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Brexit tales of discontent: the revenge of Empire by Helen M. Hintjens

Nobody knows what happens after UK general elections on 12 December 2019: Brexit, a referendum on Irish unity, on Scottish independence, or a No-Deal exit from the EU?  In 1977, Tom Nairn in The Break up of Britain warned that during “extreme difficulties and contradictions, the prospect of break-down or being held forever in the gateway… may lead to… nationalist dementia for a society” (p. 349). The election taking place this week will decide whether the ghosts of imperial ancestors win the day, or whether younger generations can save the UK from its divided self.

Crisis? Which one?

Uncertainty over Brexit is wreaking havoc on the Brits. Those who want to remain in the EU are in despair; those who want to leave are angry. Most are sick of it. Britain’s collective mental health, already poor before Brexit, is worsening dramatically.


Illustration 1: anti-depressant prescriptions in England: another opioid crisis.

In 2012, the Jimmy Savile scandal erupted, resulting in a public crisis in confidence in the British establishment. The public enquiry under then-PM Teresa May into “Historic Child Sexual Abuse” involved serious charges against MPs, celebrities, and royals. The crisis recently resurfaced when Prince Andrew gave a BBC interview on his Epstein connection. He was soon forced to withdraw from UK public life. The Savile crisis is almost forgotten, yet in 2012, John Simpson in The Guardian called this “the worst crisis I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC”. Brexit is now the second “worst crisis in 50 years” in less than a decade.

Myths and lies

Some see the 2016 Referendum result as based on myths and lies. The language of war—betrayal, surrender—gained currency. More recently, the Labour Party accused Johnson  and his rich friends of planning a ‘Big Short’ on a No-Deal Brexit. Pro-Brexiteers accuse Remainers (termed ‘Remoaners’) of thwarting the “will of the British people”. Tory MPs who are pro-Remain have been thrown out of the Conservative Party. Support for Brexit remains in rural, small-town and post-industrial England, despite the dire warnings of Operation Yellowhammer [1]. In London, Bristol and Birmingham, and across Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority wants to Remain. Welsh opinion has moved towards Remain, or even Independence.


Illustration 2: Humour is essential

This joke sums up the dilemma for smaller UK countries: “An Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman go into a bar. The Englishman wants to leave, so they all have to leave”. Brexit humour abounds, and it helps a little, but only a little.

Macho English Nationalism

On Gender and Brexit, Aida Hozic and Jacqui True comment whilst “men took up 85% of the press space and 70% of television coverage”, during the Brexit campaign, “women [became]… visible as actors… to ‘clean-up’ the mess left by their male counterparts” (p. 276). Women and men voted similarly on Leave-Remain. Young people were notably more pro-Remain than their elders. Commenting in Third Text, Finlayson comments: “Farage’s Brexitism… opposes the small, ordinary, decent, local and familiar to the big, distant and untrustworthy”, showing a ‘little Englander’ mentality harking back to Empire. Pro-Brexit rhetoric centres on ‘guts’ and courage: “…phrases [that] invoke boyhood stories of wartime bravery against the odds and of standing up to boarding school bullies” (pp. 602-603), and tales of the Empire.


Illustration 3: Brexit and Dangerous Jingoism

Outdated imperial values are dangerous. Both racist and sexist, such values risk renewing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and UK-wide spike in hate crime since the Referendum leaves minorities fearing the future. And small-minded English nationalism merely intensifies Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh nationalism. The 12 December 2019 elections are crucial.

Algorithms and Rule by Nobody

In today’s networked age, algorithm-based ‘filter bubbles’ limit social media users’ suggested content to their existing comfort zone. Guardian investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr found that the Leave campaign defeated Remain by using such filtering algorithms effectively [2]. Causing suspicion of his motives, Boris Johnson recently refused to allow the publication of a parliamentary report on Russian social media interference in UK elections.

Pro-Brexiteers also frame Brexit as revolt against ‘faceless Brussels bureaucrats’, echoing Hannah Arendt’s ‘Rule by Nobody’. Yet EU neoliberalism could give way to UK financial deregulation, a danger with the UK constitution now collapsing. Abandoning compromise also means Britain could break into three or four national units. Sectarian and anti-minority violence would likely accompany this break-up.

End Thoughts

Nairn warned the Brits—especially the English—of the danger of rooting around in their imperial past for renewed nationalist identity symbols: “… once these well-springs have been tapped there is no real guarantee that the great forces released will be ‘controllable’” (p. 349). As minorities in the UK live in fear of the future, Brexiteers need constant reminding that words can be mortally dangerous. We are now in Karl Marx’s vision in The Eighteenth Brumaire where “[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living… [drawing]… from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history”. Rather than plunge back into its imperial past, and end up divided, it is hoped the UK electorate will vote to remain in the EU. The question now will be whether the EU will want us!

At a Research in Progress Seminar 12 December 2019 ‘BREXITLAND FAIRY TALES’, Helen Hintjens will elaborate on some of the points in this blog. 13.00-14.00, ISS. This happens to be on the same day as the UK national parliamentary elections!

[1] The latest Operation Yellowhammer document was released on 2 August 2019. It predicts shortages of medicine, “risk… panic buying… [which could] exacerbate food supply disruption”, “[u]rgent action… to ensure [continued] access to clean water”, “[the disruption of] [la]w enforcement data/information sharing UK-EU”, and “[p]rotests and counter-protests… across the UK” alongside “… a rise in public disorder and community tensions”.
In Northern Ireland “growth of the illegitimate economy” especially in cross-border areas“.
[2] https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/11/exclusive-dominic-cummingss-secret-links-to-russia/
Cadwalladr also in:  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/17/dark-money-democracy-billionaires-funding

Image Credit Main Photo: Williams Murray Hamm on Flickr


About the author:

Helen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice. She publishes on asylum policies and on post-genocide reconciliation in the African Great Lakes region, and Rwanda in particular.