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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

Andrew Anthony: Brexit is official, so now what?

And so it came to pass, the moment that, like Zeno’s arrow, seemed destined never quite to arrive. After three-and-a-half years of deliberation, confusion, anger and near farcical drama, the UK finally left the EU, thereby fulfilling what the novelist Ian McEwan called “the most pointless masochistic ambition ever dreamed of in the history of these islands”.

It was an ersatz kind of departure that, despite the flag-waving crowds in Parliament Square, failed to live up to its historic billing. For a start, it happened at 11pm on the 31st January, which is not the most auspicious of hours. It’s the time the pubs used to close over here, back before we became more European in our drinking habits.

“Chucking out time” is what it used to be called, which is perhaps not the image that Brexiteers wished to conjure. The reason it was 11pm is because that’s midnight Central European Time. The niggling hour’s difference had long symbolised the UK’s awkward detachment from mainland Europe and, as a consequence, the EU itself.

Ironically, the reason that’s usually invoked to explain the anachronistic time lag, whenever the issue is raised in Parliament, is the need to placate Scottish farmers, so they don’t have to work too long in the pitch darkness. Scotland, of course, wanted to stay in the EU, and the Scottish Nationalists are keen to return at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps, if they’re successful, Scotland will reset its clocks to line up with Spain, France, Germany and Italy, so crossing the northern border for an Englishman will amount to a step into the future.

Not that such concerns preoccupied Boris Johnson on the night of his signature achievement. The Prime Minister marked the moment of “taking back control”, as he relentlessly put it during the election campaign, by banging a small gong at a party held at Downing St.

Also in attendance was Johnson’s chief political adviser and the architect of Brexit, the dependably strange Dominic Cummings. Once described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath”, the famously controlling Cummings was apparently lost for words and close to tears. As one of his colleagues put it: “It’s like that scene at the end of Terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger says: ‘I know now why you cry …’.”

Meanwhile, the post-mortem and blame game continue apace, with pretty much everyone pointing the finger anywhere but at themselves. The twittersphere is radioactive with diehard Remainers condemning ignorant Northerners for betraying their working-class heritage and voting for Johnson instead of Jeremy Corbyn, who has been anti-EU throughout his whole political career.

In turn, the more sober Brexiteers are blaming Remainers for not voting through Theresa May’s deal, which would have amounted to a much softer Brexit than Johnson’s is likely to be. So it goes on, the bitterness and rancour, pitting, as McEwan put it, “young against old, cities against country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales”.

It will take a long time to mend the divisions that now scar this country. Establishing new trade relations with Europe and the rest of the world will take years, and along the way there will be countless opportunities for disillusionment among all those hoping that sovereignty would solve all problems.

Johnson riffed on his hero Winston Churchill and said, “This is not the end, as some people would say. This is not even the beginning of the end or even the second half of the middle. This is the beginning of the beginning.”

He was joking, of course, but things are unlikely to become much clearer any time soon.

This column was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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