When I think about Brexit, I think of the flotilla on the Thames on 15 June 2016. It was a week before the referendum and the atmosphere was febrile. A heavy, damp heat hung over the capital. Nigel Farage had urged a band of fishermen to sail their dinghies up the river to the Houses of Parliament to demand freedom from the EU and its quotas. Other Brexit enthusiasts joined them with their own craft. From Tower Bridge I cycled along the river, past Shakespeare’s Globe, following their progress. “Hitler did it with gas! Merkel does it with paperwork!” yelled one red-faced man from a small trawler at the crowd on Westminster Bridge. “We want our country back!” chanted supporters. Then Bob Geldof arrived on a rival boat and shouted at them all through a megaphone.
It was ridiculous. Here, at the heart of British power, was a band of small boats manned by campaigners seemingly convinced that the world was out to get them, almost regal in their pretensions and on some level aware of how utterly camp they seemed. Their opponents were Europhiles who, in their own way, were just as agitated. To many observers within and outside Britain, the country seemed to have lost its grip on reality. Yet politically the opposite was true. This raw, messy, emotional panto-mime was and, with Brexit now upon us, is Britain’s surreal reality.
The ultimate delusion about Britain’s participation in the EU is that it was a mostly rational and transactional matter. Remainers and Brexiteers both tell that story. Remainers (formerly known as pro-Europeans) have long observed that few Brits are moved by European symbols: the “Ode to Joy” does not set their lips quivering; the EU flag makes them roll their eyes; conferences on Europe’s future hosted in the rococo palaces of dead continental monarchs leave them cold. Better, then, to talk about employment and growth. Meanwhile Brexiteers (formerly known as Eurosceptics) insist that Britons voted in 1975 to stay in a trading bloc, not a wider entity. It was, in other words, all about cash. The Brexit negotiation’s dubious gift to the English language is, tellingly, the verb “to dedramatise”. Having dedramatised the Northern Irish backstop by agreeing to put the border in the Irish Sea, the Prime Minister now wants to dedramatise the act of Brexit itself. (Boris Johnson backed away from plans to have Big Ben “bong” on the moment of Britain’s departure.)
Yet of all the British euro-myths – straight bananas, the prawn-cocktail ban, the euro-coffin – the notion of EU membership as mostly a technocratic consideration was always the greatest. Deep down, both sides of the divide know it.
To understand why, it helps to consider the English character and experience. Brexit, after all, is a fundamentally English phenomenon. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain; Wales voted to leave but by a smaller margin than England. As the political scientist Michael Kenny has written in these pages, Brexit “touched on deep questions of identity, self-government and shared sovereignty” for the English. It served an emotional need, in other words, that is particularly strong in the Union’s largest constituent nation: England, whose own identity has long gone neglected or been misunderstood and is struggling to find modern expression.
What is “Englishness”? It helps, perhaps, to return to the flotilla, St George’s flags and bunting fluttering from the little boats, on that sticky June day in 2016. Three elements, a distinctly English combination, stood out.
The first was the message of subordination by others, of underdog-dom. England (within Britain) was on the winning side in both World Wars and is free and broadly prosperous. Yet the fishermen spoke as if it were the loser, insisting that the country needed to be won “back” from outside oppressors. This sense of loss – of empire, of industrial heartlands, of common bonds – permeates postwar English culture: from punk, to the romanticism of singers such as Morrissey, and the longing for a lost golden age present in tabloid headlines and on the hard left and right of English politics today. “Instead of being a victor, could England not be imagined as a defeated nation?” asks Fintan O’Toole in his book Heroic Failure.
The second trait was a sense of defiant grandeur. The boats on the Thames were a conscious reference to the epic moments of England’s past – the defeat of the Armada, Trafalgar and Dunkirk – and an insistence that England’s imperial, victorious history entitled it to more than the bondage the fisherman were decrying. In other words, England does not just have a right to the dignity and sovereignty its would-be defenders said it had lost, but had earned it through its glorious history.
