The mixed emotions of Brexit day show the UK is not yet at ease with itself | Jonathan Freedland

As some take to the streets to celebrate leaving the EU, others mourn the loss of an old friend

How does a nation say goodbye to its neighbours? With a lump in its throat and a poignant song of farewell – or with cheers and a raised middle finger of defiant good riddance? The answer that Britain gave at 11pm on Friday 31 January 2020 was: both. The UK broke from the European Union on a late winter’s night with both jubilation and regret, as divided on the day of leaving as it had been in deciding to leave. For some Britons, this was Independence Day. For others, it was a national bereavement.

In Westminster, Nigel Farage exulted with his fellow Brexiters in Parliament Square, delighted that a prize they had sought for a quarter century, and that once seemed laughably improbable, was in their hands at last. “We did it,” he told the ecstatic crowd. “We transformed the landscape of our country.” At the stroke of 11pm, he led a chorus of the national anthem.

Nigel Farage smiles on stage in Parliament Square, venue for the Leave Means Leave Brexit celebration in Parliament Square.
Nigel Farage smiles on stage in Parliament Square, venue for the Leave Means Leave Brexit celebration in Parliament Square. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

In Downing Street, a countdown clock had beamed on to the outside walls as if impatient for the moment, like children waiting for Christmas. Inside, Boris Johnson – who had been the face and totem of the Vote Leave campaign of 2016 – hailed “the dawn of a new era”, the curtain going up on “a new act in our great national drama”. Surrounded by cabinet colleagues and veterans of the referendum campaign, the prime minister toasted their success with English sparkling wine, washing down a Brexit day feast of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and Shropshire blue cheese, a spread pointedly free of the taint of the dreaded continent. Along the Mall, union jacks fluttered brightly.

There was merch for those who wanted it: you could buy a Got Brexit Done tea-towel, perhaps using a handful of commemorative Brexit 50p pieces. If you were in Morley, you could join Andrea Jenkyns’ Big Brexit Bash, to celebrate what the Yorkshire MP called an end to “a hellish four years” and the start of what was sure to be “a golden decade”, with Britons at last in charge of their own destiny, free of the shackles of Brussels. Sunderland, first to declare for leave in 2016, had the joy of hosting a special Brexit day meeting of the cabinet.

A pro-EU activist wearing a cape decorated with an EU flag design joins a rally organised by civil rights group New Europeans outside Europe House.
A pro-EU activist joins a rally organised by civil rights group New Europeans outside Europe House, Smith Square, London. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

But for others, 11pm was, as Johnson acknowledged in his TV address to the nation, a moment of grievous loss. A YouGov poll, asking remain voters at which of the five stages of grief they now found themselves, registered only 30% who had reached acceptance of the fact of Britain’s departure from the EU: 19% are in denial, 16% are angry and 25% are depressed. (Alastair Campbell doubtless spoke for many when he said that part of him just wanted to retreat to his bed at 11pm, pulling the duvet over his head.)

Melancholy was the mood of a procession on Friday afternoon from Downing Street to the London offices of the European commission, staged, the organisers said, “to say goodbye to our old friend”. Clad in blue and gold, they numbered just a few hundred: hard to believe that a million or more marched in their cause a matter of months ago. In Frome, Somerset, they gathered for a late-night vigil at an installation known as the European Community of Stones, a semi-circular henge of 12 boulders, one quarried from each of the EU’s 12 members when it was built in 1992. They sang the EU anthem, Ode to Joy, in recognition of the “sense of excitement, of opportunity, the EU represented”, said local Green party councillor Martin Dimery. For him, the EU was “the greatest international project for peace, prosperity and progress”, and now Britain will play no part in it. What was the point of a ceremony to mark that fact? “Every death deserves a funeral.”

Anti-Brexit activists hold candles during a candlelight vigil organised by civil rights group New Europeans outside Europe House, central London.
Anti-Brexit activists hold a candlelight vigil organised by civil rights group New Europeans outside Europe House, London. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

That elegiac quality has been a constant note sounded through these final days of UK membership, expressed most intensely in that widely shared footage of the European parliament rising to its feet to sing Auld Lang Syne to a departing Britain (confirming this is a wrench for them as well as us). It was the sadness of saying goodbye not to an institution, but to an idea – of friendship across the sea, of harmony between nations, of a resolve that a continent riven by the bloodiest of wars would live out its future in peace.

