James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
The Euist attempt to summon a Remain majority out of the British electorate failed because it treated them, respect- fully enough, as no more or less than individuals with beliefs who applied them to circumstances and reached conclusions. The Brexiteers succeeded because they shared the dream- vision of enough of the voters to offer a story that fitted right onto their map provided by their psyche. They found a ready- made myth. That myth was the myth of St George.
Myth is a story that can be retold by anyone, with infinite variation, and still be recognisable as itself. The outline of surviving myth is re-recognised in the lives of each generation. It’s an instrument by which people simplify, rationalise and retell social complexities. It’s a means to haul the abstract, the global and the relative into the realm of the concrete, the local and the absolute. It’s a way to lay claim to faith in certain values. If those who attempt to interpret the world do so only through the prism of professional thinkers, and ignore the persistence of myth in everyday thought and speech, the interpretations will be deficient.
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.
Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.
The vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union was sold to the electorate as a St George moment, a swordthrust in the dragon’s heart that would end the suffering of all good people. In Nigel Farage’s triumphant speech in the early hours of the morning when the referendum count was nearly complete, he concluded: ‘Let June the twenty-third go down in our history as our independence day!’ The phrasing and the cadence told you he wasn’t referencing India’s or America’s annual celebration of their freedom from imperial Britain. How could he? He was imitating the actor Bill Pullman in Independence Day, the blockbuster sci-fi movie of 1996.
In the film, Pullman, as the US president, is rallying a group of pilots about to launch a jet fighter attack on one of the gigantic alien spacecraft that have been attacking Earth. It happens to be the Fourth of July. He ends his speech on behalf of humankind, with the music swelling: ‘Today, we celebrate our independence day!’ The fact that hundreds of millions of people have been killed, much of the world’s infrastructure is destroyed and the globe ends up littered with the city-sized, presumably toxic hulks of downed alien spacecraft is detail; the dragon has been slain. Humankind can sort the rest out later.
So it was with Farage and his fellow Brexiteers. The ‘how’ of Brexit, its unexamined effect on the intricate, fragile fabric of peace, regulation and exchange the British live in, was a simple job a few clever chaps from some ministry or other could sort out in a morning. A free trade deal between Britain and the EU ‘should be one of the easiest in human history’, as Farage’s fellow traveller Liam Fox put it in 2017. Security of food and medical supplies, the jobs of hundreds of thou- sands of people in the car industry, peace in Ireland, staffing the health service – this was bureaucratic nitpicking. Because the only consequence of killing the dragon that matters is that the dragon is slain.
Likewise the necessity of dragon-killing is so urgent as to override any moral test for the methods used to carry it out. The murder of the Remainer MP Jo Cox during the campaign by a British nationalist terrorist – as well as being stabbed fifteen times she was shot in the head, chest and hand – concerned Farage so little that he said in his victory speech the vote had been won ‘without a single bullet being fired’. Nor did it matter that the Leave campaign’s successful strategy to sway undecided voters was based on fear, hatred and lies, backed by an enormous (for Britain) and uncertainly sourced donation of £8.4 million from the insurance salesman Arron Banks, who stood at Farage’s shoulder when his mucker addressed the cameras on referendum night. Lies were precision-targeted to British voters through a £2.7 million deal with Facebook, immediately dividing the electorate into two groups: one that was being lied to and one that wasn’t, and didn’t know the other was.
For every political St George event there has to be a designated dragon. In order to parse Brexit as a St George event, Brexiteers had to portray their target – variously the European Commission, any one or combination of European countries/leaders, immigrants, even Britons who wanted to stay in the EU – not merely as political opponents but as actively malign forces who desired to do harm to Britain, either to line their own pockets or just for the sake of it.
‘THE EUROPEAN UNION WANTS TO KILL OUR CUPPA,’ ran one of the Facebook ads. The startling thing about this isn’t so much that, in reality, neither the European Commission nor any member state can or would stop British people drinking tea (the lie had its basis in an unrealised EU proposal to ban the most power-hungry category of kettle as an anti–climate change measure). It’s the violence of the language, the attempt to whip up fear and hatred of a pitiless alien force that won’t listen to reason, that has no concern with national tradition or culture: the idea that Brussels wants to shoot the English cuppa just to watch it die. The ad was illustrated by a picture of a teacup with a Union Jack– tagged teabag nestled in a bouquet of patriotic souvenirs – a red double-decker bus, an old-fashioned black cab, an old- fashioned red phone box, a Big Ben. Threatening this potpourri of Englishness was a clenched fist, blue like the European flag, tattooed with a ring of yellow European stars.
