‘It’s over, we’re done, we’re out’: Fear and fatigue after Brexit Day

The Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square, where the Brexiteer celebrations on Friday night had caked the grass into a field of mud.
The Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square, where the Brexiteer celebrations on Friday night had caked the grass into a field of mud. © Tom Wheeldon

There was a deflated mood in London the day after Brexit. A sense that the divorce from the EU is now a done deal co-existed on Saturday with trepidation about what happens next as Britain enters the transition period in search of a new trade deal with the European bloc.


Over the past two days, the stark divide between the Leave and Remain camps was on display in Parliament Square. On Friday, a huge, uproarious pro-Brexit rally greeted the UK’s departure from the EU, only hours after a small anti-Brexit crowd protested in the same place the night before. The outpourings of emotion broke the sense of tiredness about Brexit that had pervaded the national mood in recent weeks – epitomised by the near indifference the passing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal met with after the New Year.

On Saturday, in the streets of South Kensington – where Brits converge from across the country on the august, late Victorian national museums – it seemed that Brexit fatigue had returned. For some it was tempered nevertheless with concern about what happens next, as the UK enters an 11-month transition period. Johnson promises not to prolong this stage of the process beyond that point, vowing to strike a free trade deal with the EU by 2020's end. Experts, meanwhile, warn that objective is overly ambitious and risks a de facto no-deal outcome.

‘What’s really the point?’

“It’s taken such a long time since it started, and now we’re just waiting till the end of year before the entire thing goes through”, said Brunel University student Vanujan, hanging out opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. “At this point it’s just another day; we’re not too worried about it,” he said.

While nothing had tangibly changed after the moment Brexit took effect at 11pm on January 31, he noted, the end of the transition period was a worrying point on the horizon. “At the end of this period, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that it’s a hard Brexit,” said Vanujan, who moved to the UK from Sri Lanka as a child. “If it is a hard Brexit, in five years’ time I think I might leave the country.”

Vanujan was too young to have voted in the 2016 referendum but opposed the UK’s departure from the EU. Nevertheless, after more than three years of Brexit dominating the national debate to the exclusion of other political priorities, he said, “in terms of rejoining, I think there’s going to be other stuff that the UK has to worry about”.

On Saturday in London, Vanujan wasn’t alone in at once ruing the advent of Brexit and wearying of the long, all-consuming process that led to it.

“It’s been going on for ages – what’s really the point?” said a young man from Gloucestershire in the rural west of England, walking towards South Kensington’s Natural History Museum on a day trip to the capital. “I think being in the EU benefitted us; I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” continued this visitor to London, who was too young to cast a ballot in the 2016 vote but would have opted for Remain.

‘Two different bubbles’

Another day tripper outside the Natural History Museum expressed bewilderment over what had happened during the more than three years that followed the shock referendum result in 2016: “We voted to leave and then we didn’t leave – and now … it’s confusing.”

A doorman at the same museum voiced similar Brexit fatigue. “It’s over, we’re done, we’re out, let’s get on with it,” he said with a weary shrug.

Up the road, outside Imperial College London, a pharmaceutical importer visiting the capital for the day suggested the post-Brexit mood of lassitude might eventually be broken. “Even though nothing’s really changed in the short term, people are starting to move on and think about what’s coming next," the visitor said. "A lot of people who voted for Brexit think everything is going to immediately improve, but I work in an industry that is closely tied to the single market – and one thing that I can see is that up until the end of the transition period it’s business as usual, but beyond that it feels like you’ve got two different bubbles: you’ve got people who are looking at the details, and you’ve got people who think it’s over, and that anybody who is still bringing it up is just whining.”

Crossing the road outside the Palace of Westminster onto Parliament Square – where the ecstatic Brexiteer celebrations on Friday night had turned the grass into a field of caked mud – a French tourist voiced a similar sense that the real moment of change in the UK’s relationship with the continent might lie in the near future. “It’s a shame”, she said of Brexit, with quintessentially Gallic sangfroid. “For the moment, it feels like this is still Europe, but in the years to come … we’ll see.”

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