The actual process of disentangling ourselves from the long arm of the European Union will drag on for ages, but at least March 29, 2019 – is it just me who finds a pleasing symmetry to the date? – is a line in the sand.
There is a precise time for departure – 11pm. And guess what? When Brexit Secretary David Davis set this in stone last year, there was even a row about that. The time is one hour earlier than expected because government lawyers concluded that the UK would leave at midnight Brussels time, which is an hour ahead of us.
I hope that the arguing will stop when the clock strikes 11 (if Big Ben’s bongs are back working by then). Some hope, I know, but the constant buzz of Brexit in the background has been like a particularly annoying fly for two years. Not as annoying as Jacob Rees-Mogg, but distracting all the same.
The deed will be done. All the hours and hours of debate will be crystallised in that one moment. Whether you agree with the decision to leave or not, there is nothing you or I can do.
What we must do, however, is find our own way in the world. Like many people, I can’t remember a time when the UK was not formally a part of Europe. I’m old enough to recall when we joined the Common Market in 1973.
Sadly, I can’t bring to mind the Festival of European Culture put on by Prime Minister Edward Heath, who said his heart was “full of joy” at our exciting new Euro-future. I’m not sure it got as far as Barnsley.
However, I do remember hearing the adults blaming “the Common Market” for most things that went wrong; the price of butter, the shortage of sugar and power cuts. At least three generations have grown up holding some place called “Europe” culpable for all that ails us a nation.
This must stop. Introspection, especially if it is forced, is always a painful process. The United Kingdom must now submit itself to forensic examination and work out the things which hold it together – and those which may tear it apart.
In this, I hope that our region will find the unity and strength to stand up for itself. In sheer numbers alone, with more than five million inhabitants, we deserve to take responsibility for our own decisions. Indeed, last December a community poll held in my own town – and neighbouring Doncaster – found that 85 per cent of local people were in favour of One Yorkshire devolution plans, rather than the Sheffield City Region.
If the European referendum taught us one thing, it’s that our individual opinion does count. I read a report the other day that said political engagement has gone up something like 25 per cent among British people in two years.
This can only be a good thing. Not everyone has a strong view on fox hunting, for example, or whether the Bank of England should remain an independent financial institution.
However, you can bet your last pound coin that everyone now has an opinion on Europe. I hope that this new-found national confidence continues. We’re going to need it. Have you travelled abroad since the decision to leave was made? At best we British passport-holders – don’t get me started on that particular hot potato – are treated as benign curiosities, at worst an alien species. I remember the heady days of my youth travelling through France, Italy and Spain. It didn’t matter where you were born, just where you were going. I fear this level of freedom will not be afforded to my own two children.
The very idea that France might be an interesting and welcoming place to go backpacking is entirely alien to my teenage son. It’s his own fear, I think. He’s afraid of the reception he might get as a young British man and doesn’t fancy defending himself and his country at every turn.
I don’t like this. And neither do I like the lack of respect shown to the young people who have come to my own town from other countries.
I’m seeing a change in Barnsley and most of it is good; the migrants from East Europe who have made their home here recently may well be the saviours of the town’s economy. There are many families living in poverty and their clearly workless status is a huge cause for concern.
However, there are plenty of individuals setting up businesses such as restaurants and shops. They don’t make excuses. They don’t look back to the miners’ strike, or blame the council. They just get on with it.
And my last hope? That as Brexit winds towards its inevitable conclusion, Jacob Rees-Mogg finally shuts up and takes himself off to that monastery in Leicestershire.
No true Brit would argue with his stance that our country should remain at the top of the global pecking order, but the last thing we want is to end up back in the 18th century where the likes of Rees-Mogg would take us if given the chance.