The Toxic Nostalgia of Brexit

Leaving the EU will not make Britain great again.

Prime Minister Theresa May coughs as she addresses the Conservative Party conference.
Prime Minister Theresa May coughs as she addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, on October 4, 2017.  (Phil Noble / Reuters)

It began with such gusto: an inspiring montage of Prime Minister Theresa May’s journey so far, to the tune of Florence & the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love”; an energetic step onto the stage, as Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came For” played; and then a standing ovation as May began her much-anticipated speech on the fourth and final day of this year’s Conservative Party Conference.

Initially, May looked set to meet the occasion with an impassioned, personal speech. She invoked the “British dream”—the lofty idea that “each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future”—13 times in her opening lines (36 times, overall). The day before, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had called on the party to liberate Britain from the EU with the rallying cry: “Let the lion roar.” For a short while, she did her best impression.

But then, as if offering a concentrated rendition of her doomed election campaign, May’s spectacle of strength and stability descended into a pitiable struggle with herself. First, she was interrupted by a notorious prankster. Minutes later, she lapsed into a violent coughing fit, wheezing and croaking through the remaining 40 minutes of her speech. The British lion had lost its voice. Only with a rasping whisper could she deliver her catchphrase: “Our first and most important duty is to get Brexit right. The people have decided.” The British have a “historic mission” to leave the European Union—and, like May on Wednesday, they will carry it off, never mind what state they’re in, or the effects on their reputation and future health. This is about a duty to stand alone, to reclaim the limelight, whatever the response. Later, the letters started falling off the conference set behind her, altering the party’s slogan from Building A Country That Works For Everyone to Building A Country That Works or Everyone; eventually, gravity reduced it to Bui ding A C  ntry Tha orks or ryon. Her British dream had become a nightmare. Will Britain’s go the same way?

More than a year on from the Brexit referendum, the meaning of the result—both why it happened and where it will lead—is as unclear as it is non-negotiable. Politicians and journalists have tried in vain to interpret Brexit, labelling it, among other things, a “working-class revolt,” a working-class “tantrum” (as the current Europe minister diagnosed it at the conference), an “English revolt,” a “free-market revolution,” a “victory for real, ordinary people” and a corruption of democracy by a small, scheming elite. All these readings contain kernels of truth: “Brexit” was a blank canvas onto which a people projected their personal fantasies, fears, and fury. But Brexit cannot appease them all.

Undeterred, May plows ahead with her messianic quest to carry out the “will of the British people—the 26 percent of the population, that is, that voted to leave the EU for a vast array of reasons, a slice of the country that seems larger thanks to a vociferous tabloid press. But May and her party, as if held hostage to some higher force, seem increasingly uncertain as to where it will lead. A Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership looks more likely with every passing week, but a “glorious Brexit,” a “red-white-and-blue Brexit,” a “hard Brexit,” a “soft Brexit,” a “clean Brexit,” a “jobs-first Brexit” and even the mythical “no-deal Brexit” all remain in the cards. For now, her infamous tautology, “Brexit means Brexit” is the only helpful guide: Britain has agreed to do something, even if it doesn’t know what. By golly, it will.

On September 22, May appeared in Florence to deliver a reconciliatory speech outlining what Brexit might mean. Confirming the impossibility of the task ahead, her vague appeasements only angered all sides. Through 50 monotonous minutes, the single clear step she took was to ask the EU for a two-year extension to Britain’s single-market membership—with a disconcerting assurance “that this will not go on forever.” The proposed transition period would follow Britain’s expected exit from the EU on March 29, 2019. The EU was not impressed: “Today’s speech does not clarify how the UK intends to honour its special responsibility for the consequences of its withdrawal for Ireland,” Michael Barnier, the European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, remarked. Until this clarification comes—along with progress on the two other stumbling blocks, the rights of EU citizens and financial settlements—the EU insists that no post-Brexit arrangement is possible.

This transition period reveals starker fault lines within British society. For those that voted Leave, the prospect of postponing Britain’s independence to 2021—a full five years after the referendum—is a devastating delay. For certain Tories, it is also an unacceptable one: resurrected calls for a “no-deal Brexit” (somehow leaving the EU absent negotiations or settlements) were greeted with applause at the Conservative conference, and Johnson has used the unpopularity of the extension period to vaunt his own prime-ministerial credentials, contra May.

For those that voted Remain, however, the suggested delay is equally frustrating. Age was the biggest divide in how the nation voted in the referendum and, according to a Financial Times model, 2021 is the first year that the result would be reversed if it was re-taken, simply based on population projections and the age demographic of the Brexit vote. By 2021, in other words, enough Leave voters will have passed away and enough Remain voters will be of age to swing the result for Remain.

