Brexit: When breaking up is hard to do

Still, as you may have heard, Brexit staggers on.

A country’s entire paralysed ruling class stare like rabbits at the oncoming headlights of a March 29 "no deal" separation, and its forecast economic roadkill.

As political parties tear themselves apart, as everyday Brits hold spirited debates in pubs or just stare in blank frustration at the radio as it enters its 1062nd day of eternal Brexit analysis, as social media heaves with half-truths delivered with 110 per cent conviction, as journalists who until last year couldn’t confidently spell WTO find themselves refereeing arguments over abstruse trade law between politicians who still can’t, it pays to sit back and ask a simple question.


A protester holds a banner posing a question being asked by many.Credit:AP

Why are they going on with this?

What on earth is so awful about membership of the European Union that requires inflicting this on the UK?

A YouGov survey in early January found just under a quarter of those polled supported the May government’s Brexit deal, while just one – one – of the 404 people surveyed who supported the deal said they actually liked it.

And then this week Parliament rejected the deal, thanks to a hundred arch-Brexiteers who voted against a necessary part of their own project because it wasn’t ideologically pure.

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking during a Brexit debate.Credit:AP

But, despite this utter mess, the popular will is still for Brexit, or at least not to stop it.

A mid-January YouGov poll found that 47 per cent of the country believe it was the wrong decision for the UK to vote Leave in June 2016 – less than the proportion that voted to Remain. And some of those 47 per cent say Brexit should happen anyway. Only 28 per cent want to stop Brexit entirely; a mere 8 per cent think a second referendum should decide.


Recently, one of Professor Alex de Ruyter’s colleagues met an old lady in Stoke-on-Trent, the country’s most Leave voting region.

De Ruyter is the director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, and his team have been touring the country doing Brexit explainers, designed to both canvass and inform.

This particular presentation, for a local pensioners association, was on the grave economic consequences of a "no deal" Brexit.

The EU and British flags wave at the demonstrations area near the Parliament building in London.Credit:AP

The audience member listened carefully, then commented: "I appreciate all you’re saying, but on the morning after the referendum I woke up and I just felt free."

The EU was, from the very beginning, a project aimed at bringing Europeans together in – as the treaty itself says "ever-closer union".

In 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed a European Coal and Steel Community, to pool coal and steel production among its six members.

It was designed, says de Ruyter, “so the French and Germans couldn’t fight again, because the Germans had the coal and the French had the iron ore”.

Ever since the ECSC, the European Economic Community, then the European Union have been, at their heart, a mission to end war, promote democracy and resist dictatorship.

A European federation was “indispensable to the preservation of peace”, Schuman said, a tool to “substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests … a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts”.

But in 1973 when the UK joined (after a decade of being blocked by the French), they weren’t focusing on the "community" in EEC, they focused on the "economic".

Britain was languishing as the "sick man of Europe". Since the founding of the EEC France, West Germany and Italy nearly doubled their GDP per head, while Britain’s had only risen by 50 per cent. They wanted in.

Britain was never interested in fostering a European identity, wrote professor Ian Kershaw, a historian at the University of Sheffield, in 2017.

It had emerged from the war impoverished but victorious, it still felt itself a great power and both old and recent history "did not foster any sense of wanting a close identity with former enemies on a ruined continent".

It joined the EEC amid deep economic and political difficulties "and a prevailing sense of national decline", Kershaw said, but remained in many ways "a semi-detached member of the club".

After joining the Common Market Britain began to catch up with the continent – and then move ahead, in 2013 becoming more prosperous than the average of the three other biggest European economies for the first time since 1965.

European investors shook off the rejection of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in Parliament. Credit:Bloomberg

But in politics the left were suspicious of the EEC as a rich man’s club, and the right, to quote Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech, felt "we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels".

The population were at best indifferent.

"Those who favoured membership of the EEC did so generally because of the perceived economic advantages of a free trade area, but little more," Kershaw said. "The European Community was tellingly referred to, for years afterwards, as the ‘Common Market’ … Britain did not generally feel part of Europe in any idealistic or emotional sense."

Europe was intrinsically foreign – geographically, by currency, language and customs – in a way that, say, Australia was not.

The press reinforced this difference. One of The Sun’s most resonant and memorable headlines, echoed repeatedly since, was its 1990 "Up Yours Delors" front page rejecting European Commission president Jacques Delors’ plan for a common European currency and more powers to the European Parliament. It encouraged its readers to take a few moments at midday that day to raise a two-fingered salute across the Channel.

