After 47 years and 30 days, the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union will end at 11pm tonight.
The referendum result of June 2016 will have been delivered, where seven of the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester voted in favour of Brexit.
The EU referendum was my first vote 1318 days ago. I was perhaps luckier than others as the second half of my A-Level politics course was an in-depth study of the EU. By the time of the vote, that odd concept sovereignty, EU institutions such as the Parliament, Commission and Court of Justice; the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Lisbon etc; the single market and the customs union became all too familiar.
Given the magnitude of the decision ahead of me in that polling booth, I knew that I could be on the different side of the argument to friends – (expected), but also my family. And, I was.
‘Taking Back Control’ was a potent package. It rejuvenated those who felt that distant politicians in Brussels did not give a damn about their lives and was a message to previous Tory and Labour governments that they had failed to rebalance and redistribute wealth to post-industrial Britain.
Despite the powerful nature of that slogan, I voted Leave because I was sceptical of the EU’s direction of travel. It was perhaps not the sexiest argument to win a campaign, especially as ‘Take Back Control’ could appeal to those concerned about the effects of freedom of movement on communities, identity politics, laws supposedly imposed on us by Brussels technocrats, or the cost of our membership.
Fundamentally, the EU changed from the common market – an economic union which the UK signed up to in 1973, to a political union that was symbolised by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The desire for a ‘United States of Europe’ and the idea that Britain ‘belonged’ to the European Union did not reassure me that a return to economic union would materialise anytime soon.
Despite the UK traditionally being placed on the outer ring of EU integration – particularly as the country does not use the euro or are members of the passport-free Schengen zone, there seemed to be only one path in sight. A two-speed Europe, in 2020, is incompatible when there is a determination for ‘ever closer union.’
I was embarrassingly naïve in thinking what was next. Billed as a once in a generation decision, I thought the country would reunite after a divisive referendum campaign. How wrong was I?!
As I studied for my degree in a die-hard Labour, staunchly Remain city, I felt as if the country was descending into a civil war, especially after the 2017 election. Neither side budged an inch – it was attrition warfare.
Leavers were infuriated by the May deal and Remainers knew that parliamentary paralysis meant they could litigate the whole question of EU membership again.
The amplitude of the debate went up; a cacophony of noise. From leavers being branded as extremist or fascist to Remainers being carded as saboteurs and traitors, accused of undermining the government. Not to mention the inflammatory language which featured prominently throughout the Article 50 process slapped on the front pages – ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ on the Daily Mail immediately comes to mind. Having a debate is one thing, but both sides were found guilty in overstepping the mark.
Essentially, the last three-and-a-half years have been a populist struggle. Not only, the people versus the elite, but also the people against the people. Nigel Farage, the morning after the referendum, said it was a ‘victory for ordinary people’.
He pitted the people against wealthy financiers, but there are plenty of “decent” people who are Remainers. 16.1 million people voted for the status-quo. Just because they do not share a particular vision for the country does not mean they are somehow less decent, or even less patriotic.
If there was a ballot tomorrow, I would vote the same way as I did in 2016. But, living through the experience since the referendum fills me with great regret, watching the so-called ‘mother of all democracies’ – the shining example that Britain is supposed to be – fall to such a pitiful level. Over the past three-and-a-half years, Britain fell victim to the swarm of populist anger that has swept Europe and the Americas.
Tonight is a historic moment. Tomorrow, a new chapter starts in our story with the European Union. As 11pm approaches, some will celebrate on Parliament Square popping champagne corks, but others will commiserate and be genuinely fearful about the next stage of the Brexit process, particularly as the right to work, live and study across the EU-27 post-transition is plunged into jeopardy.
Ultimately, half of those who participated in 2016 did not want this outcome, so those on the winning side have to be magnanimous in victory – recognising fundamentally that some will be genuinely devastated at this outcome.
It is incumbent on Brexiteers to take the lead in trying to bring the country together, no matter how long or how difficult that may be.