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Fintan O’Toole: The ‘great national drama’ of Brexit has lapsed into sullen silence

The poorest people in Ireland now have a standard of living 63% higher than their counterparts in Britain

The time was out of joint. The moment of Brexit, three years ago tonight, really should have been the midnight hour: the chimes counting up to 12, history being set again at 00.00.

But Brexit happened on Brussels time – and thus an incongruous 11pm in London.

It was as if, in the fairy-tale, Cinderella had to be home by 11.

Even the bells were muted. The authorities couldn’t be bothered to get Big Ben working to toll the beginning of the new age. Vicars declined to ring church bells for fear of losing half their congregations.


Boris Johnson tried to generate the missing sense of awe by mixing his metaphors in a prime ministerial address to the nation, hailing “the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama”.

But he could not but acknowledge the air of boredom, conceding that as well as those who were filled with either hope or loss, there was a third constituency, made up of the masses “who had started to worry that the whole political wrangle would never come to an end.”

This caught the peculiar nature of the great upheaval. It was, and is, a strange kind of revolution: dramatic dullness, terrific tedium, epoch-making ennui.

Dawn broke – on another grey day like so many others. The curtain came up – on a show whose dialogue was full of airy nothings and whose leading characters could never decide whether they were playing in a historical pageant, a farce or a tragedy.

Three years on, what does it all amount to? A solution in search of a problem, a rebellion in search of a cause. A gesture grand enough to knock over the crockery but a gesture towards what exactly?

Taking back control? British governance actually looks more arbitrary, more opaque and more subject to networks of private influence than ever.

Reviving the mercantilist power of the empire? Trade with the European Union is now 16 per cent less than it would have been had Brexit not occurred.

The British government aimed to have exports worth £1 trillion a year by 2020. It now hopes to reach that target in 2035, 15 years late.

Putting all that money supposedly wasted by Brussels bureaucrats into the National Health Service? The NHS is now in an existential crisis.

Giving dignity and a voice to the people who have been left behind in deindustrialised Britain? John Burn-Murdoch has calculated in the Financial Times that the poorest people in Ireland now have a standard of living 63 per cent higher than their counterparts in Britain.

Making Britain great again? The country that once governed so much of the world seems unable to govern itself. Its very existence as a single state is an open question.

Being, as many of the Brexiters were sure they would be, the harbingers of the collapse of the EU? Since Brexit, support for leaving the EU has fallen very significantly in every member state – partly because the British example is so chastening and partly because, without its most recalcitrant member, the EU has become a more coherent force.

That night three years ago, Johnson listed what he was actually going to do now that the UK was “unshackled” from its European prison: “Defeating crime, transforming our NHS, and with better education, with superb technology ... the biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians”.

But none of these things had anything to do with the EU. Crime, education and health are all national competences and there has never been anything to stop Britain investing in technology or infrastructure. It was like claiming that, now that I don’t need a driver’s licence, I can cycle wherever I want.

This is why Brexit is such an anticlimax. I have suggested before that the problem with overthrowing imaginary oppression is that you get imaginary freedom.

And the problem with imaginary freedom is that it melts away pretty fast. Even for its diehard supporters, Brexit is already in the past: a lost opportunity, a new dawn that would have been forever radiant, if only...

It ends, not with a bang, but with the whimper otherwise known as the Northern Ireland protocol. The last bit of drama to be squeezed out of the whole misadventure is a cliffhanger in which, for most of the English public, the cliff is two feet high.

The stakes for Northern Ireland may be very serious, but if anyone in Thurrock or Yarmouth ever thinks about the protocol at all, it is surely only to wonder how the golden age ended up as an arcane row about the status of a sausage on the ferry from Stranraer to Larne.

And when the protocol war is “done”, as it surely will be, whether the DUP likes it or not, there will not even be anything left to get indignant about. Has there ever been a “great national drama” that has lapsed so soon into sullen silence?

There is genuine pathos in all of this – a deep sadness for people who thought their lives were going to get better. But also bathos: the chimes of not quite midnight not quite ringing out over a landscape of weary disappointment.