In the depths of remoaner denialism a stereotype emerged of the regretful leaver who, having seen the effects of his ballot, wished he had voted the other way. Such people were especially championed by those lobbying for a second ‘people’s vote’ because they didn’t like the first one.
Various polls will tell you that more people would vote to remain now than leave (although they said much the same on the referendum’s eve). We have nonetheless left, legally speaking, and the transition period that keeps us under EU rules looks likely to lapse without any formal arrangement of where we go from here.
Doubtless this explains the reflective mood of some leavers. This week UnHerd‘s deputy editor Ed West laid out how his views on the European Union evolved, with customary uncertainty:
All the arguments I had previously used to justify leaving, in particular the hope of entering a sort of half-way house with EFTA, I just no longer believed. All that was left was the emotional reasoning; the elephant was in charge, while the rider was basically asleep.
I was reassured to discover I’d said something similar almost four years ago when YouTuber Leena Norms interviewed me for her podcast. Ultimately all political decisions are undergirded with emotions, I said, adding that I did not feel “politically European”, so didn’t want to be governed from Brussels. In a sense that was my entire case for leaving.
British self-determination is an unfashionable cause, in part because we denied so many others that privilege during our imperial age. Boris Johnson’s plan to allow prime ministers to call elections again without consulting Parliament suggests that constitutional reform is unlikely to move power back to the people anytime soon.
The other disappointments are legion. Although the bonfire of the vanities engulfing many leading politicians after the vote was enjoyable, our diplomatic reputation suffered its own fire damage. Short of Britain declaring war on France it is hard to see how the leaving process could have been much worse handled.
Britain’s freedom to write its own laws and carve its own path in the world – as well as our economic prospects – continues to rest on diplomacy. The future of all of these things will be determined by ongoing negotiations with the rump EU, which will happen whether or not a deal is reached this December.
Remainers should not feel too smug though. Had the vote gone the other way the argument would not have been settled, even if purist Euroscepticism remained a fringe pursuit. Britain would still be a refusenik in European affairs, an uneasy outsider among the closing ranks of the eurozone members.
Perhaps the group most vindicated by the last four years are those who were sceptical of the EU but thought it impractical to exit. Ironically this includes David Cameron, who made this case in not so many words before he became prime minister and during the referendum campaign.
The derangement of many pundits and politicians made it impossible to argue from the centre, as Cameron tried. It is hard to improve on Philip Collins’ conclusion in the New Statesman that, “Brexit emptied so many serious political minds of their senses, on both sides of the argument.”
The argument looks small in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as culture wars are wont to do. We have all been made stupider by the debate, which will seem even smaller beer as climate changes worsens and China becomes more dangerous to Western political aims.
It is tempting therefore to wish the strife away, even as a leaver. But I do not regret my decision. In fact, I would have regretted taking the socially easier option of voting to remain against my conscience.
Before the vote I acknowledged that leaving would create economic problems, as well as the intractability of the Northern Irish situation. I also thought it would be difficult for Westminster to enact a policy that was opposed by most policymakers, whether parliamentarians or civil servants. Institutional opinion counts for a lot.
What swayed me was thinking how dismal it was to refuse the chance to order the establishment to reverse course simply because it was contrary to their wishes. It is mawkish to say that Britons have died for the right to do this, but it is true. And so I have no Bregrets.