LONDON—Sitting at the dark wooden desk where American-turned-British novelist Henry James used to write while looking out over the beloved gardens of a private members club, I am deep in the heart of an almost mythical Britain. This is the fading dream that many of the campaigners who took the country towards a shock Brexit referendum victory two years ago want to preserve: an island redoubt for those who have lived here for generations.
A few foreigners have been allowed to join the ranks of the British establishment via the heritage of colonial conquest or, in rare cases, have been welcomed in because of extraordinary wealth or hard-won achievement, like the New York-born novelist James.
Yet at every one of these social clubs I’ve visited in the space of a week—an unintended social experiment of sorts—someone with a foreign accent, relatively new to these shores, greets me at the door, or brings me tea at first light: Polish or Filipino or French.
A couple have admitted to me, speaking in hushed tones so the club members don’t hear, that yes, they’re working in London thanks to the open borders of the European Union. Though they couldn’t actually vote in the poll, they side with the 48 percent of the country that voted to stay in the EU, versus the 52 percent that voted to leave.
“I met Nigel Farage,” the infamous British Brexit campaigner, one Polish staffer confided to me with an arched brow. “I was polite, but I hope he recognized my accent.”
Many of these Europeans inhabit the multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan neighborhoods of London which voted overwhelmingly to remain. Under Brexit, it’s likely each one will have to apply for permission to stay here.
Outside of Britain’s cities is a sea of people who voted to leave the EU. Among them are the farmers who say it’s hard to stay in business while meeting EU rules, even though the EU pays them massive subsidies, or the fishermen struggling to make a profit as other European fishermen fish—–or they claim, over-fish—in British waters.
By the numbers, the foreign invasion doesn’t seem as bad as some Brexiteers seem to believe. The United Kingdom had a population of 63.7 million as of 2014, according to the BBC. That included just 8 percent or 5.3 million non-Brits, with just under 3 million of them from Europe. Net migration of Europeans has dropped ever since the 2016 Brexit vote. Many of those that are still here work in the capital, in jobs younger Britons don’t seem to want, waitressing or cleaning hotels or greeting visitors like me at the entrance of stately British social clubs.
Prime Minister Theresa May has presented the Brexiteers with a bitter pill: a deal that would cement Britain’s departure from the European Union, but not on the terms they had wanted; they call her compromise deal Brexit in name only—BRINO. After months of building up to a parliamentary vote on her deal, she pulled out at the last minute on Monday, granting herself a short reprieve to go back to EU leaders and beg for further concessions, in hopes of staving off a heavy defeat. The EU President Donald Tusk has already announced that there will be no renegotiation, living the future of Britain, Brexit and May herself in question. She’s now visiting European leaders individually, asking for them to intervene.
Without going into mind-numbing detail, suffice to say May’s deal would have meant the U.K. remaining in Europe’s customs union until it concluded a new trade agreement, and many of the current EU rules Brexiteers are chafing under would still apply.
Worse, they’d have no leverage because they’d be outside the EU. They couldn’t even threaten to withhold severance or “divorce” payments until they secured a satisfactory permanent solution—as some Brexiteers have suggested—because they would have already paid them and exited.
Her own party critics say May could have gone for a straight free-trade deal, but that would have meant restoring a hard border between Northern Ireland and the south, an issue complicated by May’s governing coalition member, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
May had been part of the “remain” campaign, so there are even conspiracy theories that she always intended the negotiations to end this way, according to a group of middle-aged Brits at one of London’s packed Red Lion pubs, amid the wood-panelled walls and stained glass.
They repeated what I’d heard again and again in the past several days: that May never wanted Brexit so she’s showing Britain how ugly it would be.
The current kerfuffle may ultimately lead to a stalemate in parliament, which could either see her replaced as prime minister or pave the way for a second referendum to overturn this whole painful enterprise. The newspapers here often suggest that May is on the way out, with reports of coalitions of angry Tories and Labour members of parliament reaching across the aisle to plot against her, and Tories who’ve already resigned from her cabinet calling anew Tuesday for her to step down.
I asked one tweed-clad senior British businessman if former foreign secretary and arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson could be the answer. The businessman—an avowed Brexiteer from a top international company who shared his opinions but did not consent to being identified—repeated another refrain I keep hearing: Johnson may be smart and ambitious, but there’s no reason to believe he could pull off anything better than May has, because it takes two to tango.
Simply put, if Britain crashes out of the EU without a trade deal next March, it will hurt Britain a lot more than it will Europe. Britain will be losing its largest trading partner and coping with the predicted chaos of lines of trucks and boats waiting to deliver goods, which would have to be inspected and taxed in a way they haven’t been for decades. The EU would also have the opportunity to remind anyone else thinking of leaving that they ought to think long and hard.
The businessman said no, Johnson knows that, and so do the British people, so they’d rather have May do the hard, thankless task of exiting, or failing to exit, and pick up the pieces afterward.
The tweed-clad Brit quoted Hilaire Belloc’s poem about a young boy called Jim who had it good with “Tea, and cakes, and jam... And slices of delicious ham.”
But the spoiled and bored young boy slips away from his nurse—aka nanny—and was promptly eaten by a lion.
It’s a cautionary tale that Britons absorb early. On this occasion, May is Britain’s nurse offering a sensible if unpalatable Brexit, even if that fails to live up to the wild-eyed dreams of the greedy Brexiteers.
“Always keep a-hold of nurse,” the businessman said with a wink over his gin and tonic. “For fear of finding something worse.”