The Church of England makes do with 39 Articles, but the EU needs 50. In fact, it probably needs a great deal more than that, but 50 is the point we have now reached. Four days ago, Britain triggered Article 50. (Question for students of semantics: how do you trigger an article?) Now we are on our own.
Nine months on from the referendum, no one is any the wiser about what Brexit will mean for Britain. If anything, the outlook is even more confused. European politicians who say, with long faces and the hint of a glint in their eye, that this will be a disaster for Britain may be right, or they may be wrong. They don’t know; they are merely hoping. Leave fanatics who point to every moderately encouraging economic indicator as evidence of an assured future prosperity may also be right, or they may be wrong. They don’t know either; they are also hoping.
The letter that arrived in Brussels on Wednesday is one link in a chain that stretches back to last June, and will stretch indefinitely forward into the future. However, in one respect, it is a crucial link. It changes everything.
The issue now (if it should come to another referendum) is not whether we wish to leave the EU, but whether we want to rejoin it. That is a very different question. Literally, we won’t have left the EU for another two years or more and, legally, it would seem that we can withdraw the letter in the meantime, but in the public perception we have now left. For that reason, there can be no turning back.
This point is missed by the remaining Remainers. They continue to talk as if 48 per cent of the country is unrepresented by the process that is beginning and is being denied a say in the outcome. They are wrong. Many, probably most, of those who voted to remain are reconciled to the decision to leave. Certainly, a large number of people, many of them influential, will never be reconciled to the decision. But they probably do not account for more than 20 per cent of the electorate, and maybe a lot less.
I am not one of them. I do not regret voting to remain. I still believe that the decision to leave is fraught with danger, economic and political, national and international. I still believe that the risk was far too great to take. If the clock could be turned back to last June, I would again vote to remain. But clocks can never be turned back. If there should be another vote, I will not choose to rejoin the EU, except in the most desperate of circumstances. I accept that the decision has been made. This is not a subject on which a country can keep changing its mind.
The one person who has instinctively understood this fact from the outset is Theresa May, which is one reason why she became Prime Minister, and the main reason why she continues to command widespread support.
Nor is it relevant for the remaining Remainers to assert that some of those who voted to leave now feel differently, and that perhaps a majority for Brexit no longer exists. This is wishful thinking. No doubt there are Leave voters who have now changed their mind. There are also Remain voters who have changed their mind. And, even at the time, there were Remain voters (perhaps more than there were Leave voters) who were in two minds about their decision, and who do not altogether regret the result.
The principal evidence that all this is true is that no one of stature and influence has emerged at the head of a group that is determined to overturn the decision. Tony Blair has tried and appears to have failed. Plenty of others have said plenty else, but their entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. There is no appetite in the country to revisit the result, and there is no passion for it. If those feelings existed widely, someone would have emerged by now to give substantial political expression to them.
British politics is in limbo and will almost certainly remain there for at least two years, until the deal – if there is to be one – is struck. No matter how pressing the issues affecting the NHS, social care, schools or anything else, for the time being they seem less pressing than the great unmentionable: how the negotiations will unfold. Which includes negotiations not just with the EU, but with the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.
This piece has a fatalistic air to it, which reflects how I feel. I have not the faintest idea whether my country has made a good decision or a bad one, or (as is never mentioned) a bit of both. I don’t expect to know the answer any time soon, and possibly not in my lifetime. As Zhou Enlai remarked in 1972 when asked about the long-term effect of the French Revolution: ‘It is too soon to say.’ Even if he had failed to understand the question, it is still a good answer.
The most that can be said is that this week represents the first step on the road to somewhere.