The third trait is humour. The English are not necessarily any more innately ironic, eccentric or otherwise funny than other peoples. But they do stand out for the centrality they accord to those characteristics in their self-image. The flotilla on the Thames is a case in point: the self-pity and grandeur mingled with an awareness, on some level, of how preposterous it all was. In his memoir of the referendum campaign, The Bad Boys of Brexit, the Leave donor Arron Banks fondly recalls the “‘run up the Jolly Roger’ banter” on the flotilla’s flagship. The whole spectacle was knowingly silly.
There is something poetic about the fact that this exaggerated picture of Englishness played out before the Globe, the spiritual home of England’s national poet. Shakespeare’s dramaturgical genius spanned tragedy, history and comedy. So too does the character of the nation he helped define: one now caught between tragic inferiority and historical superiority complexes, but too comic, too wry, to take either entirely seriously; a country marching to a confusing mash-up of Morrissey, Elgar and the Benny Hill theme. England’s is a fundamentally unstable emotional mix. Brexit can be seen as a concert of rival attempts to consolidate and stabilise it.
These efforts are more multifarious than just Leave and Remain. England’s emotional triad finds different forms of expression among different sorts of Brexiteer, for example. Some, it is true, are of the flotilla-bound Farage variety: all hubristic self-pity, quasi-imperial bombast and camp flourishes.
But take Dominic Cummings, whom I interviewed several months before the flotilla. He was and is a very distinctly English character, a product of the north-east, but in his Whiggish views the English triad takes a different form. To Cummings, director of the Vote Leave campaign and now Johnson’s chief of staff, the disappointments of recent decades – the English tragedy – are not primarily the product of external domination but internal failures, albeit ones exacerbated by EU membership. “It is impossible with modern Whitehall to construct this sort of national [renewal] strategy,” he told me, adding that Brexit was a necessary but not sufficient condition for change.
Cummings is bombastic about England’s intellectual birthright – its universities, common law and the City of London – rather than past military victories or imperial domination (if he is romantic about a national history it is Russia’s, not Britain’s). I did not ask him about the tradition of self-effacing semi-seriousness in English politics, the Farage-Johnson style, but got the sense he considered it a frippery the country could not afford.
In an email exchange with me later in the referendum campaign, he wrote: “We vote Leave, he’s [Farage’s] finished, sideshow… Then we can have a sensible immigration policy, it fades as an issue over time, the country gradually becomes more internationalist in outlook.”
Just as there are multiple emotional Brexits, there are multiple emotional Remains. The pro-European cause in Britain has always been more sentimentally motivated than is generally considered. When he took the country into the club, Edward Heath stressed: “The Community we are joining is far more than a common market. It is a community in the full sense of that term.”
Boat Leave: Nigel Farage leads a flotilla along the Thames ahead of the EU Referendum in June 2016. Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
The referendum in 1975, now popularly misremembered as a vote for trade and little else, in fact firmly emphasised the emotional case for membership. “Britain is where she belongs… In Europe!” ran one “Yes” poster; “Better to lose a little sovereignty than a son or daughter” went another.
Over time pro-Europeanism split into at least two rival responses to the English emotional triad. On the one hand were the romantics: beginning with Roy Jenkins and his fellow travellers, and running through the pro-euro arguments of Tony Blair’s early years as prime minister to the radicalised European-flag-and-beret-wearing anti-Brexit protesters of recent times.
For this tendency Europe offers the prospect of national resurgence at the heart of a bigger project, and an open-spirited attitude towards the country’s neighbours consistent with its good-humoured nature. This is England reconciled to itself as a happy, almost post-historical constituent of a larger whole. The writer Anthony Barnett sums up this perspective while discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago: “The triumph and relief of the unification of Germany could and should have belonged to us in Britain, as well as to Germany itself.”
On the other hand are the pragmatists: beginning with Harold Wilson and running through the “old right” tendency in the Labour Party and much of the moderate wing of the Tory party up to David Cameron. For them, membership of the EU was consistent with a stolid, businesslike, stoical sort of England. The set text of this tendency is perhaps Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg speech announcing his intention to hold a referendum if the Conservatives won the 2015 general election: “We have the character of an island nation – independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty.” In this reading, England’s temperamental inheritance – its exceptional moderation, reasonableness and aversion to wide-eyed visions – would guide it to a special place in the world.
