It was Gore Vidal who noted that “the four most beautiful words” in the English language are “I told you so”. Yet, for six long years, those who voted against Brexit have been denied even the meagre satisfaction of having their wisdom acknowledged – even as the damage of leaving the European Union has continued to mount. Now, with the latest episode of the tragicomedy into which the British public sphere has collapsed, that is finally beginning to change.
The conspiracy of silence over Brexit’s consequences is not surprising. History is written by the victors. The Tory Brexiteers have been in the ascendant, and in denial. The Labour opposition has been split on the issue, and therefore quiet. Britain’s dire economic situation, in the Conservative telling, is entirely down to the pandemic, Ukraine, and global inflation; while the only problems with Brexit are the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ talking Britain down and perfidious continentals making life difficult. Plus, of course, the fact that ‘Brexit freedoms’ have yet to be fully exploited.
In a few short weeks, all that has gone up in smoke. Former prime minister Liz Truss’s crazed neoliberal experiment exploded on the launch-pad, and with it the extremist Brexiteer dream of turning Britain into a Singapore-on-Thames. More and more, the commentators who forge the political narrative are beginning to join the dots – and position this autumn’s economic and political debacles as the direct consequences of the changes set in train by Brexit.
As columnist for the Guardian, Marina Hyde, has put it (with acknowledgements to Netflix’s Stranger Things), it was the Brexit referendum that Opened the Gate, and since then we have all been living in the Upside Down. Nor is it just the left-leaning press which is growing bolder. A recent piece in The Times argues that “whoever [replaces Truss] has to admit how leaving the EU has affected our economy and poisoned politics”. And, most striking of all, Guy Hands – the long-time Tory backer and boss of one of the biggest private equity firms in Europe – gave an apocalyptic interview to the BBC in which he argued that Britain’s economy is “doomed”, with poverty inexorably to climb the income scale, unless the Conservative party admits “some of the mistakes they’ve made in the last six years which have frankly put this country on a path to be the sick man of Europe”. The only hope for Britain, Hands urges, is to abandon the current Brexit deal and negotiate a much closer relationship with the EU.
But a full court Brexit renegotiation is not going to happen. Rishi Sunak, the latest prime minister the Tory party has chosen for Britain, is a Brexiteer and – although no extremist on the subject himself – he will need to placate the more rabid elements on his backbenches. So, the real question is whether he will resist their pressure to further alienate the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Given the mountainous task Sunak faces to stabilise Britain’s economy without immiserating even larger swathes of the population, he will likely decide that unnecessary conflict with Brussels (and Washington) is something he had better avoid.
Of course, he may not even have time to take that decision. All opposition parties are clamouring for an early election (which is not legally required for another two years or so), and polling shows that a majority of the public also feel it is time they had a say in who governs them. Whether Sunak can resist that clamour over the coming weeks and months remains to be seen. As winter sets in, economic devastation at the societal level is now a very real prospect – with millions more sliding into poverty, cash-starved public services collapsing, and strike action incapacitating various sectors of the economy. In short, the conditions are ripe for the sort of unrest that forces elections.
And yet, even supposing an early election and the return of a Labour government, do not expect a dramatic reversal of British policy on relations with the EU. Labour leader Keir Starmer is a convinced Europeanist, but he is also a cautious man. So, despite currently enjoying massive leads in the polls, he is doing whatever he can to block off potential attack lines from the powerful British right-wing media, including the charge that as prime minister he will ‘surrender to Brussels’. He has accordingly made it clear that, under Labour, there will be no attempt to “reverse” Brexit. Rather, his party will focus on “making Brexit work” – in other words, pursue a quiet rapprochement. This could of course repair a fair bit of the damage without creating waves. Labour could, for starters, realign Britain with EU standards on plant and animal health.
There will be no British walk to Canossa over Brexit. But Britons and their European friends can at least take comfort from the fact that, thanks to the fiascos of recent months, the six-year bubble of lies and hubristic nonsense spun by Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave outriders has finally been punctured. No one is going to turn to Remainers and admit “you told us so”. But we can at least hope that Britain may emerge from its looming ordeal wiser, fairer, and less divided – if still poorer and sadder.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.