Much has been written about the negative feeling which drove Brexit, but it easy to forget that there is a positive and indeed a romantic aspect too. We fondly cherish the wartime image of Britain carrying the torch of liberty, standing alone against the dark forces which were engulfing the continent.
Beyond that, Britain still retains a dim but influential memory of its empire, of the great and global power we once were. The pens I used as a child at school were inscribed “empire made”, and it was an empire on which the sun never set. Europe, where was that? You might learn a little French if you were lucky but certainly not German, and in any case everyone should speak English.
In those days, just after the war, all Germans were regarded with suspicion and it was not until I was older and travelled to Germany that I realised they were normal human beings. The crucial experience for me came in my early twenties, when I took part in an international workcamp. For the first time, among young people from all over Europe, I realised what it meant to be British.
But for many who voted Leave, the opposite holds true: you can only be truly British by keeping the other nationalities at arm’s length. Why is that? Perhaps because sadly, there are millions of older Britons who have never had the opportunity to go abroad, unlike the modern generation. Why go abroad anyway, when Britain is the only country that matters, and Brexit will restore all our past glories?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking a pride in past glories. I confess to a personal love of steam railways, which persisted in Britain longer than elsewhere. In fact, I really wish we could go back to that world of leisurely travel and steam haulage, it must be the Brexiter in me.
Like Martin Luther King, Brexiters have a dream. To free Britons from enslavement to a bullying EU, and enjoy our rightful freedom and independence again. Our negotiators may be botching the job, but the vision of a wonderful Brexit has persisted, tenacious and seductive. A little battered and tarnished perhaps, but hard to give up. Those sunlit uplands that beckon in the distance, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if only we can get it right.
All dreams come to an end, and as I’ve argued before, Brexit is an idea whose time has passed. The question is, will the country wake up in time? Rising prices, departing NHS staff, loss of our European rights and our standing in the world, yet still we slumber on. A succession of eloquent voices have tried to rouse us: Clarke, Blair, Cable, Major. But Brexit operates silently, like a thief in the night, and no leader has yet emerged who can ring the alarm bells loud enough.
* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.