There are many potential Brexits, in other words, just as there were many potential Remains. They all turn on England’s emotional triad.
Brexit itself is an emotional moment. This year will come to be regarded with 1945, 1956, 1979, 1997 and 2016 as crucial junctures in UK history; the moment of Union Jacks coming down in Brussels and Strasbourg, and Britain changing on maps of the EU from a blue insider to one of those grey blobs outside the bloc. The country will start on a new trajectory. But then what? The English postwar imaginarium will live on. The cocktail of tragedy, history and comedy, the self-pity, the grandeur and the irony, will present the same unresolved identity after 31 January. Various possible futures present themselves.
For some Brexiteeers the future holds national resurgence, tragedy turned to triumph, history honoured and humour rewarded in the overthrow of external domination. In this neo-imperial resurgence old global trading networks return and Britain sits upright in the world and asserts its will once more. The country splatters the world map with trade deals. The English triad – tragedy, history, comedy – is settled in perpetuity.
In the hopes of some Remainers, Brexit functions as a shock to the system: the proof that self-pity is unwarranted and destructive; that a positive, hopeful Englishness can find a home in a wider European identity; that arch detachment is a luxury that England can no longer afford. In this scenario, Britain changes its mind and returns to the EU, with its conflicts ultimately overcome and its modernity assured.
But a third, more muddled outcome is the most likely. This proves Brexiteers wrong to assume that a new age of global conquest and moral robustness awaits, and Remainers wrong to hope that Brexit will be exposed in a crisis, shaking the nation out of its slumber. Most probably, Britain will enter a slow decline relative to potential. In an emotional saga, this will be an outcome hard to get emotional about.
In this scenario, England’s emotional triad lives on, unresolved. The country’s innate sense of tragedy expresses itself in new forms of grievance; perhaps bound up with intensifying strains in the Union as Scotland agitates for independence, tensions between unionism and separatism grow in Northern Ireland, and even Welsh separateness becomes more strongly felt. The EU “rump” across the water is blamed for foul play. New outlets are found for the popular sense of loss and powerlessness: perhaps the targeting of migrants or welfare claimants, or maybe positive measures such as new pushes for English political institutions. England’s historical self-regard might express itself in spasms of grandeur: in delusions about the special relationship (with the US and rising powers such as China) and in lurches from isolationism to adventurism and back. The whole rickety business muddles on, for worse and better, cushioned by an enduring ability to see the lighter side of it all.
Overall, Brexit will, I believe, be bad for England, Britain and Europe. But it does not have to be disastrous. The EU is moving towards a system of multiple tiers with France and Germany at its heart, Nordic and eastern countries in the next ring, and then layers of non-members associated with it. Brussels should and could use Brexit Britain – or even an ex-Britain England – as the template for a new outer layer of countries not willing or suitable to join, such as Ukraine and Turkey.
Emmanuel Macron, who understands the English temperament better than most, is leading the way on this: he is the EU’s firmest advocate of Britain getting on with Brexit, but the keenest on new links with an ex-EU Britain, hoping to put the country at the heart of new European defence order.
The long-term hope of Britain’s Europeanists, of various stripes, ought to be that England’s emotional triad can eventually be reconciled with a European vocation despite the rupture of 31 January 2020.
A multi-tier Europe will take a long time to build. But it is probably the best chance of a settled Britain-EU relationship. And who knows? The century is still young. England’s emotional imaginarium has yet to contend with a relatively declining US, the rise of authoritarian Asian powers (including India), and new challenges and traumas from technology, climate change and geopolitics that it can scarcely yet admit. In the very long term, the emotions of England – its unique fusion of tragedy, history and comedy – may come into alignment with the European project, like the astronomic alignments that, through no one’s design, produce eclipses or make certain stars finally visible.
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out