Is Brexit the apocalypse?
Brexiteers mock Remainer doom-mongers, but British nationalists have long made similar claims
A still from the satirical video, Brexit MeansTitanic
What does it mean – for both Leavers and Remainers – to invoke the apocalypse as a narrative to describe either a soft or any Brexit? Do those who use the end times as a metaphor, do so in order to promise a strong-armed saviour to “take back control”? Is Armageddon employed as a conceptual tool to present a group under attack, in order to direct violence at others? In August, the Guardian gave grave warnings of the cliff edge to come: “what future historians might well marvel at most is the way in which we came to regard Brexit almost as external, an irresistible, unstoppable force over which we have no control, like a natural disaster”. It is a sentiment that was echoed a few weeks later with tales of “a dystopian Blade Runner Brexit” – pleading for order to be restored: “[Theresa] May must seize control”.
The desire to “take back control” has become increasingly appealing to many Remainers since the referendum: activist Gina Miller told the Liberal Democrat conference that those who wanted to stay in the EU must “take back control of the irresponsibility that’s happening in our politics at the moment”. Remainers regularly turn to Titanic imagery to convey their dismay at the current state of affairs – such as cartoons of May in a sinking boat or about to go over a waterfall. We often use metaphors of drowning, flooding, or being out of depth to describe states of powerlessness. In a video that went viral earlier this year, Brexit Means Titanic, references to contemporary events are collaged over the 1997 film: the “£350 million for the NHS” bus hits the ship, Boris Johnson is depicted as a child being smuggled out on a life raft, Cameron gives his 2016 resignation speech: “I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination” – before the floodwaters break into his office, sending him to his death.
In another metaphorical move, a symbol of sterling falls into the water, and the hull becomes lit with the referendum’s outcome (48% v 52%) before snapping in half and collapsing into the sea. As life rafts sit in the gloom, May spouts platitudes about making a success of Brexit – to the alarm and dismay of her fellow passengers. In the closing scenes, Nigel Farage draws a nude Donald Trump, whose head has been superimposed onto a woman’s body. In order for it to work as a joke, the characterisation is homophobic: a negative portrayal of a man drawing another nude man. There is also clearly a gender politics going on, not least the representation of Johnson as a child and Trump as a woman. Historically both femininity and infancy have been used as metaphors to describe states of powerlessness, in opposition to the strong arms of a “sovereign” military male saviour figure.
Our society has long understood masculinity as a spectrum: those with too much or too little are seen as “unmanly” and unable to control themselves – it’s the figure in the middle that is imagined to be the only subject able to exert self-mastery and therefore must as a “benign” custodian for all those who supposedly cannot: women, effeminate men, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, non-humans, children. The unspoken implication haunting the video is the call for a saviour – perhaps, unlike Johnson and Trump, a “real man”. Caricatures of Johnson, like memes in which he appears in a phone-booth calling card (with the captions “Posh Chubby Adult Baby”, “putting the n in cuts”, and “wankers of the world”) – use effeminacy, childishness, and non-procreative sexuality as an insult.
Masculinity certainly seems to have emerged as a battleground for Brexit: in June, MP Nadine Dorries tweeted her support for the then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU: “David Davis is ex SAS. He’s [sic] trained to survive. He’s also trained to take people out.” In reply, someone photoshopped Davis’s face onto a military-themed DVD box set labelled David Davis: Ultimate Farce. The same month a member of the public called BBC radio show Any Answers, claiming “if we leave the European Union, we will be a small boy”. Twenty-four hours later the Guardian also drew on metaphors of masculinity to describe the prospect of a “Britain [in] decline into a sullen and impoverished island … like a divorced man drinking alone in a bedsit”. What is at stake in these accounts is the unspoken ideal that lurks in the background: the fantasy of military men as complete masters over themselves and others.
Brexiteers have certainly mocked Remainer apocalypticism, but perhaps one of the reasons why their efforts have gained such little traction is because British nationalists have long been making their own claims about Armageddon. Books like Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain (2008) or Joe Carter’s Titanic Britain (2016) have spent the decade since the 2007-08 financial crisis proclaiming the death of Britain due to the EU and immigration. In fact, the Brexit slogan to “take back control” was precisely the demand for a saviour in the midst of feeling the end is nigh. And the predictions of doom haven’t stopped: Leave.EU regularly tweets memes or cartoons portraying May as the killer of the Conservative Party or the UK itself. You just have to look at headlines in the Times to get a sense of how doom-laden and desperate for a hero many Conservative supporters feel: “There’s a hole in the centre made for a saviour”; “Our timid leaders can learn from strongmen”; “End of days feel in a [sic] Westminster crying out for strong leadership”.
Take the last account: the article opens with a description of an MP using a video of two armed men gunning down a passenger in a vehicle to proffer his support for a hard Brexit. MP Bernard Jenkins spelled out what may have been implicit in such a metaphor: exclaiming in the Sun that a “Brexit victory would be like winning the Falklands war”. His warnings of impending disaster tell of the terror of annihilation: “Surrender would destroy the Conservative Party … We cannot allow the EU to defeat the British people”. Somewhat similarly, writing in the Daily Telegraph in September, Johnson described Brexit negotiations as “a humiliation. We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500 lb gorilla.” It is a hallmark of militarism to paint those perceived to be the enemy as an animal, an aggressor, out of control and supposedly in need of some kind of male custodian to contain the threat (women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour have long been cast in similar terms).
Johnson’s rhetoric also takes an apocalyptic turn: describing the Irish backstop as “the origin of the disaster”, “a suicide vest wrapped around our constitution” and “a monstrosity that wipes out our sovereignty”. If Johnson’s argument is invested in the fantasy of military masculinity as completely self-sovereign – exerting total mastery over oneself and others – such a dream may be completely unachievable. And rather than a monster or a suicide vest, the Irish Border may in fact be a testament to the messy, interconnected, interdependent histories of the UK and the EU: we simply cannot eradicate the entanglements between “us” and “them”.
The lesson of the Northern Irish peace process may well be that completely obliterating those seen to be a threat is impossible – one cannot exert absolute control over one’s “enemies”; we have to co-exist and come to terms with the very limits of our desire for mastery. At the Conservative Party conference, Johnson’s speech proclaimed that Chequers was “not taking back control, it is forfeiting control” – while outside the venue Remain protesters held a funeral the next day, exclaiming: “we’ve now lost control”. Leavers and Remainers may both – in different ways, and for different reasons – be feeling powerless in response to Brexit negotiations, and using apocalyptic imagery to articulate their frustration at the process. But rather than call for a military male custodian to restore a sense of “order” – perhaps we can, and must, come to terms with being out of control in a rapidly changing world where the UK is no longer a major player on the global stage.
Edwin Coomasaru is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art, researching the gender politics of Brexit’s visual culture