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Brexit: What Were We Thinking?!

A man in funeral attire carried a European Union wreath on Jan. 31, the day Britain formally withdrew from the bloc. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
A man in funeral attire carried a European Union wreath on Jan. 31, the day Britain formally withdrew from the bloc. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Turning Point: On Jan. 31, Britain formally left the European Union after nearly 50 years as a member.

Four years after the Brexit referendum, do we yet understand the meaning of this pleasing portmanteau? The exit of Britain from the European Union, which finally occurred on Jan. 31 of this year, has been characterized as a backward lurch into nationalism, a Luddite assault on the progressive dream of globalism. How, then, are we to regard the ideals of centralization and federalism when the world has been altered forever by the coronavirus — a truly global force, somehow both arcane and futuristic, universal and microbial?

The cultural fissures that the 2016 referendum exposed were briefly healed when the Covid fog rolled in earlier this year. In the face of this threat, the N.H.S. — Britain’s (get this) free National Health Service — became a de facto matriarchal idol, signifying a newfound national unity with all the regal femininity of Queen Victoria or either of the Elizabeths. In what may have seemed like some sort of twee Orwellian ritual, people started gathering on their doorsteps and balconies every Thursday at 8 p.m. to applaud the nation’s health workers in an untethered, bizarre but well-intentioned show of solidarity.

These displays of mawkish pomp subsided when it was discovered in May that Dominic Cummings — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “red right-hand” man and a chief architect of the “Vote Leave” campaign — had recently visited his family’s farm (and, stranger still, a castle) hundreds of miles away in Northern England when both he and his wife were sick with Covid-19. At the time of the couple’s drive north from London in late March, most of the British public was observing the nation’s strict quarantine rules with religious dedication.

In response to these revelations, the old virus of Brexit polemicism resurfaced with newly mutated vigor: Among Remain voters, condemnation of Mr. Cummings was an issue of national importance; Leave voters were less concerned. One thing we all agreed on was that we wouldn’t be taking the lockdown rules seriously anymore.

“Geography is destiny,” as Napoleon, Britain’s old archnemesis, supposedly said. And indeed, one thing that’s difficult to ignore about Britain is that it’s an island. Since the nation isn’t physically connected to mainland Europe, any connection to the Continent can only be conceptual. And those connections have often been a bit strained. It took a long time to move forward with the idea for an underwater tunnel between England and France; and once construction on the Channel Tunnel finally started in the late 1980s, the project was beset by difficulties that it’s easy now to see as manifestations of an unconscious wish to preserve the natural moat that divides the two nations, nurtured in mutual enmity.

Opposition to external European power is a recurrent theme in British mythology, with all its sieges, invasions, noble defeats and begrudging collaborations. Internal national conflict, on the other hand, has been historically sublimated by our effective and restrictive class system. The British, as a people, have not for a long time turned on one another with such contempt and ferocity as they have during the Brexit drama. Sure, King Charles I was beheaded back in 1649, but that was only a bit of fun; we restored his son to the throne 11 years later, and, being British, probably apologized unreservedly for the inconvenience.

We don’t generally “do” revolutions, and if we do, they certainly don’t radically redistribute power — they cement it. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 ended in the beheading of its leader; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did little more than grant power to foreign aristocrats who believed in Jesus in a slightly different way than the domestic ones; and the Industrial Revolution merely mechanized the exploitation of the working class. Our stratified culture keeps us in our boxes. While, on its face, the Brexit referendum offered voters a simple binary choice of either leaving or remaining within the European Union, in reality it came to be seen as something much more: an opportunity to either vote for the establishment or give it two fingers.

This rather unsophisticated reading of the troubling referendum was made easier by the prior dismantling of real political representation for ordinary British people, notably through the repositioning of the Labour Party in the 1990s as a kind of neoliberal, establishment-lite party under Tony Blair. During this time the purpose of the British left migrated from the pursuit of economic equality for the working class to a kind of performative, hollow optimism that masked an ideological capitulation to economic conservatism.

My belief is that, in the wake of this betrayal, a nostalgic yearning for fairness among working people led to a resurgent nationalism — and ultimately support for Brexit. The parties founded to represent working people were inviting them to discard the flags and icons of Britishness that had been historically mobilized (however cynically) to inspire their sacrifice, which is in part why the Remain campaign failed. Labour’s focus on cultural rather than economic equality meant there was nowhere for the working class to go but into the arms of the Brexiteers.

As a product of blue-collar Britain myself, I don’t believe these people are bigoted or backward, as they’re commonly rendered by the institutions that demonize them. I feel they just know that they’ve been stabbed in the back. Given that politics is now largely about opinions — things you say rather than things you do — the emergence of global online communication platforms has provided a glorious digital brewery in which discontent and division can hideously ferment. Judgment, vehemence and loathing can be calmly dispatched in cold and solitary certainty.

This pandemic, along with the emergent social fragmentation of which post-Brexit Britain is a stark example, reveals that we can no longer live in centralized systems that seek only to protect hierarchies and serve those at their summits, whether they happen to be grotesquely populist or liberal-technocratic in nature. Both are harbingers of the necessity for real political alternatives and real change, not the phatic superficial gestures afforded by bipartisan democracy.

Perhaps even before the virus, before Brexit, we had all been quarantined in our own naked individualism — an isolation far more toxic. There we were, incarcerated and alone inside the penitentiary of our temporal identities with no faith or care for anything other than the fleeting fulfillment of our wayward wants. This is the divide that British people have to reach across for there ever to be any real sense of unity among us. Ultimately, it is the island of self that we must either leave or remain trapped within.

Russell Brand, a comedian and actor, is the author of Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions and the host of a weekly podcast, Under the Skin.

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