As for these (other) Brits who want to remain in the EU, the sense of leaving is hard to see. To escape the bureaucracy of Brussels, Britain is undertaking perhaps the greatest bureaucratic mission in its history, replacing or replicating over 40 years of EU law, trade agreements, and institutions, with the perverse hope that the country will look no different afterwards. To expedite this task, May is pushing through a piece of legislation, known as the Withdrawal Bill, that will nullify parliamentary scrutiny until Brexit is complete, despite Brexit’s ostensible aim of enhancing the power of the British parliament. With similar absurdity, Britain is leaving the world’s largest free-trade area with the ambition of becoming a “champion of free-trade,” as Johnson envisions, and is seizing control of its borders to “embrace the world,” according to May. Becoming a “global Britain” is the destiny-du-jour. (Because of Britain’s supposedly strong reputation abroad, “the phrase global Britain makes sense,” Johnson explained during his conference speech. “If you said global China or global Russia or even, alas, global America, it would not have quite the same flavor.”)

This version of Britain in the midst of Brexit is a feverish land filled with such delusional dreams and contradictions. If before joining the European community in 1973 Britain was known as the “Sick Man of Europe” because of its poor economic growth, upon leaving, a new condition has set in deep in the national psyche—causing a combination of internal division, delirium, and monomania. What was a fringe concern two years ago is now the only concern, splitting families and carving the country in two. Indeed, against everything the Brexit vote stood for, the specter of the EU is now more present and persistent in Britain’s domestic politics than ever before.

In this frame of mind, Brexit is not a long and laborious logistical process of Britain’s own choosing, almost bound to both hurt the economy and waste time and resources for no clear reason. On the contrary, Brexit is a test—of Britain’s bravery, resolve, and character: will Britain be able to expel the EU, that bureaucratic beast, once and for all, as if it is the final challenge in the last level of a video game? With no foe in sight beside our own invention, a siege mentality has set in, and everyone must not only acquiesce to the ambiguous mission but do so with enthusiasm and allegiance.

“This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy,” Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg declared in one of his (many) conference speeches. “We win all of these things.” According to a recent poll, almost two-thirds of Leave voters are ready for the battle ahead: They believe that “significant damage to the British economy” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit. Among over-65s, this number rises to 71 percent, with half of them even ready to accept a family member losing their job for the cause.

For the upcoming struggle, maintaining high spirits in the public is paramount, and so the role of pro-Brexit politicians—all politicians, ideally—is mainly motivational. Despite her best efforts, May is increasingly criticized by Brexiters for not being positive enough—doubts that will only deepen after her conference performance. Boris Johnson, by contrast, is emerging as the paragon of positivity. In a recent 4,000-word article for the Daily Telegraph, he reaffirmed, at incredible length, his belief that “we have the stamina, the guts, the persistence to pull it off.” While he recognized “the scale of the task ahead as we take back control of our destiny,” he criticized those that “think we lack the nerve and the confidence”—as if nerve and confidence secure trade deals and solve border disputes. He lamented the “split allegiances” of Britain’s younger generations who are sometimes seen with the EU’s “12 stars lipsticked to their faces.” If Brexit fails, it will apparently be because not enough people believed it would succeed. Stay positive. Remember where you come from. With the right amount of self-belief and inspiration, anything is possible.

Brexit, in this regard, is already a success. Because, finally, Britain can speak of itself in the lofty language of “destiny”: its “place in the world,” its glorious past and glorious future, a fairy-tale distraction from the dull failures of its domestic politics—soaring inequality, falling living standards and poor economic growth. “The eyes of the world are upon us,” May declared in Florence. It doesn’t matter if none of this is true—the world is more indifferent to our fairy tales than we like to think. All that matters is that we’re allowed live that life again, illusory or not. Brexit is partly theater, and Britain’s soul has taken the stage—that’s why everyone must play along. “Throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union,” May consoled the crowd in Florence. “And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.” Boris Johnson also admired Britain’s natural inclination to “diverge from the great accumulated conglomerate.” Now, he says, “we will be able to intensify old friendships around the world, not least with fast-growing Commonwealth economies.” For Boris, some 70 years on, Britain’s “post-imperial future” is bright.

The nostalgia that fuels the Brexit spirit cannot be downplayed. “Once again this country has had the guts try to do something new … that we can turn into a cultural and technological and commercial renaissance,” Johnson declared to the Conservative Party conference hall this week. He received several standing ovations. For those who do not belong to the longed-for past, however, these fantasies come at a cost: to turn back the clock, others must be turned out. It is telling that immigration is the only area where Brexit has already delivered results. Since the referendum, net migration has fallen by 25 percent. Almost 10,000 EU health workers have quit the NHS over the last year. Despite making a commitment under the Dubs scheme, a pledge to take in 3,000 child refugees which then sank to 480, not a single one has been brought to Britain from camps in Europe this year; the total number of arrivals is stuck at 350. All this, before Britain has even taken back control of its borders.

Perhaps this is the underlying irony of the rising nativist refrain of Go back to where you come from: It is actually the nostalgic Brexiters who, more than anyone, want to go back to where they came from—to an imagined, pure point of origin, a moment in history where Britain was a homogenous mass. A time where parliament was sovereign, the navy sailed the seas, the army won wars, and foreigners lived in foreign lands. It’s all wrapped up in one vision, and even if many people voted for Brexit for entirely different reasons, it is clear that Brexit has brought these forces of nostalgia and xenophobia to the fore. Britain is already transformed—and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.