“This is the way the world ends,” wrote TS Eliot, “not with a bang but with a whimper.”
It’s a poetic line that resonated throughout the twentieth century, as long-cherished beliefs and structures fell like dominoes and heroism itself seemed to perish. The poem it comes from, the Hollow Men, was resonant enough sixty years later to make it into the script of Apocalypse Now, where it was voiced enchantingly by Marlon Brando, as the film reached its somewhat incoherent climax.
Things no longer end spectacularly, runs the received wisdom of the 20th century, not in slaying dragons, or the destruction of Valhalla, or even in the exploding of atomic bombs.
No, it’s whimpering that signifies endings now, not explosions, and nowhere is this more true than in the final stages of the tortured Brexit process.
A final whimpering indignity was heaped on the public in the half-hearted arguments about what sort of celebration should mark Brexit. For most of the nation the clear answer is no sort of celebration whatsoever. Not because people do or don’t want to celebrate, but because the ending itself is largely without interest.
The nation’s moved on, the agenda’s moved on.
It remains for a rump of the Labour party to drag itself up to speed, but even when that does happen – as it will inevitably at some stage - it will be not with a bang, but with a whimper. No one will care that Labour, the party that has continued to fight the ideological battles of the 1960s into the 21st Century, is attempting to get with the Brexit programme. The Brexit programme is itself over.
True, in time there may be a groundswell of support for a renewed application to join the EU. But it’s nowhere near at the moment, and probably won’t achieve any real momentum for at least a generation. For now the real issues are immigration, the regeneration of the North and the battleground territories of the Red Wall, economics, and identity. Labour scores poorly on all of these issues, and continues to tangle itself up in the self-defeating traps of woke politics. It looks to be out for a generation too, barring a major mis-step from Boris Johnson.
This is the real legacy of Brexit: the eclipse of Labour. Outside of the metropolitan middle classes, it won’t be missed. It long ago ceased to fulfil the purpose it was founded for by Kier Hardie 120 years ago, and has become habituated to carping on the sidelines about other peoples’ moral compromises and preening itself on its own purity. But this is not the way to drive change, and achieve better outcomes for working class people.
After all, it’s no coincidence that Boris Johnson has recently started talking of “One Nation” Toryism. This is a phrase that was dreamt up by Benjamin Disraeli, the great Jewish (take that, intersectionalists!) Tory prime minister from the 19th century. Disraeli knew better than most radicals that as the British franchise widened to include more working class voters, it was likely to bring more conservative voters to the ballot box. He was subsequently trounced at the ballot box in 1880 by Gladstone, but he was vindicated in the long term. That victory by Gladstone was the last time any British party other than the conservatives would win a majority of the votes, in percentage terms, in a general election.
So what of economics and superstates and globalisation? None of that has gone away. It’s simply that the British electorate has decided that the level on which they would like to engage with those issues is as a nation state.
Yes, there has undoubtedly been significant damage to the British economy as a result of Brexit - the City is suffering, as is the car industry, and many pundits argue that areas like the Red Wall will be worst hit of all. But look across the water. The European economies are not doing that well either. France and Germany are stuttering. Italy is in negative growth. Greece is rowing with Turkey, again. Unemployment across the continent remains much higher on average than in the UK. This is not some other Eden that the British are casting themselves out from.
Will they live to regret their decision? Maybe. But if they do, they’ll regret it with a whimper, not with a bang.