I knew Remain might very well lose the EU referendum. Truth to tell, for most of June I thought we would. I forced myself to believe we wouldn’t in the final week, a feat of denial I’m not usually much good at. I was coordinating Stronger In and Labour In activities in addition to a full-time job: I doubt I’d have had it in me to go through the last week of the campaign if I hadn’t.
I was, if I’m honest, more surprised by the campaign for a second referendum than by losing the first. It never occurred to me people wouldn’t regard it as final. Naively, in retrospect: equally Scottish and English myself, I should have looked north of the Border. Nonetheless, I never expected a second referendum to be held. I never thought it would be won if held. And democratically, I thought the first one should be upheld.
I’d also always guessed that if we lost, Brexit would end up much harder than many thought. In 2016 and 2017, I hoped my government would prove me wrong; in 2018 and 2019, I believed MPs should take the Leave-tilted compromise on the table for fear of something worse. I despaired of the competing fundamentalisms and the pincer movement to destroy any possible middle ground. Once it was gone, Johnson’s Brexit was too much for me to swallow, for the sake of Northern Ireland above all, but I had little hope it wouldn’t go through.
So I’ve never had a comforting period of denial, never really thought the clock could be turned back. I understand something fundamental happened on 23 June 2016. Having spent years fearing No Deal, tonight’s tragedy is, in fact, a little less bad than many of my predictions. Drained by three and a half years of political hand-to-hand combat and schooled in grim realism, I thought I might be less grief-stricken than most Remainers. But it turns out that even if it’s the hope that kills you, a lack of hope isn’t much of an antidote.
I don’t care about the European Union so much just because I like economic integration, or even because I like to see fewer rather than more fences in the world. I believe in the political project and always have done. I believe in a project built to tame the fears of a terrible past, which shifts the basis of relations among Europe’s nations from power to law — a dream never quite fulfilled, but gradually inched towards in Council meetings and arguments over shared rules. I believe in the potential of Europe to bolster liberal democracy and the rule of law —which means I worry more about Poland and Hungary than I do about the euro.
In short, I believe in a project which pools sovereignty for its own sake. Not as a pragmatic means to an end; not even as a generic expression of liberal internationalism. And my countrymen and women do not. They never have. Even many continuity Remainers don’t really support it as it truly is. The fact I understand that is one reason I haven’t supported overturning the referendum result. It’s also the main reason 23 June 2016 was the worst loss of my political life.
I won’t give up on my country as a result. I know the United Kingdom forms a multinational union of its own, as well as a nation, and I know that’s a precious thing. The Union Jack is still my flag; the British people are still my people. I want us to go forward and prosper, in friendship with our neighbours and the wider world. I want to see us mitigate the damage of Brexit and take such opportunities as exist. Leavers aren’t my enemies: they’re friends and family. My grandfather voted Leave by post a few days before he died: I love him no less for it.
I know there’s a perfectly respectable case for leaving the EU. Some people believe democracy should be brought nearer home, even if it comes with an economic price. Some people would rather steer a dinghy on their own, even if the waves are choppy. Some believe laws made abroad corrode the ties between people and politics, even if we have a say in making them. I do not damn anyone for believing all of that.
And to an extent, I hope they prove me wrong. I don’t say ‘to an extent’ because I want Britain to do any less well. I say it because the EU, for all its faults, embodies many of my most cherished beliefs. For as long as it lasts, I expect it always will do. And for Europe’s sake, I want it to succeed. I doubt we ever will, but I hope we take our place in the EU again one day — properly, this time: understanding what it’s truly for.
Until that day, if it ever comes, I understand we must make the best of Brexit. I hope we do. On Monday I’ll try to focus on how to do that, to the small extent that matters. But part of me will always mourn it. I’ll always be a European by conviction, even if not by citizenship. And tonight, I will grieve.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 31 January 2020.