This is the way the Brexit ends—not with a bang, but a whimper. Sorry, that should say “bong.” At 11 PM, UK time, on January 31, 2020, Big Ben, the London postcard illustration and sometime clock, was supposed to chime Britain out of the European Union. Big Ben is supposed to ring on the hour, every hour, but it’s (mostly) been silent since 2017, due to renovation work. The prospect of a bongless Brexit mortified some Brexiteers. “As we leave at a precise, specified time,” Mark Francois, a right-wing lawmaker, wheedled in the House of Commons, “those who wish to celebrate will need to look to a clock to mark the moment.” Francois helped launch a campaign to bring Ben back for one night only, at an estimated cost of 500,000 pounds. Prime Minister Boris Johnson—an enthusiastic Brexiteer, if you’re in the habit of believing what he says—was less enthusiastic about the taxpayers footing the bill; instead, he suggested a crowdfunding campaign, allowing Brits to voluntarily “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.” That idea flopped, and so, on Brexit night, no bong.
Around 8 PM on January 31, Big Ben came into view as I walked along the embankment next to the Thames. The clock tower was wrapped up against the cold in scaffolding, though its north face was visible between the slats. I hooked a right and made my way down to Parliament Square, the open area next to the House of Commons. (Normally, from there, you’d be able to see the south and west faces of the clock, but both remained covered.) Electric light—from cars and buildings; from a big screen; from a mobile billboard urging Jeremy Corbyn, the departing leader of Britain’s left-wing Labour Party, to GO NOW and take his Marxist Communist policies with him—pooled across the rain-slicked road.
Bongs or no bongs, I had arrived at the epicenter of Brexit Day. There were people wrapped in Union Jacks by a statue of Mandela, and people wrapped in Union Jacks by a statue of Gandhi. One flag was brushing back and forth across Gandhi’s face; a HAPPY BREXIT DAY pin rested on his shawl. There was a man in a Union Jack beanie, a man in a Union Jack baseball cap, and a man in a hat shaped like the Loch Ness Monster, with a Union Jack stitched on either side.
There were weirder flags, too. Some for various British regions. One person bore the flag of Hong Kong, on a long pole. Another appeared to be waving the banner of the Martian Congressional Republic, from the sci-fi series The Expanse. (Mexit means Mexit, I guess.)
At the back of the square, I chanced upon Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, a dentist from Denmark. In the 1990s, he helped lead anti-EU campaigns over there; last year, he was elected to the European Parliament in Britain as a member of the Brexit Party, the latest political vehicle for Nigel Farage, Britain’s Brexiteer-in-chief. “I’ve been working on this for over forty years. Finally, it’s happening,” Overgaard-Nielsen told me. “This is the point of no return.” I asked him if he wasn’t sad to be giving up his new job in the European Parliament. “No, no,” he said. “I’m unemployed from tomorrow, so if anybody needs somebody, I’m happy to stand in.”
There are many different visions of Brexit. Some long-standing Brexiteers are libertarians who insist that they simply dislike EU rules and find EU procedures undemocratic. According to this view, Brexit is not a racist, isolationist project—rather, it holds, it’s the EU that discriminates, by stopping member states from opening themselves out to the world beyond the club.
Other Brexit supporters are isolationists—and, sometimes, racists—but nonetheless see Brexit as part of a transnational movement. Close to Overgaard-Nielsen, I spotted a woman toting a FREXIT sign; it said, in French, that France should also seek independence from Europe. She introduced herself as Michele Magne—“as in Charlemagne”; if she’d been a boy, her parents would have called her Charles, she said—and told me that the EU is a “Nazi dictatorship” controlled by George Soros. I asked Magne, who lives in the UK, if she wasn’t worried that Brexit might complicate Anglo-French relations. “I hope it makes things more difficult for France,” she said. “I hope it pushes France deeper into the shit, so that it opens its eyes and votes for Frexit.”
