Britain’s vote to leave the EU brought demonstrators on to the streets of London © Andrew Testa/NYT/Redux/Eyevine
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Londoners are coming to terms with Brexit. Or we would be if we had any idea what it meant. For the heavily Remain-minded capital city the Brexit vote was a shock and many Londoners will have experienced the emotions that correspond to the classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Somewhere along the path, however, these five stages appear to have got out of kilter. Denial and anger kicked in pretty much as expected, especially among young Londoners, but then things seemed to veer off course. Many have moved straight to acceptance except we don’t really know what it is we are required to accept. The only certainty on offer is from our new prime minister, who tells us in Thatcherite tones that “Brexit means Brexit”, which would be very helpful if we knew what the second Brexit meant. Brexiters will also be concerned by its ambiguity. Why, for example, did Theresa May not say “Brexit means Brexit means Brexit”, which would definitely have an added level of conviction?

But while Brexit may mean Brexit, it may also mean Soft Brexit or Hard Brexit. It could be somewhere-in-the-Middle Brexit. So while we all now understand Brexit means Brexit, we know it might also mean Sexit or Harxit or Mexit — or maybe even WhatTheHeck’sit. Is the prime minister keeping her cards close to her chest or is she just afraid to look at them?

The problem of not knowing what Brexit means — other than meaning Brexit — is playing havoc with the five stages. The country made a decision and for those of us who swiftly moved from anger to acceptance, we might not like it, but that’s democracy. But can you get to acceptance without having gone through bargaining? We’ve got at least two years of bargaining to come before we can even look forward to depression. Does that mean if we don’t like the outcome we have to go all the way back to denial? What about those who thought they had won; if they are unhappy with the negotiations, might they have to go through the five stages too?

And do those Remainers wishing to take the traditional five steps really have to wait two years before they can even move on to depression? That seems terribly harsh. Many want to go straight to acceptance and get back to watching Strictly Come Dancing.

Should there be other stages? At the moment a more accurate dialectic might be denial; anger; puzzlement; relief; acceptance; the search for Irish ancestors; definition; more puzzlement; economic data that suggest we were right; economic data that suggest we were wrong; fingerpointing; negotiation; renegotiation; depression; negotiation; more puzzlement; settlement; fear; anger; betrayal of the winners; fightback; betrayal of the losers; final settlement; reopening the settlement; final answer; no, we don’t wish to phone a friend; defiance (or delight); blimey, what was all the fuss about; and acceptance.

In the meantime, we exist in a state of limbo. Something momentous has occurred but nothing has really changed and we are all waiting for it to happen. So we live in a phoney war in which the two rival sides compete to write the history of this decision.

The Remainers face the greater challenge. It would be gratifying to be proved right about the economic turmoil they said this decision would bring. But then again they have to live here too. The Brexiters, by contrast, fear blame if the dire economic warnings turn out to be true. They are engaged in the twin strategy of grabbing every piece of good news — some have seized on positive consumer spending stats to talk about a Brexit boom — while trying to shift the blame for any downturn on to Remain voters “talking the country down”. (Incidentally, is there counselling for a country when it gets talked down? “They all talk about me behind my back; it’s really damaged my self-worth. I’m just so down I’m thinking of going into recession.”)

Meanwhile, in other ways we are all talking the country up. We reassure our European friends that when the dust settles they will still feel just as at home here and hope that we are right. We reassure ourselves that whatever the bumps along the way, we’ll get through it in the end.

But this is not all bad. London, like New York, is a city which, for all its wonders, thrives on neurosis. We fret about house prices and terrorism, about jobs, crowded trains, traffic congestion and which schools our kids should attend, about the loss of privacy and the loss of community. Now we have Brexit to worry about too, for variety. That can only be good. It’s what keeps Londoners on their toes.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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