A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I were out campaigning for the country to be given a say on whatever Brexit deal our Government manages to negotiate with the European Union. As I was blowing up some balloons (never let it be said that I do things half-heartedly), a chap in his early sixties marched past, newspaper in hand.
“Less than a year to go until we get our country back,” he grinned.
“Er, yes. Good luck with that,” I replied.
Needless to say, I didn’t offer him a balloon.
I remain convinced that leaving the European Union is a bad idea. In a world that is getting more complex and more volatile by the day, we should be working more closely with our neighbours, not less. We should embrace the freedom and prosperity that have come with being part of a group of nations. And we should recognise that in unity lies strength.
We should also appreciate that few problems in this life are solved by chucking our toys out of the pram like a petulant infant or stomping off in a sulk.
But unless the Prime Minister has a change of heart (again), the Labour Party collectively gets its act together and starts opposing stuff, we have a snap general election and Vince Cable defies expectations by a factor of about a gazillion, or our political representatives finally realise that the future of our country is perhaps, after all, slightly more important than their own career ambitions, it’s looking very much like we’re about to do precisely that.
Now, I’m not saying that we should leave the EU. Because we really shouldn’t. And I’ll be campaigning to revoke our Article 50 notification right up until the moment of our departure. At which point, I’ll start campaigning for us to rejoin.
Even if we do end up leaving the European Union, though, I suspect that we’ll probably survive. The fields will not become infested with plagues of locusts. We won’t sink into the sea. Life will go on.
It’s just that everything will be that little bit less good than it otherwise could have been.
The biggest challenge, though, is not leaving the EU. That’s the easy bit. We can just sit back, do nothing and it’ll happen by default. The biggest challenge will be deciding what we want our country to be like in a post-Brexit world. How we will work together to achieve a shared vision of the future. And how we will heal the deep rifts in our society that this whole sorry affair has torn open.
And this is where the trouble starts.
Because the post-Brexit reality is that Theresa May is likely to get ditched by her divided party the moment we leave the EU, so that her eurosceptic colleagues can try for their five minutes of fame without having to be the ones who got us into this mess in the first place.
So at a time when we’ll need serious politicians more than ever before, what we’ll actually have is Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson. They may well be utterly charming people, of course, but they’re not exactly my statesmanship dream team. And I’d hesitate to leave them in charge of next door’s guinea pig, let alone my country.
There seems to be a perception that our new, politically-independent, economically-powerful and globally-relevant country will arise fully formed, phoenix like, the moment we cast of the shackles of EU membership and ditch our purple passports for our shiny new black ones.
But that’s really not going to be the case.
Deciding how we want our country to be, and then actually building it, is going to be a long and complex process.
It is going to be a time for courage, for cool heads and for big ideas.
But there is little evidence that our wannabe political leaders and their assorted hangers-on have any of these. And nor are they likely to develop them in the near future.
So I can’t help but think that, come our much-vaunted ‘independence day’, my newspaper-touting friend is going to be somewhat disappointed.
And the rest of us along with him.