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Friday, April 23, 2021

What Brexit supporters got so right

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Dear Marcel,

My problem is that I have been held captive by Brexit. For most of the last decade, I have loved Europe, so I made friends with the likes of John Major and Rob Ford, dedicated to the idea that divorce from Europe is a positive thing. But, as you may have guessed, Europe has more or less been disastrous for both individuals and the countries they govern. For the former, it ended the era of the quiet majority and manifested itself in the rise of a leader-less and deeply unrepresentative referendum. For the latter, it largely destroyed the fiction that the European nation state could be reinvigorated with post-Empire reform. I have spent a fortune and a lifetime holding conservative views and keeping my mouth shut on European affairs because I prefer to be right. I have never felt the need to invent reasons to make myself feel virtuous. I am well-known for being deeply conservative.

So I have been at a loss as to how to advocate for Remain. I have no truck with its rabid spokesmen. I hardly know anyone else with my taste in human beings, either. On the advice of some wordsmiths, I found one Oliver Burkeman on the op-ed pages of the Times. Through him, I stumbled across a rather unsettling phenomenon: self-described Brexit enthusiasts had come to see themselves as a community. (As Mr. Burkeman pointed out, the unspeakable is clearly the new normal.) So one warm summer night in Brighton, I watched a mini-festival called Abhorme (“Never Find Another”) while reading Mr. Burkeman’s latest brilliant piece in the Times, on the supposed genius of Boris Johnson as a communicator. Abhorme organizes campfires every summer and encourages the members to share their stories.

The highlight of the night was Mr. Johnson’s acceptance speech. You might think that someone who had been so widely dismissed as a sadist would have been killed by nerves. And when the ceremony was over, I was impressed by the smile on Mr. Johnson’s face. He was being modest, stating the obvious. But underneath the slightest pause, there was a tremendously attractive quality: He appeared to bask in the darkness and the possibility of love; all of it forbidden. And this, I think, is why so many Remainers have allowed themselves to fall in love with Brexit. It feels natural, the ultimate lesson that if you could see beyond the boundaries of nationalism and status quo that grown-ups will respect your suggestions. This is the attitude you ascribe to Remainers — that somehow our society is fixable, that we can mend the terrible things we have done. In fact, I think this is the reverse: That undergirding our desire to do something—whatever it may be—is a residual desire to be able to say, “I will change, I will do the right thing, I will try.”

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