The Guardian view of Brexit: a tragic national error | Editorial


“And the answer is – we’re out.” Four and a half years have passed since the BBC’s David Dimbleby pronounced the result of Britain’s EU referendum. At 11pm on 31 December, his words became finally and fatefully true. The United Kingdom is now no longer part of the European Union or subject to its rules. We have closed the door and walked away. We are on our own. We’re out.

For many in Britain, it is a glorious day. Departure from the EU, for those who wanted it, is a moment of independence regained, sovereignty reclaimed, and of taking back control. They hope it will sweep the European argument out of British life. They want it to be, in the prime minister’s words, “a new chapter in our national story”, the fulfilment of “the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own laws, made by their own elected parliament”.

For others, 1 January is simply a moment of relief. The Brexit wars have lasted eight long years, from the moment David Cameron committed the Conservatives to a referendum in January 2013. Even Brexit’s eclipse by Covid in 2020 could not prevent Europe’s return to the headlines as 2021 approached and the possibility of a no-deal departure again loomed. On this, both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer spoke as one on Wednesday. These arguments, they both said, are over.

In one sense, they are right. Political parties must look forward, not back. In another sense they are profoundly wrong. This is a day of sadness. Britain’s departure remains a tragic national error. We have expelled ourselves from a union that was good for this country and the world. The role of the anti-European press in making this happen was decisive, so it is somehow fitting that a government led by journalists has slammed the door. But at least the EU can no longer be blamed for our continuing tensions, inequalities and failures of governance.

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These tensions cannot be magicked away. Brexit was opposed by majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London and other cities, as well as by most young people and most graduates. None of that is going to change, whatever the overall majority verdict was in 2016 and however tired of the argument we all may be. This is a country divided over Europe. We were divided in the past and we will be divided in the future. Getting Brexit done is a fantasy. It is a supposed solution that only creates new historic problems.

In 2016, many of the most fanatical Brexiters hoped the UK’s departure would trigger the EU’s breakup. Yet two of the most striking consequences of the vote were the unity of the EU27 in the face of Brexit compared with the growing disunity of the UK4 over the issue. The breakup of Britain rather than the EU is now the more likely prospect. It would be a terrible price to pay. But the delusions that fed and fostered Brexit still have much of the Conservative party and press in their grip, as a number of gloating speeches from the Tory benches on Wednesday indicated.

Theresa May’s warning from those benches posed a far more real question. We must never allow ourselves to think that sovereignty means isolationism or exceptionalism, said Mrs May. We live in an interconnected world, she added. In some ways Mr Johnson seems to understand this. His Commons speech spoke of Britain as “the best friend and ally the EU could have”, which perhaps marked a change of tone. But the movement he leads is not interested in alliances or compromises. It feeds off fantasies of greatness, which Mr Johnson constantly indulges. It fatally confuses sovereignty with power.

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Brexit is done – but it is not over. In the medium term it leaves behind all manner of sources of future conflict for British politics. These include the fine print of the agreement (ignored altogether in Wednesday’s parody of a scrutiny process), new immigration controls, the maintenance of regulatory alignment, the status of service industries, fishing, access to databases, defence cooperation and, perhaps above all, the ambiguous place of Northern Ireland within the deal. All of these are iterations of a deeper truth: that we shall never cease to be Europeans and will never cease to engage with Europe.

In his novel The Stone Raft, the Portuguese writer José Saramago imagines the Iberian peninsula breaking physically away from Europe at the Pyrenees and drifting across the world’s oceans in a fruitless search for a new home. Today, Britain can feel a bit like a metaphorical stone raft too. Except that the real Britain will remain anchored in perpetuity across the Channel from the European continent, its peoples, economies and cultures, of which we shall always be part – and to which we hope one day, in some way, to return.



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