Few years will live as long in the memory as 2016. Historians will ponder the meaning and consequences of the past 12 months for decades to come. In the future, 180-odd years from now, some Zhou Enlai will remark that ‘it is too soon to say’ when asked about the significance of Brexit.
The referendum result shocked Westminster. Michael Gove was so sure it would be Remain that he had retreated to bed on the evening of 23 June and only found out Leave had won when one of his aides telephoned in the early hours of the morning. Theresa May admits in her interview with us that she was ‘surprised’ by the result and had been expecting a Remain vote, based on both the polls and the mood in her own constituency.
But while Leave’s win reverberated through Westminster on 24 June, the fact that Britain voted to leave the European political project is perhaps not all that surprising. After all, we joined the then European Economic Community because, in Dean Acheson’s hackneyed phrase, we had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Unlike nearly all the other member states, our EU membership was not a matter of national pride.
That Britain would depart at some point became highly likely in 1992, when John Major negotiated a UK opt-out from the single currency. Not being involved in the central political project of the European Union made Britain a semi-detached member. It became hard to argue that we were ‘leading in Europe’. As pro–Europeans such as Roy Jenkins and Peter Mandelson had always recognised, if Britain was to stay in for the long term, it had to join in full. George Osborne used to say, privately, that the renegotiation must show that there was a third way between leaving the EU and joining the euro.