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Today (Feb. 1), as the 11th hour approaches, there will be no street parties or pealing of bells in celebration, nor are there angry demonstrations and defiant protests of outrage. The exhausted nation is hardly aware that, after all the acrimony, the moment of departure is upon us. Brexit is done.

The best the governing party can manage to mark the event that has consumed all its political energies, and dispatched two of its leaders, is a commemorative mug and tea towel. Why? Because whatever side you have taken in the debate that has cleaved our society in half, today represents a failure.

For the Remainers the defeat is absolute. We can lament the mistaken decision to call a referendum, and the lacklustre, unemotional campaign. We can rue the errors that followed, as overly-moderate Tory rebels pitched their fight on the method rather than the substance of our departure; while the extremist Labour leadership and naive Liberal Democrats proved unwitting handmaidens to our exit and their own destruction.

But the facts are these: after half a century of membership, appeals in the 2016 referendum to a common European identity fell on millions of deaf ears; and after three years of economic stagnation since, and transparent evidence that the promises of Brexit were false, the voters reaffirmed their decision in a second vote in the election last month. So the truth must be faced by all who wanted Britain to remain in the EU, including the Evening Standard: we did not convince our fellow citizens.

If the failure of pro-Europeans is obvious, why are the celebrations of Brexiteers so muted? In part, because they too know they have not convinced the nation.

Britain walks through the exit door with a feeling of melancholic resignation rather than excitement about the future. The nation knows it has chosen the poorer path — the estimates produced by the Bank of England yesterday show an economy barely growing, with a trend rate not seen since the Seventies.

The country also knows it has greatly diminished its voice in the world — already our views on everything from climate goals to the taxation of big tech matter far less.

The more thoughtful leaders of the Brexit campaign know too that they prevailed by harnessing a nativist opposition to change and a resentment at the success of others in parts of the country, outside the cities of the North and South, that felt left behind.

They talk of levelling up, but they won on the argument of levelling down: if you can’t enjoy the fruits of globalisation, then nor should anyone else. No one beyond the offices of a few deluded hedge funds in Mayfair believes Brexit was a vote for less red tape and more free trade.

The party that now represents Sedgefield and Blyth Valley champions more government intervention, higher spending and extra regulation. Yesterday, the Conservatives were trumpeting their re-nationalisation of the Northern railways, the kind of state involvement in the economy that we joined the EU to get away from. “Global Britain” may be the slogan, but neither the globe nor Britain believe a word of it.

So what lies ahead?

Ignore those who say that Brexit isn’t done. It is. Yes, there’s a trade agreement to be negotiated — and the details matter a lot to businesses — but it’s a much less important decision than the existential one we’ve just taken about whether we are members of the EU.

There will be an argument about “divergence” — but the truth is that, in most areas, global standard-setting and the European markets will force us to be a taker of the rules we have until today participated in making. That’s why the hard Brexit on paper will feel much softer in practice.

Even the hour of our departure — midnight Central European Time — is set by others.

It will take time for this loss of control to become apparent — but when it does, the same questions that faced Britain 50 years ago will confront us now: How do we exert our influence in the world? How do we sustain support for the free markets and the open society?

US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said of post-war Britain that we had lost an empire but not yet found a role.

Back in 1972, we thought we had by joining the European community. In 2020, as we leave, it’s time to come together — because we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

— The London Evening Standard


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