Not far from Magne, a man in a MAGA hat was vigorously ringing a bell attached to a small cart labeled “Little Ben.” “The bell represents freedom,” he shouted, over its clanging. “Americans first, British first.” I asked him to put his name into my phone. He entered “Augustine Obodo, UK leader, Friends of Trump.”
Like Trumpism, Brexit is an elite project masquerading as an anti-elite one. The best-known vision of Brexit—the one that right-wing tabloids have pumped out for years, and that has come to define Brexit in the eyes of Britain’s perplexed friends and neighbors—has always been inward-looking and nativist, defined not just by hostility toward immigration, but also seething resentment of foreigners (the “bureaucrats in Brussels”) hellbent on undermining our democracy. It’s a vision rooted in imperial nostalgia, and (as is always the case with imperial nostalgia) fear that a new empire is superseding the old. The EU, we were told, is becoming a superstate; the EU, we were told, is secretly developing an army. For a long time, this view was seen as parochial, and relatively harmless—but then came the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and the migrant crisis, not to mention crippling, alienating years of austerity. Internationally, those trends fueled angry, nativist populism. In Britain, they fueled Brexit.
In 2016 a campaign led by Johnson and other senior Conservatives sought, for the most part, to channel a respectable view of Brexit, and distanced itself from elements, including allies of Farage, who were less shy about appealing to the nativist view. (A week before the vote, Farage unveiled an overtly anti-migrant poster with the strapline BREAKING POINT; later the same day, a white supremacist shouted ”THIS IS FOR BRITAIN” as he murdered Jo Cox, a pro-European Labour Party lawmaker.) But the two campaigns complemented each other. Hiding, for the most part, behind Farage’s outrages, the more mainstream campaign weaponized a subtler, dog-whistle xenophobia.
For all the talk of sovereignty and democracy, Brexit would not have won the referendum—or even come close—without the nativist view. In Parliament Square on Brexit Day, its adherents were out in force. They did not hide their feeling that this was their victory—that they had gotten their country back.
Johnson and the other senior Conservatives stayed away from Parliament Square on Brexit night. Not wishing to be seen gloating, party bigwigs mostly celebrated at private events, leaving Farage and co. to orchestrate the public festivities. With about two hours until B-Day, they warmed up the crowd by (twice) playing a video that ran through Britain’s history in Europe: from Britain’s initial efforts to join the club, which were thwarted by the French in 1967; through the referendum that failed to take Britain out of Europe, in 1975; to the referendum that did take Britain out of Europe, in 2016. The crowd cheered Margaret Thatcher (who campaigned for Britain to stay in Europe in 1975) and Farage, but also Tony Benn, the ardent socialist Euroskeptic; by contrast, there were lusty boos for Tony Blair, David Cameron, and the BBC. When the video cut to infamous footage of Farage asking Herman Van Rompuy, then the president of the European Council, “Who are you?”, members of the crowd chanted, “WHO ARE YA?”, soccer match–style.
The main event consisted of short speeches from a string of Brexiteer luminaries, with Farage headlining. His warm-up acts included Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative minister who believes science might cure homosexuality, and who appeared on the British versions of Dancing With the Stars and Celebrity Big Brother before winning a European Parliament seat for the Brexit Party; Michelle Dewberry, who came to fame, if you can call it that, when she won the British version of The Apprentice, in 2006; and Tim Martin, a ruddy-faced, lion-maned businessman who runs JD Wetherspoon, a cult pub chain known to most Brits as “Spoons.” “TONIGHT, WE ARE MAGNANIMOUS IN VICTORY!” Martin roared. A sea of flags waved back.
With an hour or so to go until Brexit, we got a musical interlude. Dominic Frisby, a comedian, or at least someone whose work seems to adhere to the genre of comedy, took to the stage in a black top hat and maroon jacket, looking like a cross between a Dickensian bank clerk and a 1950s vacation-camp entertainer. Frisby started by singing that Trump is “not all bad,” because, among other reasons, he doesn’t like Sadiq Khan, the Labour politician who succeeded Johnson as mayor of London. (Last year, Trump, who has criticized Khan repeatedly, retweeted a missive in which Katie Hopkins, a British far-right troll, referred to London as “Khan’s Londonistan.”)