De Ruyter says at his presentations he repeatedly hears "the notion of foreigners telling us what to do, the notion that they think we don’t have any say in how the EU is run".

Frankly, a lot of British "just see the EU as a thing trying to screw the Brits of money", he says.

On a BBC debate just before the 2016 referendum, an audience member pleaded "I want my country back … we’re all just so frustrated".

In October, London radio talkback host James O’Brien engaged with a listener and challenged him to explain how Brexit would improve his life.

It’s painful listening: the two clearly didn’t understand each other. O’Brien was pushing for material improvements but the caller, 35 year-old Timothy from York wanted to talk about his sense of place in the world.

"I just don’t want to be involved in Europe," he said. "I don’t see myself as European."

For two decades NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey has tracked the extent to which people in Britain identify as European.

In the latest survey in 2017, 27 per cent of those surveyed said they felt "not at all European", and just 9 per cent felt "very strongly European".

Rachel Ormston from NatCen, in a research paper in 2015, found that the number of British who felt European has been on a slow rise, but it still very low.

This is in noticeable contrast to other European countries. In 1995, 57 per cent of UK citizens saw themselves as "British only", while 64 per cent of Swedish citizens felt "Swedish only". But by 2015, just 31 per cent of Swedes felt this way, while the proportion in the UK who rejected Europeanness had actually risen.

But, Ormston added, not feeling European did not correlate closely with wanting to leave the EU.

Instead, Brexity feelings correlated with opinions on the economic consequences of membership. The EU was a market, and it was judged on whether that market offered a good deal.

And so the financial crisis, the eurocrisis and the migration crisis came. De Ruyter says that period saw a significant uptick in the number of Britons who described themselves in surveys as prejudiced against foreigners.

It coincided with the rebirth of English nationalism, perhaps also a reaction against devolution: the assertion of an English identity that was very much in opposition to Europe.

Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, wrote in 2017 that the British have a sense of exceptionalism that is liable to lead them into trouble.

"Most countries see themselves as exceptional, but few have ever allowed the belief in their exceptionalism to damage their economic and political interests in quite the way Britain is currently doing," he wrote.

They see their country as a beacon of liberty and democracy, trusted and admired, blind to their colonial legacy in the rest of the world.

They resented playing "second fiddle" to the French and Germans in a project designed before they joined – despite their extensive influence ever since in liberalising European economics.

And they retained a sense of economic invulnerability, Tilford said, largely thanks to a faith in London as a naturally pre-eminent global city.

These traits of nationalism, of angry, ethnic Englishness, and sense of stifled economic potential, were all vented during the Brexit debates in the UK Parliament over the past months.

A sense that Europe had been holding Britain back for too long. And May's Brexit withdrawal deal is just the latest case in point.

There is a long-held view among many Britons that Europe has been holding it back.Credit:Bloomberg

There’s another theory, though. That Brexit is barely about Europe any more – if it ever really was.

“This vote has become totemic,” says Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London and director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

The Brexit referendum was a pressure valve, releasing political steam that had been trapped by the strictures of the UK’s voting system.

"There were a lot of dissatisfactions, unhappiness with all sorts of things building up in the British system that never found expression because of First Past the Post," says Menon. "One of the most potent messages of the Leave campaign was [that] finally you have a vote that counts: ‘Take Back Control’ as much from Westminster and those bastards as anything to do with Brussels.

"It has taken on an emotional resonance, that vote. It was ‘the first time we’ve been listened to’, it was ‘we showed them’."

Sure, there was also a sense of "why the hell do we need foreigners to help us govern ourselves", Menon says.

Britain had "been fed this drivel post-war about triumph, about punching above our weight, about being a global power. Even the French are adjusting to relative decline better than the Brits … [who thought] accepting membership of the European Union was an admission of weakness."

But, he adds, "I’m not sure how much Britain and the continent have to do with this any more".

He went to a football match recently with an old schoolmate in his home town in West Yorkshire, an area that voted 70 per cent Leave.

"[The friend] said, ‘Football’s a bit like Brexit, isn’t it? You remember when Leeds were really shit and there was no pleasure to be had in football except when Man United lost? Well Brexit’s like that, isn’t it? It might make life harder, yeah, but life’s pretty shit in Wakefield anyway, so I don’t see how much harder it’s going to get’.

"And he looked at me and he grinned and he counted it off on his fingers, he said, ‘Milliband, Blair, Alastair Campbell, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, we’ve pissed all of them off’. And that for him made it worth it."

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