William F. Buckley Jr. entitled one of his anthologies of conservative thought “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” In it, he expressed his hope that the ideas in it would become reality.
Last Friday, I attended a party in London where leading Brexit supporters celebrated their nation’s departure from the European Union. Several of them privately told me they never thought that such a day would ever arrive. But the left-wing Guardian newspaper paid the Brexit rebels their due in 2016. It noted that they’d “worked for little else, with no reward, and with no sign that they would ever prevail.” The paper compared the Brexit “sect” to medieval monks who copied their manuscripts “waiting for the Dark Ages to come to an end.”
Friday’s party, organized in part by Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts and held at a private club in Mayfair, was full of toasts and speeches reminding the world of the great odds that battlers for Brexit had overcome. Rising just before the clock struck 11 p.m., the point at which Britain formally left the EU, Roberts brought the house down by declaring:
We faced an establishment that hadn’t been so unanimous on any single issue since appeasement and Munich. It was the BBC, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, David Cameron, the powers of Oxford and Cambridge, the civil service, the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industries, Goldman Sachs, and even the International Monetary Fund which warned Brexit would lead to a 10 percent decline in GNP — a decline greater than that during World War II.
But, Roberts continued: “The British people were conscious of their history, an extraordinary thing given they hadn’t been taught it in schools for the last half century. They instinctively understood the patriotic part of it. They were lions, they never were daunted, and the lions roared back in 2016.”
Among those in attendance were some of the people who helped give the public its voice on Brexit. Take Daniel Hannan, a Euroskeptic member of the European Parliament for 21 years until last Friday night. He concluded as a student at Oxford in 1990 that the European Union was turning into a superstate; that prompted him to devote much of his career to wrenching Britain free of its embrace. “The EU went from being a club, an association of nations that was mainly a free-trade zone, into an entity immersed in immigration policy, foreign policy, defense, and culture,” he told me.
Hannan ’s indefatigable efforts paid dividends, and he became Britain’s leading pro-Brexit ideologist.
Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative member of parliament, told the Guardian: “When I heard Boris Johnson and all those others making those brilliant points they made, I thought, ‘Compare it to making a film: these guys on the silver screen are brilliant. But the script is written by Hannan, and this is largely a Hannan production.’”
But there were also two elections that had to be waged and won for Brexit to become reality. One was the actual referendum in 2016, and the other was last December’s general election, in which Boris Johnson won a landslide mandate to bring in Brexit.
Prime Minister Johnson himself held his own party at 10 Downing Street last Friday to mark Brexit. There he gave recognition to a man who helped do so much to win both campaigns: the eccentric political consultant Dominic Cummings (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent docudrama on Brexit that’s available on Amazon Prime).
According to the Telegraph, Prime Minister Johnson introduced Cummings last Friday by saying: “It was he, I seem to remember, who came up with the famous phrase that we should ‘take back control.’ It was also Dom who came up with the other three-word epigram, that the policy of the government should be to ‘get Brexit done.’” Johnson then picked up a mallet and rang a gong several times to imitate Big Ben’s chimes as the 11 p.m. hour arrived.
Despite the celebratory mood among Brexit enthusiasts last Friday, many acknowledged that much work remains to be done. A new free-trade agreement will have to be concluded between Britain and the EU before year’s end, and a bilateral pact between the U.S. and Britain will no doubt see President Trump drive a hard bargain. Andrew Roberts recently told the Wall Street Journal that he worries that his friend Boris will pursue politics that include “high social spending and intervention in the economy” in order to hold the Labour-party strongholds captured by surprise by the Conservatives in the last election.
But for now, Britain has a chance for a fresh start and, as Roberts put it to me, the opportunity to escape “the bloated, sclerotic beast” the EU had become and to forge a new relationship with India, China, and the U.S. “The irony is, Brexit supporters were criticized as ‘Little Englanders’ these last few years,” Roberts says, “But in the next few years, we’re going to prove we are truly international in outlook and actually ‘Great Britons.’”