The Brexiteer strategy was successful, and not only in winning the vote. (While the massive targeted drop of Facebook ads late in the campaign may have clinched victory for the Leave camp, the overall composition of the Leave vote was diverse. For some it was a vote against immigration; for some, a vote against an unaccountable authority; for others, particularly on the left, a vote against the economic effects of globalisation.) What the Brexiteer demonisation of the EU also did very effectively was to concentrate attention on the moment of the vote itself and the immediate events around it. It didn’t matter whether you believed Britain was trying to slay a dragon, or that a band of reckless liars was duping the country into thinking there was a dragon to be slain. Whether you deemed it a real St George event or a fake one, either moment was absorbing, horrific, dramatic.
The seemingly contradictory cries of ‘We killed the dragon!’ and ‘You lied, there was no dragon!’ were closer than they appeared. The pivot around which each turned was the same: myth creation. The Brexiteers asserted that the myth had been enacted. The Remainers denied the myth. This made it an argument about myth, and here, the Brexiteers were on stronger ground. The Brexiteers found a real set of circumstances, and misapplied a popular, off-the- shelf folk myth to it. By simply rejecting the Brexiteer myth, without offering another, better myth, the Remainers appeared to deny the underlying changes. ‘Look,’ said the Leave voter to the Remainer. ‘Look at the abandoned coal mines, the demolished factories, the empty fishing harbours. Look at the old people lying sick on trolleys in hospital corridors and how there aren’t enough school places to go round and how you can’t afford a roof over your head. Look at my debts. Look at the kind of low-wage work that’s all that’s left. Look at the decent jobs that have gone abroad. Look at the foreign workers we have to compete with, where did they come from? Who are all these strangers? Look at the state of this town. Smell the burning. Look at the claw marks. Doesn’t it look to you like a dragon was here? If it wasn’t the EU, what was it? Go on, what was it?’ The Remainer struggled to reply.
One of the strangest of the Facebook ads funded by Brexiteers declared, ‘The EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears!’ The claim seemed to relate to an episode in 2013 when EU member governments were trying to come up with a common position on an international move to ban the world trade in polar bear skin, paws and teeth. Most EU countries, including Britain, were in favour of the ban. Denmark was against. In the end, the European Commission persuaded the EU states in favour of a ban to abstain, the proposal was defeated, and the trade in bear parts continued.
Naturally the Brexiteers wanted to emphasise the wicked- ness of the EU by portraying the bloc as a bear-murdering police state, and assumed voters wouldn’t look too closely at the details. The reason Denmark was against a ban was to support the Inuit hunters of its autonomous dominion Greenland, who every year kill a maximum of 156 polar bears, feeding their families with the meat and making clothes and ornaments from the skin, paws and teeth. The grounds for a ban are that the polar bear is endangered by overhunting and by climate change, a case disputed by the Greenlanders, who cite ancient tradition and culture, the centrality of the bear in Inuit cosmology and gastronomy, in support of continued hunting.
On the face of it the real story is toxic to the Brexit cause. Far from showing the EU as the Brexiteers like to portray it – as a monolithic bureaucracy ruthlessly crushing national nonconformity, paying no heed to cultural difference and local sovereignty – it reveals the EU as agonisingly cautious in its deliberations, clumsily trying to please everyone, aiming to do the right thing and, in the end, trying to protect the ancient traditions of the Inuit hunters against the big, politically correct, liberal-infested, tree-hugging nations of Europe. The polar bear–hunting Inuit of Greenland are essentially individualistic shire Tories, proud and fond of their land and their traditions, lovers of meat, guns, petrol and manliness. They are local conservatives who feel they have a right to be considered part of nature, opposed to global conservationists who feel humankind has irreparably broken its covenant with nature. Without the heft of the EU on their side, there is every chance global sympathy with the polar bears would have crushed the Greenlander preference. One reasonable interpretation of the real story of the EU and the Greenland polar bears is that the best chance for individual peoples and countries to protect their interests in a world of international agreements is a limited surrender of freedom of action in exchange for security in numbers.*
Those who would see in the polar bear story a chance to ridicule the Brexiteers miss the point, however. It may not seem to make sense to invoke the EU’s defence of a relatively poor, relatively powerless, environmentally incorrect minority to show that the EU represses dissent. But in terms of Brexit as myth, as a St George moment, it does. If your starting point is them and us, the familiar versus the other, the townsfolk versus the dragon, the earthlings versus the aliens, all that’s required is to identify non-English-speaking foreigners doing things that can be portrayed as un-English – like killing polar bears – blame it on the EU, and begin storytelling. Abstract principles such as the right to cultural self- determination for minority peoples are there to lend lustre to your defence of your own people, not to help you identify he complaints of your people with the complaints of others, because that’s what they are: others.
