An Irish outsider in Brexitland

Poet Gerald Dawe, visiting Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, looks at Brexit debate with George Orwell in mind

This is about what it looks like as an outsider temporarily living in what will eventually be Brexitland. I’d also like to register my responses to what happened, and is happening, between the referendum decision of last summer and roughly how things look today.

This is a gathering of anecdotes and impressions which record my own struggle to find some kind of intellectual bearing on where Britain presently “is” as a culture; a culture which heavily influenced my own educational and moral upbringing in postwar Belfast of the 1950s and ’60s.

That I spent a good bit of time during the late 1980s, 1990s and early years of this century in various parts of Europe, giving poetry readings and lectures and attending conferences including in the former "east" European countries, and that as an Irish citizen I am and will remain, as my passport says in Irish, part of "An tAontas Eorpach" – a member of the European Union – all this will strongly influence what follows. I'll also be drawing attention to the critical presence of George Orwell and in particular one of his greatest essays, Politics and the English Language, written more than 70 years ago and published in 1946, as Britain was stabilising itself after the wreckage of the second World War and facing into questioning realignments with leading world powers including the US and, of course, the Soviet Union. The "present political chaos", he wrote back then, "is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end" .

There is little point in rehearsing the specific arguments of the Brexit debate here. Suffice to say that on any level of detail they have melted into the abstract and, as Orwell remarks: “no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”. Language, as he asserted, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.


As Dennis Kennedy, former deputy editor of The Irish Times stated recently, “to keep repeating ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘The people have spoken’ when we still have no clear idea of what it will really mean, is inane and irresponsible”. Indeed the fact that we have only now been given some kind of an idea on the strategy to extricate Britain from its almost half-century within the European community makes it all the more baffling to note the democratic passivity that has followed in the wake of the referendum recommendation.

What strikes me most forcibly, however, has been the continuing tone of the discussions.

The noxious quality of so much that was said in the media is now merging more and more into the fabric of mainstream public discourse in a fashion that is unimaginable to one who has witnessed the so-called “populism” at first hand in the bigoted language that fuelled much of the Northern Irish conflict.

There is nothing “funny” about Farage and his side-kicks who remind me so much of the sectarian bully-boys of the past. To pretend otherwise, as David Cameron did, that these people were in some way “beneath him”, was a fatal error which led indirectly to Cameron’s failure in the referendum gamble. It also exposed the complacency and arrogance of those in England who thought they had the referendum in the bag.

They didn’t, as we know, because the lower orders were beavering away, with a class-based or class-inflected sense of grievance in their hearts, funded seriously by various business and political interests with their own targeted objectives, and not some ill-defined “cultural” vision of it being “better” being European. In not getting into this rough-house side of the debate Labour’s failure, or so it seems from the outside, was sealed.

But what catches me out more and more when I listen to the strident tones of the Leave faction now in government, is just how insecure they are about what they are actually doing.

It brings to mind the bluster of the Thatcherite Tory past of the 1980s and the disasters which befell ordinary folks from their blundering and incoherent, ideological decision-making, including the juvenile shadow-boxing and shape-throwing of anti-EC (as then was) posturing.

The infamous early rejection by Thatcher in 1983-4 of the New Ireland Forum and Garrett FitzGerald, the Irish prime minister’s proposals for Northern Ireland – “Out”, “Out”, “Out” – only to concede and shape and sign up for the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 comes to mind. The poll tax debacle of 1989-90 which led ultimately to her fall from power. The repeated denials of culpability surrounding Bloody Sunday. The dire failure of English diplomacy regarding the hunger strikes in 1980-81 which led directly to the revitalisation of the IRA campaign and another 15 years of shocking violence that disfigured Irish democracy.

Not much here to inspire one with confidence in the Tory party’s ability to negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag, never mind the complicated labyrinths of EU legislation and commercial relations of four decades. The question that was not asked, and has not been asked (possibly for patriotic reasons) is stark enough: which diplomatic or political initiative undertaken by a Conservative government in the period of EU membership offers outstanding proof of their collective ability to provide a positive outcome for post-Brexit England? Notwithstanding all the huff-and-puff of economic shackles being unbound, is there unimpeachable evidence that Britain will reclaim some Valhalla of economic prosperity denied to it by ill-disposed Brussels mandarins? Does anyone really, seriously believe this to be the case?

I have spent many years in the company of Europeans from all over the continent, from smaller countries to the leading and larger, who revere English literature and its cultural history; none are impressed by the egotism of some misfiring politicians or the grandstanding of zealots but that is the case with their own who act in this fashion throughout Europe.

There is a sense that Brexit, which has not happened yet, could enter into the lists of Tory disasters unless parliament doesn’t become much more active alongside the wider civil society. Certainly from an outsider’s point of view it appeared that Farage was the leader of a powerful body of opinion in Westminster and not the one-time leader of a party that boasts one MP!

The nasty language of racism and the voicing of religious prejudice that are now becoming authorised in part by this referendum is something that multicultural Britain has to challenge much more coherently. Incitement to hatred is incitement to hatred after all is said and done. Orwell again: “When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer…But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

It’s pointless merely referring to “waves of reaction” or “the rise of populism” spreading across Europe or in the US as some kind of automaton-like mantra. To “think clearly”, Orwell reminds us, “is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers”.

