It is strange to think that five years – the distance between today and 23 June 2016, the day we voted to leave the European Union – is only as long as the lifespan of the Coalition Government.
Sitting up in a borrowed office with the rest of the ConHome team, watching Birmingham go for Leave, feels like a life-age ago, whilst the events of David Cameron’s government (AV referendum, pasty tax, Ed Stone…) all blend into one another.
Perhaps its the sheer pace of events. Cameron oversaw a relatively conventional five-year term in office between 2010 and 2015, whereas since 2016 we’ve had two general elections and two new prime ministers, as well as the excruciating chaos of the 2017-19 Parliament.
Yet for all that the outcome of Brexit can sometimes feel – unless you’re in Northern Ireland – a little anti-climactic. It surely helps that it was so thoroughly overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, but given the wilder promises and threats of the campaigns and the high-octane brinkmanship that preceded the last election, there don’t seem to have been any huge dividends or catastrophic costs as yet.
This fits the thesis advanced by Tom McTague, who has suggested that it will take decades to tell whether or not Brexit was a good move or not because the measure will be the cumulative impact of lots of relatively small decisions made possible by de-alignment. Boris Johnson understandably focuses on the vaccine rollout, a stand-out success. His critics point to the Irish Protocol, which is threatening British trade with our own territory, undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and plunging the Province into crisis.
Another question it may only be possible to answer over the long term is the extent to which Brexit caused the divisions wracking the country, as opposed to merely exposing them.
For example, the pressure of trying to steer a controversial Withdrawal Bill through a divided Parliament proved more than the rules and traditions of the House were able to contain, with dire constitutional consequences. But whilst John Bercow may not have had the opportunity to abuse his office so spectacularly in different circumstances, his elevation to the Speakership preceded them – and as Chris Mullin recorded in his diaries. Bercow was enthroned by Labour MPs deliberately subverting the traditions which governed the post in order to make trouble for an incoming Conservative government.
Likewise it is fashionable to blame Brexit for driving the breakup of the UK, but outwith Northern Ireland (which I have covered extensively elsewhere) it is far from obvious this is the case. Nicola Sturgeon signally failed to capitalise on the referendum result, and it took the pandemic to revive the fortunes of the nationalists in Edinburgh and Cardiff – another issue where what was really exposed was the deep and long-standing division built into the devolution settlement.
And even on the thorny question of Ulster, the attitudes which saw Theresa May stumble into the backstop trap – ignorance of the proper extent of Britain’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement, a Northern Irish Office which understood its role as treading water until we ceded the Province – predate Brexit and were slowly eroding Northern Ireland’s position in the UK years before the referendum. It is easy to imagine that without it we would not have ended up confronting the problem, as David Frost and Brandon Lewis are trying to do.
There is no denying that the crises of the past five years have brutally exposed the shortcomings of the British state and much of its governing class. But we should not flatter those who left our country in that state by allowing them to shift the blame entirely onto those who put their handiwork to the test, and found it wanting.