Peter Rhodes on the long, long trek from Referendum to Brexit and a night for enjoying a wee dram

Read today's column from Peter Rhodes.

Street protests against Brexit
Street protests against Brexit

So here we are. Welcome to the sunlit uplands. At 11pm tonight you can launch your fireworks, sound your car horn or raise a quiet glass of celebratory Scotch as Brexit, a word we'd never even heard of four years ago, becomes reality and Britain exits the European Union.

To be honest, I never thought this day would come. As I wrote the morning after the EU Referendum in 2016: “Right from the outset, we must be aware that there are dark forces at work to prevent us from quitting the EU. Watch out for those who suggest what we really need is a second referendum.”

But even after writing that, I never believed the challenge to the Referendum result would be so big, so sustained, so well-funded. How could anyone foresee the legal battles, the massive street protests or Theresa May's doomed 2017 General Election? Who would imagine that Labour, led by a long-term EU-hater like Jeremy Corbyn, would turn itself into a Remain party, or that the office of Speaker, once a byword for neutrality, would be weaponised against Brexit?

From start to finish Brexiteers have been accused of betraying the young. But then the young don't have the advantage of the long view. And if you can't see where we've come from, then you can't really see where we were going within the EU. The young don't remember what a proud, independent country Britain was before joining Europe. They don't recall the growing alarm as the Common Market, at first just a free-trade area of a few prosperous west European states, morphed into the EU, a vast 28-nation empire. The young don't remember the growing anxiety, via Maastricht and the Lisbon Treaty, as bits of our sovereignty were chipped away.

As the EU grew, Britain's identity dimmed. Regional development agencies, dealing directly with Brussels, looked suspiciously like the framework of a federal EU based on regional governments. Maps emerged from the EU making no mention of England. In 2011 it was revealed that the EU was creating a new region, Arc Manche, bringing together Northern France and Southern England. You didn't have to be a head-banging Ukipper to wonder what the hell was going on, or why.

Throughout this long saga, almost all the arguments centred on trade deals, inflation and the economy. But if you think Brexit was only about money, you miss the point. It was about British people feeling powerless in their own country. They felt neglected and despised by a ruling elite which spent too much time talking to professors, pundits and spin-doctors in London and not enough meeting fishermen in Cornwall or electricians in East Anglia.

Brexit was never just about money. It was about something richer and deeper. And if the kids don't get it on this momentous night, maybe one day they will. They might even be thankful. Now, where's that Scotch?

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