LONDON—So, this is it. After 47 years of membership, Britain is finally leaving the European Union on Friday. It may have taken 1,316 days of screaming at each other since the referendum, and claimed the careers of two prime ministers, but at 11 p.m. the 17 million people who voted for Brexit three years ago will, for better or worse, get what they asked for.
Now, given that all through the 2016 campaign, pro-Brexit campaigners spent their time casting the EU as a sinister, overreaching superstate that had shackled Britain’s potential for decades, you might assume that tonight’s historic strike of the clock would spark wild celebrations. Millions draped in Union Jacks, screaming Rule Britannia, and weeping warm, joyous tears into their even warmer pints of thick beige ale.
But, despite the best efforts of some of the most wild-eyed foot-soldiers of the Brexit campaign, tonight’s landmark will pass without any great fanfare. If you voted to remain, there’s obviously nothing to celebrate. If you voted to leave, the vast majority had their moment of jubilation on the night of the referendum three-and-a-half years ago, but their enthusiasm has since suffered death by a thousand BBC News push alerts.
There have been attempts to create a national moment—but they have, without fail, been totally crap. Take Nigel Farage’s exit from the European Parliament earlier this week, which is a moment he’s dreamed of throughout his entire political career. His grand gesture was to make a speech while his Brexit Party colleagues waved tiny plastic Union flags around him. The parliament’s speaker simply cut off his mic, leaving him voiceless, in a perfect metaphor for Britain’s future in Europe.
A day later, in his continuing quest to give Brexit week some form of gravitas, the modest Farage attended the unveiling of a portrait of himself which was entitled “Mr. Brexit.” The unveiling was hosted by former game-show host Jim Davidson, who hasn’t been allowed to appear on mainstream television for decades due to his propensity for making extremely terrible jokes about women, ethnic minorities, and disabled people.
The official government-backed attempts to mark Brexit have fallen similarly flat. Firstly, a commemorative 50 pence coin was minted with the slogan, written in the kind of font that might be used for a menu of homeopathic treatments: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”
Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, led calls for a boycott of the coin for failing to include an Oxford comma, while others said they would refuse to accept it in their change or deface it with pro-EU messages. If this was the government’s big gesture to bring the bitterly divided country back together, it would have been just as effective to throw an existing 50p coin into a wishing well.
There was also an extremely embarrassing campaign, announced and then disowned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to crowdfund for Big Ben—the bell in parliament’s famous clock tower—to be temporarily restored to action during a refurbishment to bong loudly for the Brexit moment. More than £250,000 was raised to fund the effort, but that was only half of what was needed to get the bell working by Friday, so the idea was abandoned.
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why Britain is leaving the EU at 11 p.m. local time rather than midnight, it’s because that is midnight in Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU, and it gets to decide these kind of things now.)
There will, however, be a light show in Westminster to mark Brexit, and Johnson is reportedly due to give what has been billed as a “special” address to the nation on Friday evening. The government has also announced that “in response to public calls, the Union Jack will be flown on all of the flag poles in Parliament Square,” which is sure to be spectacular.
Unofficial celebrations will, of course, take place in some parts of the country where the vote to leave was at its strongest in 2016. A photograph circulated on Twitter this week that purported to show a pub notice for a “Brexit Party” on Friday night, where only British food be served and British music played, which sounds good if you like the sound of “Wonderwall” being sung by men chewing gray meat.
A nationwide chain of cheap-and-cheerful pubs, Wetherspoons, is marking the day by slashing the prices of drinks made in European countries, which the company’s pro-Brexit CEO claims is his gesture to show that he wants Britain to remain friends with the EU after Friday night.
On Saturday, Britain will wake up, for the first time in nearly five decades, outside a European group of nations. Once the hangovers clear, and the people responsible for Brexit stop congratulating themselves for vaulting the first and smallest hurdle, the actual work begins to prove that leaving the EU was something worth celebrating.