Phew. Even the most ardent European feels tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier on old age, “which isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative”. The alternatives before us were no longer In or Out but instead between a Sellotaped post-new year order and chaos. The government has displayed the pragmatism to reach a belated agreement with Brussels.
Downing Street’s triumphalism was inevitable: the deal bolsters a tottering premiership. The risk of public disorder, had the food supply chain with the Continent broken down, has been averted. Boris Johnson trumpets perhaps the first promise of his life that he has half-kept, saying that “we have taken back control”.
Of what, however, remains disputable, even by Brexiteers, since so much about our trading future — especially our vast service sector — remains at the mercy of EU whimsy, as a condition of our continuing access. Some of the most contentious issues have been kicked into longish grass. It will take weeks for everybody to scrutinise the small print.
Nonetheless, Britain is nominally poised to go it alone. Richard Weight wrote nearly 20 years ago in Patriots, a study of our national identity, that “the Second World War soured Britons’ view of their Continental neighbours, and for half a century afterwards it undermined the faltering attempts of the country’s leaders to reposition Britain as a post-imperial, European nation. Henceforward the Continent was perceived as a thoroughly alien place, at best troublesome and at worst hostile”. Weight then assumed, as did Hugo Young in a book on the same theme, that the bitter Euro-debate had ended with the 20th century; that only Tory fanatics continued to doubt that our EU membership was for keeps.
In reality, passions were merely dormant. They were spectacularly rekindled by Brussels’ dalliance with federalism; the failure of British pro-Europeans to articulate a resonant case; the dogged persistence of the Eurosceptics; and uncontrolled immigration.
Unlike some of my Remainer friends, I have never supposed that our world would end when we quit Europe. I follow most economists in believing that Britain will become progressively relatively poorer than it would have been had we retained EU membership. Relatively few people, however, will notice.
There will be a lot more Union flag-waving, both actual and figurative. This may become ironic if, as is not unlikely, the survival of the Union itself is threatened. But there will be honey still for tea in Grantchester.
British travellers to the Continent will face a new dispensation at immigration desks, though France, Spain, Italy and the rest, wanting our tourists and their cash, are unlikely to raise too high the impediments to admission. Exporters and importers will face a blizzard of new paperwork and red-tape costs, but few voters are exporters or importers.
So why should we crabby government-sceptics still feel so glum — not about the deal, for which we momentarily bend the knee — but for the uncertain meaning of the “freedom” we shall achieve next week? We share the view of most informed world opinion, especially American, that beyond our weaker economic position, we shall become less important allies for the US because of our forfeiture of influence in Europe.
This is an age of giant trading blocs. Henceforward in negotiation we hold few cards, save those dealt by being big consumers of products that we no longer manufacture.
In the 21st century only a handful of countries can afford to indulge the luxury of nationalism and it is doubtful that we are among them. It would be nice to think that, now the deal is done, xenophobia would be banished from the headlines of name-calling newspapers and that we could once again treat our European neighbours with the respect they deserve.
This is unlikely, however. Tensions will be reignited each time an EU summit makes new decisions on trade, environmental and health standards, and much else. These will perforce affect us but we shall have no power to influence them. Accusations will continue to fly that we are being “bullied” and “blackmailed” by Frogs, Wops and Huns. And yes, such contemptible words will be used, perhaps by the prime minister. The most important issue, however, for many of those who voted to “take back control” is that of our borders. Post-Brexit Britain can indeed exclude Polish plumbers and Romanian car-washers. There will be immense popular disappointment, however, trending to anger, when it becomes understood that our newfound liberty does nothing to resolve the far more serious problems posed by non-EU immigration, especially from Africa and the Middle East.
In the year to March 2020, 316,000 non-EU migrants arrived in Britain. The government appears to have no inkling how to reduce our vulnerability to this historic movement of populations from the southern hemisphere. The practical difficulties are enormous, even if we mine and wire our beaches.
Brexiteers reject charges that racism and anti-immigration sentiment are their guiding motives. I believe that they are indeed driven by more positive sentiment: a yearning to reassert a British tribal identity. Populist politicians convinced them that this can only be achieved by sundering the chains, as they see them, that bind us to the EU, even though most of our national problems — education, productivity, housing, sustaining the NHS — have nothing to do with Europe.
The completion of Brexit represents a declaration of British exceptionalism. The great question that lies ahead, which will not be fully answered until years after this prime minister has resumed his lucrative career as an entertainer, is whether we possess enforceable economic and political claims to such specialness.
The strand of our history that most deeply stirs the hearts of nostalgic Brexiteers is that represented by the wartime songs of Vera Lynn. Equally significant, I think, are the words of George VI, writing to his mother after the 1940 catastrophe of the fall of France. He felt much happier, said the king, “now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper”.
Our prime minister would say: plus ça change. Margaret Thatcher might add, in these dying days of 2020 when Mafeking has been symbolically relieved: “Just rejoice!”. It is a matter of personal choice for each of us whether to embrace such sentiments, or instead the words of Churchill after Dunkirk: “wars are not won by evacuations”.
Max Hastings is a journalist and historian. He is a former editor in chief of The Daily Telegraph and editor of The Evening Standard. His many bestselling history books include All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-45 and Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975.