The Neverending Nightmare of Life in Brexit Britain

5 minute read
Marie Le Conte is a London-based political journalist

Before his country voted to leave the European Union on that fateful day of June 23, 2016, Ralf Little had little interest in what happened in Westminster, the political heart of the U.K. Now, the British actor and footballer says, his eyes have been opened.

“Imagine waking up on a transatlantic flight to discover that the plane is not being flown, as you thought, by a quiet, competent pilot. In fact, while you were asleep it was taken over by a gang of giggling, clammy-handed ten-year-olds, hopped up on Haribo.”

The Brexit vote was a wake-up call for many Britons. For some, it was a victory, and a sign that the political elite could no longer ignore certain parts of the population. For others, it was a shock and a realization that perhaps they did not know their fellow countrymen as well as they thought.

But the referendum was only the beginning. It has now been nearly three years since former Prime Minister David Cameron gambled, lost and resigned, and Brexit mania shows no sign of loosening its grip on the national conversation. Indeed, the process is actually getting longer. For months, the deadline for Brexit was March 29, exactly two years after Britain triggered the mechanism to formally quit the E.U. That date was then changed to Apr. 12, then — late on Wednesday night — to Oct. 31.

In the months and years since the vote, Britain has discovered the split down its middle cuts deeper than it first appeared. While the question on the referendum ballot paper was straightforward – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” – it paved the way for dozens of other existential queries. What is Britain’s place in the world? What should it be? Have we talked about its imperial past enough, or too much? Is immigration a problem, or a lack of integration, or both or neither? Is there too much of a gap between cities and towns? Can it be mended? If so, who should make the first step? Were Leave voters more xenophobic than Remain voters were elitist? And where does Ireland fit into all this?

These questions have been debated in newspaper columns, on television shows, and in pubs, coffee shops, at Christmas dinners and everywhere else. Parents have fallen out with their children, siblings screamed at each other, relationships have been tested and friendships broken down. “I have taken quite a hard line position on how we should go about Brexit and wound up some of my closest friends and family,” says political commentator and author Isabel Oakeshott. “I am constantly being mocked, jeered and barracked on live TV and radio. It’s very exposing, and nobody’s idea of fun.”

Even though they lost, the so-called “Remainers” are at least clear on what they would like to see next; the U.K. to stay in the E.U. after all, either through Parliament overturning the vote or through a second referendum.

The “Brexiteers,” on the other hand, have had to reconcile the different visions voters had for casting their ballot to leave. There were Singapore-style Brexiteers, yearning for their country to go out into the world and become an open, buccaneering nation; those who wanted the country to shut its borders and turn in on itself; those hoping that recouped contributions to the E.U. could fund more schools and hospitals and turn Britain towards a protectionist left; and so on

Those differences in vision were largely swept under the carpet during the Brexit campaign, both because a lot of pro-Brexit figures assumed their side would lose, and—more cynically—because offering all things to all people was a convenient way to operate (and, it turned out, win).

Since then the U.K. Parliament has been trying to answer the question of how Britain leaves the E.U. And even the most passive observer of British politics will know that process is not going well. Having voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal, every other possible exit option, the country leaving with no deal, a second referendum and no Brexit at all, parliamentarians are at an impasse. And it’s not clear an extra six months will be enough time to figure a way out.

For lawmakers in what was once a bastion of democracy, Brexit has become a hellish, inescapable labyrinth. Every day brings more votes on increasingly arcane Brexit-related legislation, then the endless and pointless debates on that legislation and what happens next. Whatever lawmakers do means receiving a mountain of abuse from constituents and Twitter trolls. No-one in parliament can ever be really sure of what factions exist, what they want and what they will do next. Everyone is frustrated, tired and angry. As one MP tells TIME: “I am a husk of a human.”

That matters. It is unclear who the chicken and the egg are between the Westminster bubble and the rest of the country, but it is undeniable that each time one gets even tenser, the other does as well. Jeremy Vine, a broadcaster on BBC Radio 2, explains it well. “Essentially, Parliament has had a nervous breakdown and that is communicating itself all the way through the country, top to bottom. Brexit may be a great idea — but that’s not the point anymore. The referendum result went into Parliament like a sock goes into a washing machine, and after a loud noise and lots of banging, there is just no trace of the sock any more. A lot of my listeners use the same exasperated phrase: “Why haven’t we left yet?””

They should take a deep breath and consider getting into yoga. Some E.U. leaders are already hinting that Oct. 31 doesn’t need to be a final deadline if things aren’t resolved by then. This nightmare could last long after Halloween.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.