The Brexit Revolution That Wasn’t

Britons were promised freedom. Instead, we got little stamps on beer glasses.

Beer glass with a crown mark
Ben Birchall / PA / Getty

When the British government announced its latest “Brexit dividend” at the start of the year—a return to stamping a tiny crown onto our beer glasses—I was surprised. Mostly because I had not noticed that we’d stopped. Clearly I gave up pretending to like beer sometime before 2006, when the rules supposedly changed.

Except they didn’t. A close reading of the government press release revealed that in 2006, the European Union began to ask manufacturers to apply a common mark—“CE,” referring to the French acronym for “European conformity”—to certify that their glasses held a full pint. There was no requirement to drop the existing crown stamp. And now, in the glorious post-Brexit land of freedom, the government was merely “providing this guidance on how manufacturers can apply a crown symbol to beer glasses as a decorative mark on a voluntary basis.”

So the EU never forced us to remove the crown mark, and the government is only suggesting we reinstate it. Freedom! But what’s this? The guidance also notes that any manufacturer who wants to keep supplying glasses to the EU, that huge single market on our doorstep, must continue to use the “CE” mark on them. So must anyone trading in Northern Ireland, too, because of its fluid trade border with the Republic—an issue Boris Johnson failed to sort out in his Brexit deal and is now desperately trying to renegotiate.

The saga of the crown mark is the perfect metaphor for Brexit: invested with enormous symbolism, fiendishly complicated and faintly absurd in its implementation, and, above all, a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Yet no one should be surprised that this is what Brexit has amounted to. Notoriously, before Johnson was a politician, he built a career in journalism on the back of stories like the crown mark. As a correspondent for The Telegraph in the 1990s, he sent regular dispatches about the alleged evils of Brussels bureaucrats and their petty rules against bendy bananas and insufficiently large condoms. (The man in charge of the condom standards, the improbably named Willy Hélin, was still annoyed nearly three decades later about how Johnson had misrepresented his work: “We had had requests from medical institutions across Europe to check on the safety of condoms,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “That has nothing to do with the size of dicks.”) These stories created a potent mythology of the British bulldog muzzled by gray-faced bureaucrats.

And so it shouldn’t shock anyone that Johnson’s government still indulges his most florid op-ed writer’s impulses when trying to advertise the benefits of Brexit. Leaving the European Union does have tangible consequences, but they are not ones that his government would like to boast about: For example, Britain might have “taken back control” of our borders, but immigration has remained high, while it has also become harder for British musicians to tour abroad and European students to study here. This country has made billions of pounds’ worth of new trade deals—which largely replicated the old trade deals.

The British government has also “taken back control” of our laws. But as the 14 paragraphs about the regulation of beer glasses in that press release makes clear, Britain doesn’t need Brussels to impose meddling fine print on us. We can do that all by ourselves. Our Parliament rolled the Measuring Instruments Regulations 2016 into English law, and there is very little appetite now to unpick it clause by clause. (If you polled a thousand Britons on how they felt about “red tape,” they would be against it, but the answer would be very different if you asked: “Would you like to make it easier for pub owners to cheat you out of beer that you have paid for?”) One of Johnson’s predecessors as prime minister, David Cameron, once hired an alleged blue-sky thinker named Steve Hilton to cut through the alleged swaths of bureaucracy holding back Britain. Hilton’s campaign faltered when officials gently told him there was a very good reason to ensure that sofas weren’t flammable. “He did not so much collide with reality as arrive late to meetings with it, shout at it, question what makes it tick and then storm off, appalled at reality’s obstinacy,” wrote one former colleague.

Rather than fight reality, Johnson ignores it, hoping it will eventually give up and go home. More than anyone, he knows the value of being the leader who “got Brexit done,” even if no one is quite sure what that means. Brexit, like the crown mark, is more about symbolism than reality.

Recently, I attempted to come up with ways that my life had visibly, materially changed since Britain left the European Union in January 2020. No catastrophic food shortages have occurred, although there have been sporadic supply-chain problems, particularly in Northern Ireland. Friends tell me that shopping for anyone with food allergies is harder now, because specialty products free from gluten or nuts come and go. Last year, I could not get the chicken pasty I wanted at a roadside caf​​é, but I don’t think the United Nations food program needs to become involved. We did not have an immediate recession, despite what George Osborne, the former chancellor of the exchequer, predicted. And while the British economy is now sluggish and afflicted with high inflation, the economic effects of Brexit are impossible to separate from those of the coronavirus pandemic, which arrived two months later. (One economist recently suggested that 80 percent of British inflation was caused by Brexit, but Johnson’s government can gesture across the Atlantic to America’s similar problems, which makes his critics’ argument more difficult.) Small businesses have borne the brunt of Brexit, because of the increase in customs paperwork required to move goods between Britain and the EU. In other words, Brexit created its own red tape. But to most Britons, such problems feel abstract, rather than obviously unjust. The occasional Amazon package arrives late, or with extra packaging. So what?

Most of the concrete effects of Brexit on my life—the ones I can connect to our relationship with Europe with absolute confidence—are minor. When I renew my passport, it will be blue-black rather than burgundy. The more vindictive European countries now make me stand in a longer queue at immigration.

The very worst effects of Brexit are felt by a small enough number of people that even my most ardently Remainer friends have bowed to the inevitable: Britain is not rejoining the EU anytime soon, and there is no political appetite to keep fighting that battle. You can even see the loss of Remainer enthusiasm online. Many of those who built a Twitter identity on being pro-European switched their political focus in the spring of 2020 to calling for strict coronavirus lockdowns.

Even so, Johnson and like-minded politicians can’t give up the specter of the meddling Brussels bureaucrat, a figure that has served them well for decades. What was the prime minister’s big Platinum Jubilee policy announcement? “Forging ahead to remove the ban on selling [goods measured] in pounds and ounces.” Not doing it—no, that would be too much like hard work—but “forging ahead” in its general direction, presumably as measured in furlongs or yards or barleycorns. For too long has proud Britannia chafed under the unjust yoke of the overly comprehensible metric system, which operates in base 10 and can therefore be easily explained to schoolchildren. (In Britain, the only people who still think in ounces are Boomers and weed dealers.) Why not go further, and undo the decimalization of our money? Maybe the cost-of-living crisis won’t feel so painful if we have to pay for fuel in shillings and guineas.

An honest analysis of Brexit would reveal that it has been neither as catastrophic as its fiercest critics predicted nor as utopian as its champions claimed. What it did do was clog up Parliament for three solid years—an opportunity cost that is hard to fathom and even harder to forgive. I can live with the blue-black passport and the crown mark. I’ll even learn, if I must, how many meters are in a furlong. My greatest disappointment is having to accept that the cultural side of Brexit—the forever war against the banana regulators and condom checkers—has not ended, and will never end, because it is simply too politically useful. As the former Cabinet minister David Gauke commented on the potential return of pounds and ounces: “The announcement of the return of imperial measurements is an important recent tradition which we should all celebrate. I’m already looking forward to the next time this is announced.”