Future historians will mark this weekend just passed as one of the turning points in British history. How significant a turning point it will turn out to be depends, of course, on what happens next. And none of us yet knows what that will be. But beyond all the arguments we’ve (interminably) had about whether leaving the European Union is a good idea or a bad idea, and beyond the disputes we are still (interminably) going to have about what sort of relationship we want to forge with our old partners in the future, there is a deeper level. It’s a level where many believe our decisions are really made: in the guts. So, as we cross this threshold what, in our guts, do we think about the future?
There is no doubt that the British public is sick and tired of Brexit. It’s one of the reasons Boris Johnson was able to win an unexpectedly resounding victory in the general election back in December. His slogan ‘Get Brexit Done!’ captured the mood even of many of those who devoutly wished the EU referendum had produced a different result in the first place. The underlying yearning was for a government that would not just get Brexit done but be able to get on with all the other things that had been piling up waiting attention. The government’s recent spate of decision-making – Huawei, nationalising Northern Rail, HS2 – suggests it got the message.
History will certainly not record that Brexit was not ‘done’ at 11.00 pm on Friday, 31 January. There are at least eleven more months of ‘transition’ ahead, eleven months of wrangling and negotiation to preoccupy us before a long-term relationship with the twenty-seven remaining members of the EU is agreed. And, despite the government’s insistence that it must all be done and dusted by the end of the year, most observers believe it will take a lot longer than that. Perhaps the slogan should have been ‘Keep Getting Brexit Done!’.
Nonetheless, although everything will carry on much as it has done for decades, the changeover hour marks the point at which there is no going back. It’s not just that any lingering hopes (or fears) of reversing the decision will be finally extinguished. It’s that there will be a new status quo. Those who continue to believe that Britain should belong to the EU will have to face up to the realities of what that new status quo implies. They include the fact that Britain would have to re-apply for membership and would almost certainly be offered terms less advantageous to us than those we have shunned by leaving. And proponents of re-applying would have to persuade an electorate that tends to be slow to upset a status quo that they should want to do so. It took those who were never reconciled to Britain’s joining in the first place almost half a century to persuade their fellow Britons to change their minds.
So, psychologically, we found ourselves in a new world this weekend. In terms of some basic elements in our psychological make-up, how do we feel?
One of the most basic of those elements is our sense of who we are, our identity. One of the gut feelings of many of those who wanted Britain to get out of Europe was the threat they felt membership posed to their sense of being British (or, in some cases, the even narrower identity of being English). They found themselves, involuntarily, to have become European citizens with EU passports. They feared they were on a conveyor belt to having their British or English identity denied them altogether and that they would be forced to start seeing themselves as something they didn’t recognise, a European.
Of course there were plenty of people to tell them this was nonsense. They were told time and time again that the French didn’t feel themselves to be any less French, or the Germans less German, or the Italians less Italian by virtue of their countries being firm and settled members of the EU. Indeed it was pointed out that the problem was exactly the opposite one. The Germans were so intent on going on being German (and ditto the French, the Italians and all the rest), that it was proving incredibly difficult to make progress on the greater integration between these proud nation states thought necessary to make the EU sustainable. But such arguments cut little ice. Those Brits who feared the loss of their identity no doubt felt a sense of relief last weekend.
But there are others for whom the issue of who they think themselves to be will work in quite a different way. There are those who are suspicious of identity defined by nationhood. They think nationalism responsible for much of the suffering and madness that engulfed the Europe of nation states from the mid-nineteenth-century on. They prefer to see themselves as European rather than, simply by virtue of where they were born, British.
And there are others who take a more fluid view of the whole question of identity. They are happy to think of themselves as both British and European at the same time. This group is perhaps most strongly represented among the young. For them frequent European travel has become a way of life: backpacking as students round Greece and Italy, hen parties in Ibiza, stage weekends in Prague.
To these two groups last Saturday dawned with the sense that they have had part of their identity taken away from them.
How you feel about who you are and whether or not that identity feels secure is related to another gut feeling: whether you feel free and strong or exposed and vulnerable. For Brexiteers the sense of being shackled was always a strong psychological factor. The earlier slogan conjured up by Boris Johnson’s campaigning guru, Dominic Cummings – ‘Take Back Control’ – captured this sense of a people who felt themselves not to be free, but to be enslaved by people over whom they had no influence (Brussels bureaucrats). Last Saturday will have felt like liberation. And a feeling of liberation sets the adrenalin going. Freedom makes you feel strong, capable of facing whatever may confront you. Of course the world of freedom entails bracing winds but that’s good: challenge is what makes a people what they are, and now we can face those challenges as a free people. Last Saturday, psychologically, was Liberation Day!
But on the other side the psychological take is quite different. It’s not the sense of freedom that is felt but the sense of no longer belonging. The world out there is a dangerous and hostile place and we are now alone in it, isolated and vulnerable. And we have let this happen because of our own folly. We deserve what we get. Last Saturday was a day of shame.
That sense of feeling free and strong on one hand, or exposed and vulnerable on the other, may manifest itself in many forms but an obvious one to which our gut feelings are sensitive is whether we shall emerge richer or poorer. Both sides in the Brexit debate argued, of course, that their cause would make us richer and that the others’ would make us poorer. Vast amounts of economic ‘evidence’ were advanced, none of it seemingly conclusive: it’s the old case of two economists with three views. Unusually however, one politician did venture the thought that it wasn’t the main issue. Nigel Farage, whilst not for a moment conceding that leaving the EU would make us poorer, did at one point remark that money wasn’t everything. Be that as it may, the guts of Brexiteers and Remainers were sending them different vibes last weekend about whether we are going to end up richer or poorer and there won’t be many who will be cheered up by the gut conviction that they’ll be poorer.
And that is just one manifestation of perhaps the deepest of our gut feelings about the future: whether we sense fear or hope. That is the most basic measure of the division among us.
It’s possible, of course, that very little will change not only this week, nor just over the coming months, but for years ahead. Historians may then conclude that 31 January 2020 turned out not to be much of a turning point at all. What was all the fuss about? Britain carried on much as it would have done had it stayed in the European Union, and the European Union wasn’t much affected by the disappearance of the United Kingdom.
But historians tiresomely write with the complacent benefit of hindsight. For us it is different: we are here and now, faced with the radical uncertainty of the future. And in facing it we rely more than we usually tend to confess on what our guts are telling us.
What are your guts telling you? Let us know.