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22nd Jun 2017

More than ever, Brexit means Brexit. But a year after the referendum, what does Britain mean?

Dion Fanning

If you believed Brexit would involve chaos and anarchy, if you felt it was a cranks’ obsession disguised as a peasants’ revolt then, on the anniversary of the referendum, you might be experiencing a feeling of satisfaction. If Brexit equals confusion, disorder and despair then Brexit certainly means Brexit.

If, on the other hand, you believed glory was being restored to Britain when the country voted to leave, it has been a troubling year. The leaders in whom you placed your trust have scattered or are diminished.

Those politicians who were most confident in their promises of what Brexit would bring, who drove across the land with their mouths writing cheques that their buses couldn’t cash, are now as reassuring and authorative as the lawyer in Jurassic Park shortly before he is swallowed by a T-Rex while sitting on the toilet.

The Irish playwright Hugh Leonard was said by a foe to have become “embittered by success”, and those who were on the Leave side last summer seem to have been similarly afflicted.

Not since Alex Ferguson, then Aberdeen manager, gave a post-match interview after the Scottish Cup final and described Aberdeen’s victory as a “disgraceful performance” before disassociating the majority of his players from their triumph has an entity seemed so pissed off with success.

Ferguson came to regret that outburst and it says something that the leaders of Brexit could now do with taking a lesson in humility from one of the most overbearingly strident figures of our age.

Their approach has been different, appearing certain that if they shrieked ‘Freedom’ for long enough, it would sound convincing and liberating.

Yet they seemed so insecure all the time, so fearful, uncertain and joyless that it was hard to know what they were celebrating and impossible to believe this was what freedom looked like.

A year after the vote which the most excitable wanted to declare as the UK’s independence day much has changed, if not in the way many celebrating that day imagined.

Humility has been forced upon them by a sense of the mood changing or, perhaps, more precisely, the mood amplifying.

If there was a roar of defiance in the vote on June 23, 2016, there was something elemental at work in the election earlier this month.

Victory for the Brexiteers seems a long way off and the consequences of the referendum decision are more unclear than ever.

In Europe, they are telling Britain that the decision to leave is not irreversible. This may be an overreach, but it reveals the extent of the transformation.

Brexit meant Brexit when we had no idea what Brexit meant. At the moment, it seems that Brexit might not mean much at all, but, more importantly, after a year of turmoil, nobody can be sure what Britain means.

Whatever forces were unleashed by David Cameron’s reckless decision to hold a referendum have not been contained.

Everything is seen through the prism of Brexit and even if the election campaign was not fought on those grounds, the voting almost certainly was.

Young people may have been mobilised by Jeremy Corbyn, but they were also energised by the events of the year before when other generations decided on their future.

Labour might have supported a version of Brexit in the election, but those who cling to the idea that the electorate was broadly supportive of the Brexit of last June – or even of last month – haven’t been paying attention.

For a year, their victory seemed absolute. Brexit would mean Brexit. It would be a red, white and blue Brexit delivered by a strong and stable government who were ready to play tough so you’d better believe that no deal would be better than a bad deal.

For a moment when Theresa May succeeded Cameron, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ looked like the most cunning phrase invented in this time. In its meaninglessness, it could offer something for everyone, but it transpired that Theresa May couldn’t offer anything for anyone.

All she could promise was that, at the end of the negotiations, there would be freedom, but it was the freedom of those with nothing left to lose.

The EU, of course, was always interfering with this desire and while the real and imagined fears over immigration drove Brexit, there was always this desire to be free.

Immigration, it transpires, is complicated too. It turns out that if you make people feel less welcome, they might not want to live in a country anymore, even the ones you want to live in the country.

It doesn’t matter how much people talked about how they had no problem with the EU citizens who worked and paid their taxes, it was perceived as a problem.

The number of EU nurses arriving in the country is down 96 per cent since the referendum and there are now 40,000 nursing vacancies in England. This is a crisis that predates Brexit, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

Many immigrants live in a state of wondering if they should stay or if should they return home, and Brexit may be one of those reasons for leaving that outweighs a lot of the reasons for staying, or for arriving in the first place.

For some, this will seem like a triumph, but if we have learned anything, it is that they know nothing.

When May called an election, her victory seemed inevitable. The inevitable landslide would confirm her power. May said it was the most important election of her lifetime and she might have been right. Certainly, the electorate looked at this third-rate politician and decided the consequences were serious if she won.

We’ll never know now if May’s plan had she secured a landslide was to ditch the fantasists and negotiate a pragmatic Brexit, but the idea of her defying the newspapers who have fetishised exit from the EU is preposterous given her many weaknesses.

