This year I have pretty much been unable to keep track of time in any way apart from when the next round of coronavirus restrictions might lift. But one milestone I did notice, and you may have too, is that Brexit was 5 years ago this month. The votes were cast on June 23, 2016, and the results announced the following morning.
These 5 years, which have been defined by Brexit, Trump, and a global pandemic, have forced me to think about the world in entirely new ways - helped along by the fact that I spent most of them at University where my only job was to think.
When I started writing BrexLit one of the main questions I had to grapple with is: where did it all begin? What drove English voters in particular to vote the way they did in the Brexit referendum? And is it for the same reasons that Trump was elected in the US?
This question ended up taking up almost half of the book, as I dug into the political and cultural precedent for a vote that to many of us, particularly the younger population, felt entirely unprecedented. My analysis may prove entirely useless if the person I overheard the other day is right. She said: “It all began with Harambe.” I.e. the last four years of political upheaval and pandemic were triggered when the gorilla Harambe was shot after a young boy climbed into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. That would have been a much shorter chapter.
Nevertheless, 5 years on, I have a new question in mind: What happens now? I don’t think that this is a question I can reasonably answer because so much is still unclear. Conversations blaze on about trade deals, the Northern Ireland Protocol, data roaming charges, and the EU settlement scheme, leaving many confused and many more fearing for the impact Brexit will have on their livelihood, both in the short and long term.
There have been a number of interesting articles cropping up in the last few weeks marking Brexit’s 5 year anniversary, and they prove that the nation remains extremely polarized. The Express ran a triumphant article: “Five years ago today Britain finally quit EU club we never wanted to be in,” while a New Statesman reporter wrote an article titled: “Five years on, I still miss the European identity that Brexit ripped away from me.” Just by reading these headlines one can tell that there is very little common ground between these two writers, and the populous that their opinions represent.
An article run online in the South Wales Argus, a small regional title, reflected on how Wales has been affected by the vote. Wales, like England, very narrowly voted to leave the EU five years ago, but has experienced issues that force Welsh people and the devolved government to deeply consider the true impact of the vote. The journalist for the Argus wrote that “problems [are] manifesting ‘in terms of employment, trading and obviously the difficulties around the Northern Ireland border issues. This whole episode has also led to a deterioration in community cohesion.’"
Meanwhile, now-Prime-Minister Boris Johnson, who spearheaded the Leave campaign, said the country had voted five years ago to “take back control of our destiny.” He went on: “This Government got Brexit done and we’ve already reclaimed our money, laws, borders and waters.”
In response to Johnson, Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister and president of the European Movement, said Brexit was the “very opposite” of what the country needed following the pandemic. “Five years on, Brexit is far from ‘done’. It has only just begun and the forecast is ominous,” he said.
As far as reclaiming our money, laws, borders and waters, there is undoubtedly still much to be determined. It is unclear whether being outside the EU will help or hinder the UK as we build back post-pandemic. Having said that, I would wager that throughout the pandemic there has been some benefit to being able to make unilateral decisions without the input of other nations. (Whether all of those decisions have been good or logically sound is another thing entirely - Matt Hancock’s affair and disregard for his own rules raise too many questions for me to get into here.)
My own thoughts on what the future holds post-Brexit and post-pandemic change rather frequently depending on the latest government scandal and my own mood. But recently, and in timely fashion, I finished reading Spring, the third - and in my opinion, best - novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet that began with Autumn, the first BrexLit novel, in 2016. Reading Spring reminded me that there is always space for hope. While the situation is not where we might want it to be, that is not to say that it never will be. Writers like Ali Smith remind us that despite all of the vitriol we have witnessed for the last five, perhaps even six years, people are mostly good, and with some compassion and a global outlook, the referendum need not inevitably confine us to an insular, reactionary and close-minded future.
Image 1: Image from The New Statesman article.
“Remain supporters watch the results of the EU referendum being announced at the Royal Festival Hall on 24 June 2016.”
ROB STOTHARD/GETTY IMAGES
Image 2: Image from The Express article.
“Brexit joy: Moment Britain's Brexit was assured.”