Brexit Reveals a Whole New Set of Political Wounds
As Britain withdraws from the EU, signs of future conflict are already evident.
One evening last week, I found myself dining in the House of Lords just as the “European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill”—the law that will finalize Brexit—was wending its way through the final stages of the British legislative process. When I arrived, the debate was paused; at suppertime, formally speaking, the Lords “Adjourn During Pleasure.”
The dining room was full, which is not always the case in the evenings. But that didn’t necessarily mean the formal proceedings attracted great interest. At some point, the screens scattered around the room showed that debate had resumed. At another point, they showed that it had ended for the evening (“House Up”). As far as I could tell, barely anyone got out of his seat.
The atmosphere had completely changed from just a few months before. At that point, members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords were making frantic last-ditch efforts either to prevent a “hard” Brexit—a departure without a deal with the European Union on the terms of separation—or to force one through. Because Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government lacked a majority, small groups of people on multiple sides of the argument were able to hold up any decision, either because they wanted to stop Brexit, to accelerate it, or to force the government to call a second public referendum on the terms that had been negotiated with the EU—terms that are indeed radically different from what was promised by the Leave campaign in 2016.
All of that is over now. An election was held in December. The Conservative Party’s majority is now large and comfortable. Johnson—the same man who was so dazed by the Brexit result he had campaigned for that he disappeared for several days—will remain prime minister for at least five years. A withdrawal agreement has been signed. Barring some truly bizarre occurrence, Britain will leave the European Union at midnight—Brussels time, of course—on Friday. And that’s it.
If that argument is over, what happens to all of the bile and bitterness that have washed over British politics during the past three years? Does polarization just fade away? Arguments about Brexit broke up friendships and cut through families. The comedian Andrew Doyle, a Brexiteer, opened a column in The Spectator last week by declaring that he was celebrating the new year by “going through my iPhone to delete the numbers of former friends.” An acquaintance—a Remain voter—told me recently that the real shock of the past couple of years was discovering how many of his friends had not just different opinions from himself, but different values—so different, in fact, that he will never speak to them again. About a year ago, I decided to buck this trend by inviting both pro- and anti-Brexit friends to dinner in London, given that I maintain ties with people on both sides. To be honest, it wasn’t that much fun.
Quite a lot of people now have a strong interest in declaring a permanent end to this verbal and emotional civil war. It’s time for Britain to “move forward united,” Johnson declared in a New Year’s message. He wants to talk about jobs, health care, infrastructure—anything but Brexit. His quest to shove the whole thing under the carpet will be helped by the fact that on February 1, the day after Brexit, almost nothing will actually change. The United Kingdom will enter a transition period, during which the rules governing trade, travel, and business stay exactly the same for at least another year. British politicians will stop going to some meetings in Brussels, but most people will feel no impact at all.
But not all wounds will quickly heal, even if no one talks about them. A few days after the withdrawal bill went through, I sat in Dominic Grieve’s quintessentially English study—mahogany furniture, slightly worn Oriental carpets—and listened to him reflect on the “toxic and corrosive” campaign that had sought to label him a traitor to England last autumn. Grieve was a Conservative member of Parliament and one of the leaders of the campaign to stop a no-deal Brexit. Grieve is also a former attorney general whose consensus-seeking, small-c conservative instincts once put him exactly in the center of U.K. politics. Last September he was not only thrown out of the Conservative Party but slammed and smeared by its leaders. An anonymous “Downing Street source” told newspapers that Grieve and others were under investigation for “foreign collusion” and used language that suggested treason. Johnson refused to deny this absurd story, instead telling a news program, “There is a legitimate question to be asked.” Grieve got death threats in the days that followed.
Grieve is now out of formal politics; in the December election, he campaigned as an independent and lost. But during that campaign, Grieve said, he was surprised by how many people, including many he had never met before, volunteered to work for him. They told him that they were appalled by the prime minister’s vicious tactics, especially Johnson’s unprecedented decision, at one key moment, to suspend Parliament. They were angered by his “humbug,” especially the lies he told during the 2016 referendum campaign, when he promised that Brexit would bring a financial bonanza for the U.K. health service. It has not. And it will not.
Those activists are now politically homeless. They don’t belong in Johnson’s anti-European Tory Party, nor do they yet fit into a Labour Party that has now turned within itself to look for a new leader. The small Liberal Democratic Party has once again demonstrated that it cannot make a mark as a third party in the U.K.’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Equally forsaken are all of those who worked for the People’s Vote campaign, which got thousands of people onto the streets and calling for a referendum to approve the withdrawal agreement. A friend of mine had two sons working for that campaign. One has now gone to work for a charity in Africa. The other is unemployed.
For some, the emotions are even stronger: People feel that they have not just lost an election; they have lost their country. In Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago, I met Seb Dance, a British member of the European Parliament (MEP), who told me he wasn’t sure where he belonged anymore. “I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m European,” he said, “but I don’t know what it means to be ‘English.’” The new English-nationalist language of Johnson’s Tory Party didn’t just anger Dance; it made him feel alienated from his home. Jackie Jones, another British MEP from West Wales, has a German mother and a British father. Far more than a bureaucratic institution, the European Union is, for Jones, the definition of who she was. Since Brexit, she told me, “I’ve had a knot in my stomach the whole time.” She has to find a new job—and figure out where she belongs.
