Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

After Brexit, Britain Carries On

People celebrate in Parliament Square on Brexit day in London, England, January 31, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
The dire predictions look alarmist now

The morning of the day that Britain left the European Union, I happened to be at the Royal Academy, on London’s Piccadilly, for a private viewing of Picasso and Paper—a fact I mention not to culture-brag, but rather to point to another fact: that an exhibition spanning the entirety of Picasso’s career includes major loans from collections across France, Spain, and many other nations.

The United Kingdom left the European Union that evening: the 31st of January, 2020. The next morning I bumped into a friend. “Any planes landed on your head yet?” I asked him. “None so far!” came the reply. Very good.

Two days later I got on a flight from London to Rome, sailing through passport control at Heathrow and progressing—slightly swifter than usual, as it happened—through the superb electronic passport-control gates at Fiumicino Airport. A few days later the Italians permitted me to leave their country and I returned to London. At neither end was I a hostage.

Why do I bore National Review readers with these nuggets from a life? For one reason alone: to point out the normality of things.

Ever since David Cameron announced a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in February 2016, the British people have been issued the direst imaginable warnings. Before the referendum, the then–chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, among others, predicted an immediate recession in the U.K. if the voters were unwise enough to disregard his instructions and vote to leave the EU. But we did disregard his instructions, as we did those of the prime minister and the heads of all the other major parties. We disregarded everybody, in fact, who warned us that our future would be darker, poorer, more ignorant, and more insular. In June 2016 we voted to leave the EU.

For a variety of reasons that arose after that decision (not least the ineptitude of Theresa May’s government and her minority rule after the 2017 election), the scare stories stepped up. The warned-of recession was claimed to have merely been deferred. And the financial threats were the least of it. The media and politicians on the Remain side upped the volume on all their dire warnings. Disappointment and rage about losing the referendum were transferred into a number of vitriolic behaviors, but most prominent amongst them was the claim of increased insularity.

Media, including a new, strange propaganda paper called the New European, offered the British public “farewell tours” to the Continent. Such publications strongly suggested that once Britain left the EU, we Brits would be unable to visit again. We would return to where we were before we entered the Common Market in 1975. And as centuries of literature and history attest, until 1975 nobody from Britain ever went to the Continent. In fact, prior to 1975 we had been a strange, hobbit-like people, famously incurious about abroad and choosing never to visit the place.

Over the wasteful last four years, the world of the arts was filled with people pointing to the cultural diminishment that would occur once Britain left the EU. Musicians and film types who had never previously uttered a word about the European Union suddenly became ventriloquists of the status quo and Cassandras of the future. Similar coverage in the New York Times—whose vitriolic antipathy to Brexit has become a source of niche humor in the U.K.—presented the Brexit vote as a sign that the British public no longer wished to engage with the art and culture of the Continent, and that anyone inclined to do so would no longer be able to. After Brexit it would be Morris dancing or nothing.

Of education it was claimed that students from the Continent would no longer come to study in Britain and that British students would no longer be able to go to study on the Continent. The Erasmus scheme, which had facilitated much cultural interchange, was presented as though it were inextricably tied up with British membership of the EU. “There goes the Erasmus scheme,” friends and foes of Brexit alike told me. Except that Britain remains a part of the scheme and there is no alteration in the arrangements. Foreign-student applications to study in the U.K. have continued, and in fact there were 485,654 international students pursuing degrees in the U.K. in 2018–19, up more than 25,000 from the previous year.

Of course the alarmism was all nonsense. The Royal Academy, whose Picasso exhibition I was lucky enough to view, is a world-class institution. Why would the Prado in Madrid or the Louvre in Paris refuse to lend to it and receive works on loan from it because Britain had left the European Union? Did the propagandists honestly believe that without its EU membership, Britain would return to some pre-Picasso world? Some echt period of British art in which we strove to eradicate all Continental influence from our pure British culture? The idea is laughable, and yet in young people in particular it caused fear where it should have caused giggles.

The truth is that in these factors, as in almost every other factor to do with the everyday life of the population, it can truthfully be said that absolutely nothing practical has changed for the British public. Perhaps this will change very slightly in the years ahead. Perhaps the cost of living will rise slightly at some point. Perhaps it will fall. Much depends on the success of our free-trade deals with the U.S. and others of our historic partners. In any case, the British public were never persuaded to vote Brexit because of a tiny potential fluctuation in their disposable income. That was the mistake that George Osborne, David Cameron, and others now acknowledge that they made. The British public accepted that it was possible that they might be slightly richer or slightly poorer after Brexit, but they accepted this as a worthwhile risk for the greater prize of taking back control of the mechanisms by which they were governed.

Ever since Boris Johnson won his 80-seat-majority Conservative mandate in December, and even more since Brexit became not a threat or a sentence but a simple transition and reality, the vitriol has abated. The Cassandras have dried up, perhaps finally hoarse as well as provably wrong.

But the rest of us are considerably buoyed up by all this. The simple fact is that every day more and more people can see what some of us always predicted: that in almost every imaginable way, life continues as normal. The EU turned out not to be our cement, our gravity, our earth and foundations. The planes do not fall out of the sky. The population is not locked in. And the culture of the whole world remains open—as it always did—for anyone who wants to reach out and live in it.

Things that are not happening do not make headlines. They rarely even cause much comment. But the acknowledgement of what isn’t happening is creeping its way into the minds of even the most determined British Cassandras. And perhaps there is a wider lesson in this for America and other countries going through this hyperbolic era.

In our politics as in our media, a premium—at least in the short term—always goes to whoever is willing to shout the loudest about the most headline-seizing subjects. Mention that there might be a very slight reduction in the VAT during the next-but-one financial quarter, and only specialists will take note. Shout that planes are going to fall out of the sky, or that the end is nigh, and the structure of our public squares now guarantees that you will not only find an audience but be handed a microphone. As the American media have led the world in demonstrating, the most extreme take is what gives you the platform. This is the rule that has also dominated the British debate in recent years. Every figure of any authority who was willing to make an outrageous claim found himself at the beating center of the debate. And yet the world turns out not to work on these merrily vulgar lines. It responds instead to those common, unreported realities—the most underreported of which is the simple desire of people and nations to get along with each other.

It was in nobody’s interest to make Brexit harder than it needed to be. There was no interest in making British and EU citizens unable to enter each other’s countries, or in creating some kind of cultural or artistic boycott among the most artistically fruitful cultures in history. Brexit has happened. And for now the most striking feature is the beautiful, too often overlooked marvel of nothing happening.

This article appears as “Britain Carries On” in the March 9, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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