To mark the publication of his new book Brexit Unfolded, Chris Grey explains why so many people are dissatisfied with the way it turned out...
The long title of this book is intended to capture two things: one obvious and the other provocative, and both with big implications.
The obvious bit is that Brexit wasn’t a single event that happened on the day of the 2016 referendum, or the day Britain left the EU, or even the end of the transition period. It was a process which, indeed, unfolded over time. The referendum was the beginning, not the end.
The provocative bit is that Brexit hasn’t delivered what its advocates promised and many of its supporters wanted, and that this was, if not inevitable, then, at least, always highly likely.
The two are linked. At the time of the referendum, the exact meaning of Brexit was left undefined and there were many different versions of what it could mean. So, after the vote to leave, what Brexit actually meant in practice got defined in the process of doing it.
This inevitably meant that some of the versions of what people wanted for Brexit didn’t happen. But, more than that, in the process of ‘doing Brexit’ many of the claims made for it beforehand proved factually incorrect. In particular, assurances that Brexit had no implications for Northern Ireland’s borders were false, as were many of the ideas about what kind of trade arrangements the UK could have without also having the freedom of movement of people.
But if that were all, then Brexit would not have been as dramatic and divisive as it turned out to be. That happened partly because a very narrow vote to leave was treated as a licence for a far more extreme form of Brexit than was necessary to honour that vote. Worse, those who didn’t want Brexit were treated as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors’. No attempt was made to create a consensus with them, or with those parts of the UK which had voted to remain.
Worse still, amongst those who did want Brexit some invariably denounced any specific Brexit plan as a ‘betrayal’. That was partly because of the original lack of definition but, more, because one strand of Brexiter psychology actually wanted to be betrayed so as to confirm a sense of victimhood. Sometimes it even seemed as if they would have been happier had they lost the vote.
Even amongst those for whom that wasn’t the case, at the heart of how Brexit unfolded was an undeliverable idea. It was that leaving the EU would be cost-free, not just in terms of economics but in any way at all, and all suggestions to the contrary were rubbished as ‘Project Fear’. Since that could not be delivered, blame was put on ‘Remainer traitors’ and ‘EU punishment’.
This book tells the story of how and why the events since the 2016 referendum happened. It is a story of great complexity, with many twists and turns, and moments of high drama. Although it ends when the transition period finished, Brexit is still unfolding. And the ways in which it is doing so grow directly out of what happened in the five tumultuous years that we have just lived through.
Brexit Unfolded is out now and available to order. Why not take a look here?