So while Downing Street had its clock, remainers had a projection of their own: a film beamed on to the white cliffs of Dover, featuring two veterans of the second world war, both in their 90s, speaking of their sadness at the coming of this hour. They would miss the “comradeship” of the European Union, they said, adding the hope that “we will be back together before too long”. The film, the work of the Led by Donkeys group, ended with an image of a single gold star from the European flag. “This is our star,” said the message. “Look after it for us.”

A projection of second world war veteran Sid talking about Brexit on the White Cliffs of Dover.
A projection of second world war veteran Sid talking about Brexit on the White Cliffs of Dover. Photograph: Led By Donkeys/PA

And that was the plea contained in so many remainer goodbyes, the hope that this is not forever. That afternoon procession in Whitehall was headlined “À bientôt EU, see you soon.” A departing Scottish MEP asked the EU 27 “to leave a light on, so we can find our way home.”

The Royal Society of Literature posted an image from AA Milne: Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, hand in hand, walking into the sunset, above the caption, “But, of course, it isn’t really Good-bye, because the Forest will always be there… and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.”

Farage was having none of that, of course. “Once we have left we are never coming back and the rest is detail,” he had said, in his parting shot to the European parliament, before, in a metaphor made flesh, he had his microphone cut off by the chair: Brexit party MEPs had broken parliamentary rules by waving union jack flags. “Put your flags away … and take them with you,” the chair said. “You are leaving.”

So for all Johnson’s talk of healing, there was no agreement between leave and remain at the moment of parting – except on one thing. Both saw 11pm as chiming in an epochal shift in the history of these islands. True, nothing material altered at that moment. The UK that wakes up on Saturday will still have to stick to EU rules and pay into the EU budget, albeit without any say, until 31 December. Britons can still go through the EU citizens line at the airport. Things will only get real on the first day of 2021.

The colours of  the union jack are lit up on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, London.
The colours of the union jack are lit up on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, London. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

In that sense, 11pm ushered in a period of Brexit nirvana for Boris Johnson. For the next 11 months, he will have the best of both worlds: he can say he’s got Brexit done, and enjoy the benefits of EU membership. All the political gain, with none of the economic pain. Truly, he will have his cake and eat it.

Still, leaving the EU marks the biggest change in our national life since 1973, when Britain joined, if not since 1945, given that today’s EU is so much larger and more significant than the Common Market of 47 years ago. The new political landscape will be wholly different. The pressure for Scottish independence will be greater than ever: at 11pm Scotland was taken out of the EU against its will. Irish unification will have a new, pressing logic, one that will only increase as Britain diverges from the EU, thickening that border down the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, Westminster, and especially Conservative, politics will have lost its perennial bogeyman, its reliable scapegoat for all ills: Brussels.

Brexit supporters carry flags and placards as they walk gather in Parliament Square
Brexit supporters carry flags and placards in Parliament Square. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Some remainers believe – and maybe even hope – that the shine will come off Brexit pretty soon. They point to new government advice warning citizens that, come next year, they could face roaming charges when they use their phones on the continent; that they’ll need health insurance or a special driving licence or a visa to work or study; that they’ll have to queue in the slower, non-EU lane at the airport. Remainers still have their charts, projecting a UK economy turned anaemic once Britain goes it alone. They are poised, ready to declare: “I told you so.”

But all that is over the horizon. For now, Britain has made one of its periodic shifts away from the continent, in a relationship that has blown hot and cold for at least 1,200 years. Even the eighth century King Offa of Mercia fretted about trading links across the Channel. In that long sweep of history, the 47 years we spent as Britain-in-Europe might come to look like a blip. Alternatively, so might Brexit. Those draped in blue-and-gold flags could be right: Britain might one day be back, even if all but the most optimistic rejoiners believe that day is decades away.

In Parliament Square, site of hoarse slanging matches for the past four years, the crowds on both sides were thinner on Friday night, at least before the Farage rally got going. The leavers were beaming, proud in their sweatshirts bearing the slogan: Job Done. They believe spring is coming. The remainers were wrapped up against the cold, braced against a January night, which, to them, felt like the bleakest midwinter.


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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