Frisby then performed his hit song “17 Million Fuck-Offs,” a reference to the number of people who voted for Brexit in 2016. The song normally consists of Frisby listing prominent opponents of Brexit—Blair, the BBC, “Saint Obama,” J.K. Rowling, “Benedict Cumbertwat,” and so on—and telling them to “fuck off,” though on Brexit night, he had to tell them to “fudge off,” because, he said, he couldn’t legally curse so loudly in public. (Fans of “17 Million Fuck-Offs” tried to get the song to top Britain’s download charts on Brexit Day, but it was beaten by “Ode To Joy,” the EU’s official anthem. Fudge off, Beethoven.)
Next up was John Mills, a leading Brexiteer and donor to the Labour Party. Mills held his microphone so far from his face that no one (near me, at least) could hear him. After a minute or two, the crowd got restless. “We can’t hear you,” some shouted. A man near me said, of Mills, “He must be the silent majority.”
Finally, after Farage had appeared to “The Final Countdown” by Europe (the band), an actual countdown appeared on the big screen, and on the dot of 11 PM, Brexit was rung in by a recording of the chimes of Big Ben. WE’RE OUT, the screen said, and so was I. I went looking for a pub. Not Spoons.
Much earlier in the night—before the Frexit, fudge-offs, and Farage—I saw an umbrella amid the crowd bearing the logo of the Eden Project. The Eden Project is a major tourist attraction in Cornwall, a perennially forgotten region of southwest England very close to where I grew up; the site is composed of biomes, each of which sustains a microclimate not typically associated with the UK.
The EU provided the Eden Project with more than 25 million pounds in funding. I know this because during the Brexit referendum in 2016, I organized the pro-EU campaign in Plymouth, my home city. I tried to make the funding the region gets from Europe a key plank of our local campaign; we tend to be ignored by national politicians in London, we argued, and so, in the event of Brexit, would likely find ourselves out of pocket. We put the Eden Project on fliers. No one seemed to care much. The umbrella, it turned out, belonged to a member of the media.
The night we found out we’d be leaving the EU, in June 2016, I had turned up late-ish to the vote count in Plymouth, feeling reasonably confident that Britain had voted to stay in Europe. Then I saw the early returns. I left the count, with some friends, in the early hours. We talked emptily about possible futures—and the need to preserve European labor and environmental standards. Brexit was never an end in itself for its leading architects, but a battle in a wider war—a first step toward remaking Britain as a low-regulation outpost with fewer protections for vulnerable citizens and the climate, all in the name of cutting “red tape.”
For the past three and a half years, pro-Europeans have hardly put these issues on the table; not consistently, at least. To a greater extent, they’ve squabbled among themselves about the need for a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, and about what that campaign ought to look like. When Johnson won a huge election victory in December, those arguments were emphatically lost. Johnson has said that he won’t weaken workers’ rights, and his Brexit plan initially contained guarantees to that effect. Following his election victory, however, they were stripped from the plan, and their future remains uncertain.
I’d expected to see a healthy number of pro-Europeans on Brexit night; they’d want to give Europe a send-off, I thought, and pierce the mass of Union Jacks with their star-spangled EU flags. In the end, the only ones I saw were huddled in a small group outside Downing Street, just up the road from the square. I went over. “It’s been absolutely bloody frightening, the amount of abuse we’re getting,” Kerry, one of the pro-Europeans, who had a cardboard EU flag hung around her neck, told me. “I’m shaking in my boots.” Hazel, who was draped in an EU flag, wandered over; she, too, said that the atmosphere had been hostile. I asked Hazel what she thought should happen next. There should be a campaign for Britain to rejoin the EU, she said.
As I stood nearby, a Brexiteer who had been walking past went over to speak to Kerry. Their exchange seemed friendly, though I couldn’t hear what was said. A second Brexiteer asked the first why he was talking to someone with an EU flag. He paused. “They’re an endangered species,” he said.