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I wrote this less than 10 hours before the UK officially left the EU. Hooray! For most Americans, who have seen the political and social havoc that Brexit has wrought from a distance and at intervals, I’m sure this seems like the inevitable, albeit, long conclusion to a rocky process. But living on the ground, even compared to the experiences of the most well-informed non-Brits, is an entirely different experience.
In lectures, tutorials, and railway stopping protests, Brexit has been continually hashed out over the last two years. Every time a cabinet minister or prominent MP comes to visit our uni Tory Society, he or she is bombarded with Brexit related questions, to almost the exclusion of domestic policy. Bringing high school friends to Parliament last summer came with a man wearing a Boris mask and a Union Jack leotard shouting about the French, and a troop of be-started pro-EU protests singing about trade policy. We’ve watched two prime ministers be felled, hosted contentious debates from the highest placed on both sides at Union, and seen the pound flail in value. In short, it has been an exhausting and deeply divisive two years.
And now I’m left to wonder about the direction that the UK will take once it is free from the EU’s grasp in a few hours. At 11 pm, Boris Johnson will speak, no bells will toll and then … I don’t think that the UK will fall in the brave new post-European world that it has created for itself. It was dragged kicking and screaming into the ever-increasing treaties and blocs that formed the EU over decades, and its dictates did much to offend traditional British political and social mores. There will be trade deals and immigration upset on the horizon to be sure, and negotiating the precise nature of Britain’s relationship will be a challenge, but life will go on here. The bigger curiosity is to see how the UK responds as it turns inwards politically and farther outwards in commerce and alliances.
In terms of national politics, I doubt that they will settle into a comfortable consensus direction. Boris made many election promises, at lot with less than Thatcherite credentials in order to garner a bigger base for Parliamentary voting on the exit deal, but his ability to follow through and the ability of centrists and even more left-wing Tories to be mollified in the long term by such a figure is not assured. A bit like Churchill, Boris was made for big decisions, great speeches, and grand actions, but his capacity at a granular day-to-day level may be less than stellar. I would urge those interested in British politics to keep a particular eye on Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, and especially Michael Gove. There may very well be a search for a new leader in the next few years. And, if Labour manages to pick someone with just slightly less odious anti-semitism and smarm than Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative government is going to be kept on its toes.
In social terms, the ability of the government to make the transition as seamless as possible will be a first step towards closing the divide. There is no way that the divide between Leavers and Remainers will heal completely in the next few years, indeed I can clearly see someone ten or fifteen years from now bemoaning Brexit if the UK has an economic downturn, but with the long-promised political exit finally at an end, things will start to ease. New rules regarding UK passports (now reverting to the American navy blue) will become just part of the routine, and the retention of the pound means that no massive currency confusion will set in. The NHS, trade deals, the North-South development divide, and will gradually take center stage, and combatants will line up in their former positions, not necessarily along Brexit lines.
So, at the midpoint of a gray English day, I think there is cause for optimism here. The UK will not sink into the sea now that it doesn’t have Brussels dictating its fishing quotas, the painful social gap that has opened up will begin to heal as life carries on, and politics will return to its old borders, seeking to balance Butskellist control and Thatcherite freedom without creating another “winter of discontent.” As for my participation in Brexit day, after having spent so many days campaigning, canvassing, and coming out for speeches, will be a little more anodyne than the party outside of the House of Commons. A dinner date in North London, and Taiwanese bubble tea, perhaps the symbol of Britain’s new expanded trade frontiers, afterwards.