The Brexiteers’ opponents, the pro-EU ideologues of the Remain camp, don’t have that mythic simplification to fall back on. They see themselves, in general, as rational, enlightened people, aspiring to a morality that is universal. They are liberals. They endorse the principle of the right to cultural self-determination not just for the native English, but for all peoples. At the same time they support other abstract, universal principles – women’s rights, sexual minority rights, ethnic minority rights, animal rights, children’s rights, the primacy of environmental protection, migrant rights, equal opportunities, education for all, democracy, free trade, free movement of people, free movement of capital.
The two idealistic strands are deeply contradictory. A belief in the imperative to conserve the traditional, authentic and distinctive in local cultures clashes with an equally fervent promotion of universal rights and freedoms. This is the liberal bourgeois dilemma. Unlike their traditionalist counterparts, such as the Brexiteers, they lack a myth to smooth over a contradiction – in the liberals’ case, the irreconcilable desire for both universality and particularity. Save the hunters, for local heritage; save the bears, for the world. Where is the myth that can encompass this?
British liberals both supported large-scale coal mining as the enabler of traditional, authentic, working-class communities, and abominated it as global warming’s lead culprit. Only an accident of history allowed these sentiments to be consecutive, rather than concurrent. Liberals prize the authentically local, the person or product or way of being that is truly, traditionally, of place; they are sad and angry when that authenticity is cheapened, commercialised, tainted by globalism, even though their own restless, flocking quest for local authenticity in multiple locations each year contributes to the very globalism that torments them.
And there are consequences. At the libertarian, neoliberal end of liberalism, there are occasional personal shocks for those whose wealth usually allows them to keep the contra- dictions at a distance. A friend who prospered as a fund manager in London stepped back from finance and became involved in a worthy British charity helping to empower young people. On her way to a meeting of the organisation in a northern English town, the taxi driver began telling her of its economic woes, and she realised the multinational responsible for hurting the people she was trying to help was one of the companies she’d invested her clients’ money in.
At the communitarian end – the part of the liberal spectrum where I like to think I reside – there’s a tendency to assume ‘good’ localism (the ideal of the ‘thriving local community’, locally sourced food, preservation of vernacular local architecture and the traditional local landscape) can be neatly separated from ‘bad’ localism (hostility to immigrants and new ways of doing things). It can’t. While writing the chapter later in this book about the closure of a Cadbury factory in the west of England, I was pleased to find there was still one small family chocolatier left in Bristol, producing chocolates by hand in an old atelier in the city centre. My heart sank when the artisan patriarch launched into a tirade about how most of the children born at the local maternity hospital were born to foreigners. I liked his localism, until suddenly I didn’t.
In 2005 Andy Beckett wrote about the then novel middle- class English fashion for Englishness – ‘the feverish popularity of beach huts, and of knobbly local potatoes at farmers’ markets, the rebranding of fish and chips and sausages and mash as restaurant dishes, the transformation of peeling old resorts such as Whitstable and Hastings into locations for second homes and fashion shoots, even the status of the name Jack.’ He went on:
The current taste for English things, it is hard not to notice, has happened at the same time as the rise of Euroscepticism, and the emergence to national prominence of Ukip and the British National Party. The new sellers of Englishness seem to be a gentler kind of nationalist . . . but they do sometimes seem to be fighting the same sort of rearguard action.
The trickiest contradiction in the Remainer-liberal view is the European Union itself. British liberals like to see support for remaining in the EU as a marker, of and by itself, of good universal values: openness, receptiveness to other cultures and ideas, freedom for people to move and work in different places, widely pooled security. Indeed, Britain in the EU does approach these values more nearly than Britain on its own. But they aren’t applied universally. Britain, on its own, is an exclusionary, overwhelmingly white, post-Christian society; Britain in the EU is part of a larger, overwhelmingly white, post-Christian society that still excludes fourteen out of fifteen of the world’s population from freely moving, living or working there.
