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Brexit Diaries: no bang, no whimper, just a sigh

December 31, 2020

The final act of Brexit came to pass yesterday when a portly politician with scarecrow hair and a sly smirk signed a piece of paper. There will be no parties, no fireworks. For most of us, whatever we think about Brexit, the dominant expression will be a sigh of relief that we’re spared the unnecessary torment of no deal.

It’s hard to imagine that the most significant political development in Britain’s post-war history would end up as a minor key change in a symphony of agony, despair and fragile hope, as ambulances line up outside packed hospitals waiting to deliver their patients, news bulletins announce frightening statistics and worried people around the country mutter through gritted teeth “just give me the bloody vaccine”.

A couple of decades ago, I co-owned a business that employed people in seven of the countries that still belong to the European Union. I shudder to think of the impact Brexit would have had on our ability to run such a business. Fortunately, I shall never have to find out. Even then, it was hard enough to keep subsidiaries on the right side, not only of the laws in the countries where they were based, but of the overarching regulations coming from Brussels.

But the grief that could only be overcome by armies of lawyers and accountants was always made worthwhile by the joy of visits to Dublin, Helsinki, Grenoble, Budapest, Rome, Brussels, Den Haag, Stuttgart and other cities where our colleagues worked.

That was then. If then had been now, perhaps we would muddled through, at the expense of a few grey hairs and strong dose of financial engineering. I’m glad we didn’t have to go through what thousands of businesses are dealing with now.

I suspect that for the next few months, after we’ve endured the inevitable stream of reports from borders, interviews with business owners and platitudes from officials in the wake of January 1st, things will calm down somewhat.

At the very least, I hope that the self-important ultra-Brexit faction in Parliament, who ridiculously refer to themselves as Spartans but whom I think of as Pharisees, will now revert to silence as they tend to their hedge funds.

The news media will be anxious to find stories in which COVID is not the main actor. No doubt there will be a steady drip of businesses bankrupted, jobs lost and people pissed off at the inconveniences caused by the sudden disappearance of privileges we took for granted – all those harmonised processes that made, for example, coming, going and working within the EU relatively straightforward. But we’ll get used to hearing of other people’s misfortunes, just as we have become desensitised to the deaths of hundreds of people every day at the hands of a rampant virus.

I find it rather poignant that people, such as the historian Simon Schama, who are urging the start of campaigns to return to the EU (I suppose we have to call them Rejoiners now) are of an age that makes it unlikely that they will live to see their wishes fulfilled. I’m probably one of them, but I prefer to wait and see what the EU becomes in the next few years before I take my elderly knees to the streets.

We’ll get used to Brexit, even if some of us will never get over it. Besides, at the moment we have more pressing concerns. So I suspect that it will only be after we emerge, immunised and relieved, from the pandemic, that we survey the wreckage and ask ourselves how much of it we’ve inflicted on ourselves. Perhaps we’ll grieve for what we’ve lost. But we will adjust, and slowly pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic will become a matter of historic interest and nostalgia rather than vivid memory.

And hey, we’re not at war, the sea level hasn’t yet rendered our flood defences useless. Before too long, barring another monster variant, we’ll be able to venture out again without looking around to see who’s watching us, behave badly with impunity, gather together without distance between us, shake hands, hug, eat together, visit the countries we’ve missed. We, the lucky ones, that is.

As I write this, out on our patio our resident robin is back, checking out the dormant roses. A welcome sign of continuity.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog in 2020, especially to those of you who have taken the trouble to comment on stuff you’ve read. I’m sorry that much of what I’ve posted has hardly been filled with relentless optimism. Also that so much of my attention has been focused on a political side-show in my country when so much of greater long-term significance is going on elsewhere.

If the pandemic brings any reason to cheer, it’s because it’s given us, whether we’re in Antarctica or Albania, a common experience that reminds us of what we share and value as human beings. And the efforts of scientists of many nationalities who work beyond borders are offering us a way out of the nightmare. They also offer us an antidote to small-minded nationalism everywhere.

Wherever we are, we’ve made it thus far, and even if this year ends with a sigh, it’s in our nature to hope for better things to come.

Happy New Year, stay safe and see you on the other side.

  1. Andrew Oliver permalink

    I find it quite interesting in that I recall you as being very much “On the fence ” in the original Remain/Leave debate, eventually deciding upon Remain. But subsequently you seemingly became a fervent Remainer?

    I suppose that it is fairly natural that once one “picks a side” – one tends to back it and look for reasons to support your choice rather than being particularly open to accepting arguments against it?

    I have always been fundamentally against being a Member of the EU (in its current political and monetary form) but my enthusiasm for “Leave” has grown over time with the arguments that I have heard and the debate involved. But perhaps that was me sticking with and “wanting” my original views to be embellished?

    The one thing that always sticks with me is something that I heard an MP say some 20 years ago. That was that countries will often think it a good idea to get together and form a Club/Union for the benefit of all. However, ultimately, countries will generally wish to be on their own, making their own decisions. And the “Union” or “Club” will in time, nearly always break-up. There are numerous examples of this throughout history, whether the “Union” has been enforced or agreed.

    • Good to hear from you Andy!

      One of the advantages of having a lot of written output is that I can easily provide evidence that I was always in favour of remaining. This for example: So I could say that I have always been fundamentally for remaining, just as you were, as you say, fundamentally a leaver. But the key is “political and monetary form”. From your business standpoint, I’m sure you had good reasons not to be a fan of the Euro. I’ve always been neutral. As for the political order, I always felt that the ever-closer union aspiration was dangerous in that it stood to produce a stronger (and more inflexible) structure within and stronger walls without, which would make it difficult for neighbouring countries to join. But that movement, partly as the result of British influence (Up yours, Delors!) and for other reasons such as what some saw as the inequitable strictures imposed by the Euro, stalled. Hence I felt by 2016 that we’d reached a point of acceptable stasis.

      But yes, I long felt the same way as your MP, that this club would eventually break up. I still do, though I didn’t think this was a reason for not being a member as long as a greater good was served by being in rather than out.

      Back in February 2016 I wrote that “…whether Britain stays or leaves, the fault lines across the EU will continue to build. The house is heading for an earthquake. Either it will be demolished and left in ruins, or it will be rebuilt with stronger foundations. So, for Britain, there’s a simple choice. Whether to stick around and take part in the rebuild on terms we can influence, or exit now and wait and see if the earthquake brings us down too.”

      If the vote had been different, I would still make the same argument today. Now that we’re out, I’m entirely open to the possibility that there will be an earthquake, but equally convinced that Brexit will not make us immune to it. As for the future, we need to keep an open mind rather than cloud our judgement with populist notions of independence, sovereignty and taking back control, even if the emotions behind those ideas will still play a part in any future decision.

      So for sure, I’m on the fence as to whether we should seek to re-join. But it’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime, and we’ll have to see how things are post-earthquake!

      Happy New Year to you and your family, and I hope Fortuna smiles on you in 2021. S

  2. Margaret Richardson permalink

    Thanks Steve for sharing your diaries. I have enjoyed reading each one. Here’s to a healthier NewYear for all. Margaret

    • And thank you Margaret! Bring on the vaccine and we can all relax a bit. S

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