Labour party and the emergence of the SNP as Scotland’s party of the Left. And of course the departure of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland from the EU means that Scot secession is a much taller task. Do Spaniards want to encourage the secession of Catalonia by rewarding Scotland for the breakup of the U.K.? How does Belgium tell Scotland yes while telling Flanders no? And what currency would Scotland use while it is waiting for accession? If you thought the Irish border posed a problem for Brexit, what does the border of England mean for Scotland?
David Cameron said that Brexit risked war. “Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our Continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?” he asked. “Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash as to make that assumption,” he answered.
But that’s hardly the most extravagant prophecy. European Council president Donald Tusk said the risks were much worse than war, “As a historian” he said, “I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilization in its entirety.” One is tempted to answer that a civilization that can’t survive an alteration to a 40-odd-year political arrangement isn’t worth saving. But why grant the premise?
This month the International Monetary Fund, normally a staunch friend of the EU, released its economic forecasts, which put the U.K.’s growth ahead of Germany’s and the euro zone’s. It doesn’t quite sound like civilizational destruction to me.
Also, has anyone noticed that in fact the Brexit result strengthened traditional parties and quieted the populist ones in the United Kingdom? Perhaps there are lessons for other European countries. While everyone was predicting certain doom and political unrest as punishment for the United Kingdom, it is France that has been rocked by massive protests and afflicted with a terribly unpopular and illiberal government.
It is usually a dirty rhetorical trick to say “The sky didn’t fall” as a taunt to those who lose a political argument. After all, human history is marked with regrettable decisions and the sky has never fallen on the guilty. Brexit is not the beginning of a utopia. The United Kingdom, like everywhere else, will suffer from recessions, political miscalculation, and, yes, it is likely that war will be a terrible feature in the future as it has been in all of human history.
But I think it’s worth remembering that the Remain campaign was an endless barrage of lies, bullying, paranoiac demagogy, and fraud. We should celebrate that it lost, and that a free, sovereign, independent, and democratic government will continue to prove its case against Remain.