In the wake of the Brexit vote a number of EU citizens living in Britain have had horrible experiences with the immigration authorities. But the experiences of the Windrush generation, people who have lived in Britain for decades and find themselves officially persecuted, in some cases forcibly expelled to countries they were brought from as children, happened while Britain was still in the EU. As I write this, two hundred people a month are dying in the attempt to illegally cross the EU’s closed external borders.
Most Remainers I know feel it’s a strong enough stance on openness to be firm in their insistence on free movement within Europe, firm on the rights of migrants and refugees, and vague on the ideal degree of permeability of the external borders of the jurisdiction in which they live. There aren’t many takers for absolute global freedom of movement. But to spell out the exact nature and justification of the consequent limits to absolute freedom provokes in liberals a fear of infection with the disease of racial exclusivity. The shudders that greeted Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ comment, or Jeremy Corbyn’s complaint of ‘whole- sale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe’, are proof enough.
To the extent that there is a Remainer folk myth, it only underlines these liberal contradictions. One of the oddities of Britain’s new division is that the tags are the wrong way round: Leavers are really Remainers, in the sense they’re the ones who want to stay in an idealised version of a more ‘traditional’ Britain – they wish things had remained as they were, whenever that was; and Remainers are actually Leavers. They are, in principle, those most ready to embrace the new, to welcome strangers and change, to travel far from home to seek their fortunes. If there is a Remainer myth it is a meritocratic one, the fairy story trope of the youngest child who boldly goes away from their humble birthplace and, through some combination of innate virtues and the basic decency of the world, is rewarded. It’s ‘Puss in Boots’; it’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’; it’s Billy Elliot.
The problem with this as a cathartic, organising, explaining myth is that it is divisive, rather than unifying. In the St George myth, all the people (in Brexiteer parlance, ‘real’ people, ‘decent’ people, ‘ordinary’ people) are together in the town, while all the evil that troubles them resides in the dragon. In the youngest child myth, people are divided between those who go away, the heroes and heroines, and those who are left behind.
The going-away is not only literal, but conceptual. It is a journey not only in space, in wealth and class, but in education. If the goers-away ever return to the left-behind, they come as visitors, never simply to be. The poor woodcutter’s youngest son who goes to the city or marries the king’s daughter can never afterwards inherit woodcutting poverty. Billy Elliot, the younger son of a coal miner, becomes a ballet dancer. I wonder if even former miners are ready for a fairy story about the son of a ballet dancer who is determined, against the odds, to prove he can pull on overalls and spend the working week underground hewing coal.
The polarisation of British society signified by, and deepened by, the referendum is real, but that doesn’t mean Remain and Leave voters were living in two different countries, or were completely insensitive to each other’s preoccupations. The idea that Remain voters were winners who only cared about themselves and Leave voters were losers screaming for help is simplistic. Yes, the Brexiteers seized the chance to portray the vote as a St George moment, and yes, the Euists had no comparable narrative to offer in opposition. But if, accordingly, the Euists seemed to be denying the existence of the damage the country is suffering – the damage the Brexiteers blamed on the EU dragon – that’s not true of most Remain voters.
The damage is twofold: economic and cultural. Economically, high-status non-graduate jobs with good pay and conditions have been replaced by low-status jobs with bad pay and conditions; housing has become scarcer and more expensive; taxpayer-funded public services like health, education, police and the criminal justice system have got worse; and privatised user-funded public services like water and energy have increased in cost to the benefit of their mainly overseas owners. Culturally, the distinctiveness of place is being erased by a creeping uniformity whose paradoxical hall- mark is a shallow diversity. In a narrow sense the blame for these ills is distributed differently; one side blames immigration and the EU, the other, austerity and globalisation.
Both halves of the electorate, then, are dismayed by the same phenomena – economic decay and corrosion of identity. To see a relationship between hostility to immigrants from far away (which shades into overt racism) and hostility to capitalists from far away is not to equate them, but to acknowledge the coincidence of mood. In the same way, the blaming of immigrants and the blaming of government spending cuts are two quite different responses to the strain on public services, but they meet at the heart of the problem, which is that British government spending is not increasing at the same pace as the population of Britain. Taking inflation and population into account, the British state now spends six per cent less on public services than it did in 2010 – an absolute cut that most affects the poorest and the oldest.
To say that Leave and Remain voters perceive the same symptoms of economic and cultural stress, and to argue that both sides are informed by their dreamings as much as by self-interest, is not to suggest their world views are very close together. There is something dark and troubling in the othering of the EU by the Brexiteers, in Leave voters’ acceptance of the referendum as a St George event, and it’s not just in heightened hostility towards immigrants and non-white Britons.