The Brexit row has done certain good if it has alerted people to what lies under the surface of this society but this awareness cannot be revoked from the outside. This brings me to a very curious point about the extent to which outside knowledge, advice and/or witness was not included in the run-up to and post Brexit discussions. The negativity surrounding the very terms Europe and European is noticeable to anyone less invested in the cultural stereotypes of England and the English. The coverage of BBC is a case in point. Nightly news stories referring to the European “refugee” crisis involving Syria, Afghanistan and other war-ravaged societies, overlooks the fact that this is a humanitarian disaster that has produced, though stretched to breaking point, the best of heroic efforts of both Greek and Italian medical and defence forces, aided by fellow EU countries such as Ireland. But somehow this is being seen as “their” (EU) problem.

Notwithstanding the tosh of June 23rd being a British Independence Day, the referendum did produce a curate’s egg of a result. Douglas Kennedy again: “in a Vote for leave, only 38% of ‘the people’ (the total electorate) voted to leave, with about 34% to remain. Does that in itself constitute a mandate for the biggest constitutional change in 43 years?’”Discuss!

Certain matters are clear all these months after the vote. “Following Brexit” as a phrase used in ongoing reference to Britain’s economic performance is wrong. Brexit hasn’t happened. A referendum on leaving the EU has taken place but the actual reality of Britain not being in the European Union has emphatically not impacted yet but the media and others continue to maintain the fiction that it has; but so what? Who really cares if the British union breaks up, leaving in its wake four relatively distinct nations to get on as best as they can with each other?

England will continue as England in some form or another. Its role on the world stage that some fantasise about – particularly the series of failed Tory leaders and/or previous (failed) contenders who are manning up the Brexit side – will be predicated upon the unfolding saga on the other side of the Atlantic and the drip-drip of further revelations about Russia’s revivified influence in English and North American politics, all in an effort to undermine the powerful democratic community of European nations.

You can play with that scenario in as many different ways as you like but what cannot be gainsaid is the absolute and clear failure of the English governing class to plan for post-referendum Britain. There was no Plan A; never mind a Plan B. Where this leaves the relatively undernourished issue of intellectual and cultural debate in British democracy is hard to know. Language and self-image in political life have merged into the corporate world of media to such an extent that even an abusive use as an electioneering poster of the dire plight of thousands of Syrian families escapes any legal or moral censure.

Outrage at such conduct does not work; nor irony, nor mockery. There is no shortcut but hard work on the ground and the implementation of strong and effective legal and legislative recourse to the courts to clear (at least from the public airwaves) the dog-whistling racism as much as the ranting. The fact that there are two sides (or more) to every negotiating table seems to have simply been erased from public discourse as if “England” is negotiating with itself and not the actual world out there. Soundbites and tweets may work for momentary visibility but real people pay at the other end if clearly-defined and practical options aren’t in place.

My gut feeling is that in the present climate and given the current anti-intellectual mood of the country, the promises being stored up for and by those who voted on an each-way bet that Brexit would give to post-industrial communities a sense of restored dignity and respect, is forlorn. The patronisingly-named “JAM” – just about managing – will not see one iota of improvement as a result of Brexit.

It has taken about 20 hard years for the northern peace process to take root and settle in since 1998. There are still tracts of unfulfilled, unfillable wishes and dreams of those who continue to harbour a desire for some kind of a political return to a past in which they imagined a simpler, changeless life and due comfort. That won’t happen, though the occasional spasms of division in Northern Ireland still produce mini-crises as we are now witnessing. As regards Britain, I can’t see where the political and diplomatic experience and intellectual energy are coming from in the present assembly at Westminster or who will provide real leadership for the generation to come, but I hope I’m wrong for all our sakes. On the other hand, things might just muddle along at first, at any rate. As I’ve referred to Orwell, let me finish these musings on an Orwellian riff and a nod in the direction of a dystopian prediction.

London will become the overall dominant city-state, with the rest of England and Wales substantially dependent upon its financial services for foreign capital and investment. Scotland will negotiate dual-citizenship with EU membership along with Northern Ireland, as increasingly more people follow the currently high volume of individual applications for Irish nationality (75,000 in the UK in the past six months; and a potential 2.1 million qualify!). Nothing much will have really changed, except for the fact that “Europe” can no longer be held responsible for any of the economic and/or political challenges and woes that the recalibrated Britain of England and Wales experience. Fond self-delusion of a reborn England striding upon the world stage will be the order of the day and every “major deal” struck will be heralded as a telling rebuff to the bad old days of the EU – but life will continue unaltered on the ground as NHS, rail and educational “crises” tumble along like the relentless captions on Sky News.

Twenty years from now, who can tell what will be the outcome of the referendum last June and whether anything seriously fundamental will have changed in British society for the good of all those who voted either to leave the EU or to remain. Remember Orwell’s injunction – “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”, which is more than enough to be going on with, in my book.

This is a shortened and edited version of a paper given to a Brexit and the Democratic Intellect seminar at Durham University