Initially, May looked set to meet the occasion with an impassioned, personal speech. She invoked the “British dream”—the lofty idea that “each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future”—13 times in her opening lines (36 times, overall). The day before, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had called on the party to liberate Britain from the EU with the rallying cry: “Let the lion roar.” For a short while, she did her best impression.
But then, as if offering a concentrated rendition of her doomed election campaign, May’s spectacle of strength and stability descended into a pitiable struggle with herself. First, she was interrupted by a notorious prankster. Minutes later, she lapsed into a violent coughing fit, wheezing and croaking through the remaining 40 minutes of her speech. The British lion had lost its voice. Only with a rasping whisper could she deliver her catchphrase: “Our first and most important duty is to get Brexit right. The people have decided.” The British have a “historic mission” to leave the European Union—and, like May on Wednesday, they will carry it off, never mind what state they’re in, or the effects on their reputation and future health. This is about a duty to stand alone, to reclaim the limelight, whatever the response. Later, the letters started falling off the conference set behind her, altering the party’s slogan from Building A Country That Works For Everyone to Building A Country That Works or Everyone; eventually, gravity reduced it to Bui ding A C ntry Tha orks or ryon. Her British dream had become a nightmare. Will Britain’s go the same way?
Undeterred, May plows ahead with her messianic quest to carry out the “will of the British people”—the 26 percent of the population, that is, that voted to leave the EU for a vast array of reasons, a slice of the country that seems larger thanks to a vociferous tabloid press. But May and her party, as if held hostage to some higher force, seem increasingly uncertain as to where it will lead. A Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership looks more likely with every passing week, but a “glorious Brexit,” a “red-white-and-blue Brexit,” a “hard Brexit,” a “soft Brexit,” a “clean Brexit,” a “jobs-first Brexit” and even the mythical “no-deal Brexit” all remain in the cards. For now, her infamous tautology, “Brexit means Brexit” is the only helpful guide: Britain has agreed to do something, even if it doesn’t know what. By golly, it will.
This transition period reveals starker fault lines within British society. For those that voted Leave, the prospect of postponing Britain’s independence to 2021—a full five years after the referendum—is a devastating delay. For certain Tories, it is also an unacceptable one: resurrected calls for a “no-deal Brexit” (somehow leaving the EU absent negotiations or settlements) were greeted with applause at the Conservative conference, and Johnson has used the unpopularity of the extension period to vaunt his own prime-ministerial credentials, contra May.
As for these (other) Brits who want to remain in the EU, the sense of leaving is hard to see. To escape the bureaucracy of Brussels, Britain is undertaking perhaps the greatest bureaucratic mission in its history, replacing or replicating over 40 years of EU law, trade agreements, and institutions, with the perverse hope that the country will look no different afterwards. To expedite this task, May is pushing through a piece of legislation, known as the Withdrawal Bill, that will nullify parliamentary scrutiny until Brexit is complete, despite Brexit’s ostensible aim of enhancing the power of the British parliament. With similar absurdity, Britain is leaving the world’s largest free-trade area with the ambition of becoming a “champion of free-trade,” as Johnson envisions, and is seizing control of its borders to “embrace the world,” according to May. Becoming a “global Britain” is the destiny-du-jour. (Because of Britain’s supposedly strong reputation abroad, “the phrase global Britain makes sense,” Johnson explained during his conference speech. “If you said global China or global Russia or even, alas, global America, it would not have quite the same flavor.”)
In this frame of mind, Brexit is not a long and laborious logistical process of Britain’s own choosing, almost bound to both hurt the economy and waste time and resources for no clear reason. On the contrary, Brexit is a test—of Britain’s bravery, resolve, and character: will Britain be able to expel the EU, that bureaucratic beast, once and for all, as if it is the final challenge in the last level of a video game? With no foe in sight beside our own invention, a siege mentality has set in, and everyone must not only acquiesce to the ambiguous mission but do so with enthusiasm and allegiance.
“This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy,” Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg declared in one of his (many) conference speeches. “We win all of these things.” According to a recent poll, almost two-thirds of Leave voters are ready for the battle ahead: They believe that “significant damage to the British economy” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit. Among over-65s, this number rises to 71 percent, with half of them even ready to accept a family member losing their job for the cause.
Brexit, in this regard, is already a success. Because, finally, Britain can speak of itself in the lofty language of “destiny”: its “place in the world,” its glorious past and glorious future, a fairy-tale distraction from the dull failures of its domestic politics—soaring inequality, falling living standards and poor economic growth. “The eyes of the world are upon us,” May declared in Florence. It doesn’t matter if none of this is true—the world is more indifferent to our fairy tales than we like to think. All that matters is that we’re allowed live that life again, illusory or not. Brexit is partly theater, and Britain’s soul has taken the stage—that’s why everyone must play along. “Throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union,” May consoled the crowd in Florence. “And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.” Boris Johnson also admired Britain’s natural inclination to “diverge from the great accumulated conglomerate.” Now, he says, “we will be able to intensify old friendships around the world, not least with fast-growing Commonwealth economies.” For Boris, some 70 years on, Britain’s “post-imperial future” is bright.
Perhaps this is the underlying irony of the rising nativist refrain of Go back to where you come from: It is actually the nostalgic Brexiters who, more than anyone, want to go back to where they came from—to an imagined, pure point of origin, a moment in history where Britain was a homogenous mass. A time where parliament was sovereign, the navy sailed the seas, the army won wars, and foreigners lived in foreign lands. It’s all wrapped up in one vision, and even if many people voted for Brexit for entirely different reasons, it is clear that Brexit has brought these forces of nostalgia and xenophobia to the fore. Britain is already transformed—and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.
By The Atlantic