Ed West: Bregrets, I’ve had a few

A man browses through newspapers outside a kiosk in Athens (AP)

It was the school fair last Saturday, a usually fun event which took place in a strange subdued mood. I live in the fourth most pro-remain borough in Britain, the heartland of the liberal metropolitan elite, whom everyone else seems to despise.

In my road there were at least two dozen pro-EU posters displayed before the referendum, and remain campaigners were out in force. The area has a very high percentage of all the demographics most likely to stay – the university educated, the young, the foreign-born, the insufferably sanctimonious.

At the fair a fellow dad told me that a project at work he’d spent months on was now suspended and his job was insecure. I know the guy. I know that he works most weekends and has a huge mortgage, all to support his three kids; he’s a better man than me. I began to feel physically sick as he told me this. For I voted leave.

Apparently only one per cent of Brexit voters now regret it, which compares with four per cent of remainers who are pleased at the result, although I’m not sure how that will change if the stock market continues its downward spiral. I now have severe concerns about the reality of Brexit, and am learning the wisdom of the old adage that one must be careful what one wishes for.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been against the European project’s political ideal, or at least bemused by it. Working through the horrors of World War I and its bigger-budget sequel by subsuming national identity into a whole always seemed like exactly the sort of hare-brained utopian scheme that caused us so much trouble in the 20th century; something like that was bound to cause more conflict in the long term. The economic benefits of the single market are obvious, but why involve ourselves in political projects that have more to do with the psychological aftermath of conflict felt in France and Germany?

The situation I hoped for, and voted for, was that of Britain being in a second-tier of some sort, the European Economic Area or “Norwegian option”. Norway still has to obey around 30 per cent of EU regulations, and contribute towards the union without any say, but this is a small price to pay for access to the market. The upside would be that we got back control of fishing and farming and a few other areas; the downside that we still had to accept free movement of people.

I’d like some controls of borders. The social cost of eastern European migration is low, but free movement with countries that are considerably poorer puts unbearable pressure on the working class in rich countries. Realistically, however, there is no option where we can have the single market and control of our borders, and leaving the single market would wreck our economy.

Many prominent figures in the Conservative Party favour the Norway option, but Vote Leave chose not to set this out in its campaign because, I imagine, they wanted to make immigration the issue.

Well, that worked, and just as Britain was taken into the Common Market on a lie, so it will be taken out of the European Union on a lie; leave won with huge support in traditional Labour areas of the north, the midlands and Wales. Some of these towns, such as Boston, had had a big influx of eastern Europeans, but many had little immigration. More puzzling, too, many of these areas were in receipt of generous benefits from Brussels, even if it was via Britain’s generous contribution to the Euro-pot. In a subsequent poll a third of leavers said their main reason for voting was immigration – and so the strategy was a success.

And yet at the time of writing the pound and London stock market continue to plummet, and financial experts are stating that the UK economy is showing all the hallmarks of a recession. This uncertainty could be mitigated if Conservative Brexit leaders made a common statement that, whatever happens, Britain will stay in the single market.

They cannot do that, however, because that would be to admit their campaign was a total lie, along with the figure of £350m a week and a promise to save “our” NHS – which in actual outcomes is one of the worst health services in Europe. That would be to tell the working-class voters of Sunderland and Swansea that the Brexit leaders cannot deliver on immigration and that they were duped.

And so leave voters are left with a sickening feeling that we have helped to bring about a great disaster – and this is not even to get into the tangled mess that is Scotland, Northern Ireland and our relations with the Republic.

In hindsight, I have a great idea for a remain poster, in which we’re asked how we’ll feel when a friends tell us they are losing their job over Brexit. As the great John Hume’s father told him, you can’t eat a flag.