In Matthew Goodwin’s 2018 article he looks at poll results to see what Remain voters want in the coming years: more affordable housing, higher taxes on the rich, a higher mini- mum wage and the abolition of tuition fees. And Leavers? After securing Brexit itself, slashing immigration and cutting foreign aid, the top priority is higher defence spending. There is war in their dreaming. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the relationship between conscience and remembering, The Buried Giant, published the year before the referendum, has at its symbolic centre a dragon whose venomous breath erases memories. Those who seek to kill the beast present themselves as wanting to end an evil, but in fact desire the people of post-Arthurian Britain to disinter the buried memories of past wars in order to restart the cycle of ethnic and sectarian vengeance.
As Goodwin points out, the only place where Leavers and Remainers meet in political desires is on the need for higher spending on the National Health Service. And there is a gateway here for a Remainer myth, or at least a liberal one. The NHS is Britain’s great Robin Hood project, the taking from the rich (that is, taxing people according to how much they earn, with the rich giving most) to give to the poor (providing healthcare to everyone whether they can afford it or not).
As far as myths are concerned, Britain as a whole leans towards St George abroad, Robin Hood at home. That’s why the Second World War and its aftermath still loom so large in the nation’s psyche; it was both the ultimate St George event, the slaying of the Nazi dragon, and the ultimate Robin Hood event, the spur to the creation of the welfare state.
Whatever course the Brexit process now takes, the future for those who believe themselves tolerant and outward-looking, but who resist Britain’s economic and cultural corrosion, must be to project the Robin Hood myth outwards beyond Britain. The failed liberal slogan for the world that sounded so loudly in the afterclap of communism’s fall – ‘democracy and the free market’ – lacks the Hood kicker: democracy, trade, and fairly shared wealth.
The scale to measure the success of globalisation shouldn’t be how easily the wealthiest can suck rents from the majority and keep the proceeds through a combination of capital mobility, tax havens and wage suppression, by shuffling production, populations and profits from national jurisdiction to national jurisdiction. It should be by how far the world as a whole approaches a high baseline of shared security and prosperity, within which cultural distinctiveness can flourish – how far Indonesia or China or Egypt are reaching up to establish universal networks like education, healthcare, housing, water and energy supply, and whether Britain, the United States or Italy are levelling down. There’s a great deal of utopia in this notion, a vast amount of political work, and a horrifying cosmos of practical detail, and it might seem absurd to try to frame it, politically, in mythic terms, in terms of dreaming. But it is the very complexity of the problem, set against the expectations of millions of citizens in a genuine democracy, that demands a working narrative in a mythic key.
Whatever the lip service paid to free trade by the Brexiteers, the implied follow-through of a St George Brexit, for Leave voters, is Britain as a fortress against globalisation and immigration. Us against It. A Robin Hood Brexit sets as the terms of its openness a high standard of wealth-sharing at home and a correspondingly high standard of wealth-sharing to the countries it is most open to. A good first step towards this would be for Britain to stay in the EU. But starting from the wrong place doesn’t mean you can’t set out to where you want to go.
- this essay is an edited excerpt taken from Dreams of Leaving and Remaining by James Meek; a masterly portrait of an anxious, troubled nation. Out now.
The anatomy of Britain on the edge of Brexit, by Orwell Prize–winning journalist.
Since Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, the nation has been profoundly split: one side fantasizing that the referendum will never be acted upon, the other entrenched in questionable assumptions about reclaimed sovereignty and independence. Underlying the cleavage are primal myths, deeper histories, and political folk-legends. James Meek, “the George Orwell of our times,” goes in search of the stories and consequences arising out of a nation’s alienation from itself.
In Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, Meek meets farmers and fishermen intent on exiting the EU despite the loss of protections they will incur. He reports on a Cadbury’s factory shut down and moved to Poland in the name of free market economics, exploring the impact on the local community left behind. He charts how the NHS is coping with the twin burdens of austerity and an aging population.
Dreams of Leaving and Remaining is urgent reporting from one of Britain’s finest journalists. James Meek asks what we can recover from the debris of an old nation as we head towards new horizons, and what we must leave behind. There are no easy answers, and what he creates instead is a masterly portrait of an anxious, troubled nation.
Available for pre-order. This item will be available on February 23, 2021.