But if we have learned anything in recent years, it is that strong political emotions do not fade away. The Occupy movement flared and then seemed to fizzle out—until it re-emerged in the form of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and in the far-left surge that made Jeremy Corbyn leader of the British Labour Party. The anti-European Tories were a fringe group—until they took over their whole party. The kinds of people who marched for the People’s Vote, worked for Grieve, or became MEPs are now on the fringes, but they may re-emerge too. Perhaps the next Labour Party leader will find a way to galvanize them. Or perhaps they will end up somewhere else—as climate-change activists, for example, or in some role no one has even thought of yet.
Nor are former Remainers the only group who now lack a clear political home. The people who hounded Grieve for “betraying the will of the people,” the people who preferred a hard Brexit, the people who abandoned the Conservative Party in order to vote for the Brexit Party in European elections last year—they too may soon find themselves dissatisfied with the status quo. These are radicals. They wanted to overturn British politics, or at least change it forever. When nothing much happens on February 1—or March 1, or October 1, or potentially even next year—they may also become restless. The impact of Brexit is likely to be slow and incremental, hardly the sudden transformation that some Leave voters wanted. Immigrants will not disappear, and manufacturing will not immediately return to northern-English cities—quite the contrary. A very long, very tangled argument about trade deals is about to unfold, and it will not satisfy the revolutionary avant-garde.
In Strasbourg I met another kind of potential dissident. Robert Rowland, an MEP for the Brexit Party, told me that his experience there had been an “epiphany.” He’d met so many interesting people! Had such affable conversations! But his discovery of the reality of European democracy—he also used the words elucidating and enlightening—hadn’t given him any second thoughts about Brexit. On the contrary, he is one of the few people whom I’ve ever heard actually use the phrase Singapore-on-the-Thames in a non-sarcastic manner, as a positive description for what he wants his country to become: Low-tax, hyper-business-friendly, ultra-capitalist. Because this does not remotely resemble anything that Johnson promised during his election campaign—Johnson has hinted at more spending, more services—people like Rowland are now politically homeless too.
But the greatest potential for discontent is found not in Strasbourg or London, but in the Celtic fringe. The majority of Scots have lost the Brexit argument and are watching their country be redefined, too. They are now ruled by a Conservative Party that is heavily infected by the English-nationalist virus and appears to have lost all interest in Scotland—so much so that the popular Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, resigned last summer. The Scottish National Party won 48 of Scotland's 59 seats in Parliament in December.* The party dominates the debate in Edinburgh—but has no influence in London whatsoever. Inevitably, the drive for independence, or for some new forms of autonomy—or, again, for some political status yet unimagined—will grow. In defiance, the Scots have decided not to lower the EU flag over the Scottish assembly on Friday. An aspiration to be part of something different will be preserved.
Northern Ireland faces what might be an even bigger identity crisis. I happened to be in Belfast a few days after the referendum in 2016. What I heard repeatedly was: You forgot about us! And the English really had. The sudden, post-referendum realization that the European Union was an important element of peace and stability on the island of Ireland—it guaranteed an open border and allowed people to have two passports and thus two identities—came as a great shock to Brexiteers. As it became clear that protecting that open border was an EU priority—Ireland remains a loyal member of the union—many Tories who had long considered themselves staunch Unionists, supporters of the Northern Irish Protestants and of British Belfast, became remarkably less enthusiastic. “We can’t let those people hold us back,” one Brexiteer acquaintance once said to me, or words to that effect.
That lack of enthusiasm was reflected in Johnson’s withdrawal deal, which envisions a customs border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland will remain within Europe’s single market; the rest of the U.K. will diverge. When this arrangement was first proposed three years ago, Brexiteer Tories howled that they could never accept such a thing; now they have quietly acceded. The rumbling of another political earthquake—the possible, eventual, someday reunification of Ireland—can now be heard off in the distance. So can the faintest whisper that perhaps Britain should now try to persuade Ireland to join Britain outside the EU. If you thought Brexit was bitter, a London-backed “Irexit” campaign would be several more levels of angry.
Put together, the Scottish and Irish discontent could become the wrecking ball that finally breaks up the United Kingdom. Unless, of course, it can be thrown off by a completely new agenda. Sitting in his own quintessentially English study, the Marquis of Salisbury, a former leader of the House of Lords and the heir to one of England’s grandest political families, described to me the one he has been contemplating for some time. The United Kingdom, he told me, is “in danger of losing consensus.” So why not remake it into a real federation? There would have to be an English assembly, perhaps replacing the House of Commons, and a federal assembly, perhaps replacing the House of Lords; there would have to be new conversations about the constitution, and maybe the courts. It sounds a bit far-fetched—will constitutional reform really interest anybody?—until you remember that Lord Salisbury was one of the originators of the idea that Britain should leave the EU, a subject that only a few years ago didn’t interest anybody either.
The Brexit campaign was transformed from a fringe eccentricity into a mass movement by a handful of people who decided to make it into an argument about identity. Now Brexit itself has created a whole new set of questions about identity. The next political projects, whatever they are going to be, will take off by seeking to answer them.
* An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Scottish National Party's electoral performance in December.