May remains as prime minister, of course, struggling to put together a deal with the DUP, even though in these desperate times for her own career, a bad deal is better than no deal.

In Europe, Britain now needs a deal and they want one that pleases as many people as possible.

For most of the past 12 months, those who voted to remain had been told their views were irrelevant and carried as much weight as a man shouting at the birds in his local park on a Sunday morning.

The 52 per cent were the only ones who mattered. They, it seems, were the people.

If Remain had won last June, David Cameron had planned to deliver a speech in which he said “the political project for further integration in Europe is over”. Remain was remain, not a hard remain.

But Brexit was a hard Brexit and soon Britain would be selling whiskey to the Mexicans and afternoon tea to Japanese, entering more difficult markets to prove they didn’t need to be part of the great single market one of their heroes helped create.

The most deluded were chicken hawks. The abstraction of Britain getting their sovereignty back might arouse them, but they wouldn’t be the people doing the suffering, figuring out how to cope with rising prices or falling wages while they are taking control of bendy bananas.

So when May called the general election, she was carried away by a certain bullishness which turned out to be insubstantial.

Labour may not have won, but it was the Conservatives who lost, emerging diminished and unsure. They had set off on the campaign as the Wizard of Oz and there they were on election night, a cranky old man behind a curtain.

Who knows what the electorate wants or why they vote for the things they say they want, but if Labour had campaigned promising happiness (or free stuff), then it was enough to persuade plenty of people who had grown tired of austerity.

And then came Grenfell. The Grenfell Tower disaster has changed everything in Britain. It has exposed many divides, but one of the most fundamental may be the divide between those who understand it has changed everything and those who don’t.

The failure of Theresa May to respond will, more even than the election gamble, be seen as the defining point of her time as prime minister.

Those who mutter tired old lines about sentimentality, while referencing Princess Diana’s funeral twenty years ago as the moment when the country lost its grip, fail to grasp one thing: being present in these moments is not about emoting, it’s about leading.

Nobody doubted that Theresa May felt as terrible as everyone else about Grenfell and it wasn’t important that she showed her emotions. What she failed to do was show she understood how the people who lived in Grenfell Tower felt and grasped their emotions. Nothing else mattered.

There are some, restricted by a failure of the imagination which is the curse of their class, who will turn this into a political parlour game. Who will now succeed May? Who is best placed? How long can she hang on?

There were so many who were notable by their absence during the agonising days after the fire that it can be said none of them are qualified. Nobody among those who govern understood what was required as a leader and if they did understood it but failed to act for cunning political reasons, they understood even less.

May was the one who emerged damaged, but it is a collective failure, even if in the short term, she will have to absorb it.

This is the fault line which will define so much now. Grenfell was the moment when so many things looked like a con.

After one Conservative election victory in the 1980s, a newly appointed minister walked up Downing Street. He was asked by reporters what he hoped to achieve during his time in office. “Absolutely nothing,” he replied.

This was a philosophy driven by a profound sense that government got in the way and the less it did the better.

Local government was almost as much of a bogey man as Europe for a generation of Conservative politicians. Abolishing it entirely was discussed at cabinet meetings under Margaret Thatcher.

After Grenfell, a world of regulations and controls looked like a good idea. Light touch regulation wasn’t something to crave when it came to fires in homes in tower blocks.

In fact, a world with order seemed preferable to the chaos.

For eurosceptics, the EU and their meddling ways had always seemed a hindrance to certain core values. For a long time, they were helped by their opponents. The lack of accountability and democracy in Europe meant the EU could be blamed for everything and nobody could really be sure if it was correct or not.

After the Brexit vote, the eurosceptics embarked on one final fantastical journey, escaping to a world where they must fight the enemies of the people and crush the saboteurs in the cause of freedom. But this time, the enemies were not Europeans, but British people who thought differently. 

It was quite a ride, but they are spent now after 12 months of roaring. They were the people of whom it was said that they “couldn’t take yes for an answer”. When they got the answer last June, they couldn’t help arguing over the question.

They will remain of course, as a force to destroy the Conservatives who might find that the legacy of Brexit is another generation wasted arguing over Europe

In the real world a year on, their vision is less seductive. A year on, Brexit means Brexit all right, whatever it means. Britain negotiates with the EU from a position of weakness and they are running out of time.

It is not just the minority government which makes them weak, but the sense, after Grenfell, that a system has fundamentally failed, and it wasn’t the system they blamed for all their failures.

Britain has embarked on a more profound and tragic search for meaning. They may be some time.