What, if anything, does magic have to do with Brexit? Why do Leavers and Remainers attack each other for supposed “magical thinking”, chasing “unicorns”, or “cult” membership? Since the 2016 referendum, commentators have claimed that a once scientific and rational electorate had given way to irrational behaviour. How might the occult, as a metaphor, play into, but also trouble, this narrative – and what might it say about the crisis that is currently engulfing the UK, and its position on the world stage? Britain, it is often said, has been reduced to a state of “tribalism” as we head into “uncharted waters”.
In June 2016, weeks before the vote on EU membership, the New Scientist proclaimed that "gut instinct will decide the most irrational referendum yet". A few days later, the Daily Telegraph warned that "British voters are succumbing to impulsive gut feelings and irrational reflexes in the Brexit campaign". A year on, the Guardian ran a headline proclaiming, "Cults, human sacrifice and pagan sex: how folk horror is flowering again in Brexit Britain", arguing that the UK was in the midst of "a three-way philosophical debate: between enlightened rationalism, orthodox Christianity and renewed paganism".
In the same newspaper, in the following months, journalist Deborah Orr confessed that her view of Britain had changed: “I used to think people made rational decisions. But now I know I was wrong … essentially, we are all slaves to our feelings and emotions. The trick is to realise this, and be sure to guard against it.” Unconscious references to the British empire – like “slavery” – seem to crop up time and time in the Brexit discourse.
In a cartoon by Peter Brookes, published in the Times in November 2017, Conservative MPs are depicted wearing headdresses, jewellery and clothing intended to look like the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island. The caption reads: "Explorer finds tribe cut off from the real world". Like Orr's use of slavery as a metaphor, Brookes draws on a fantasy of "primitive" peoples disconnected from reality to criticise Brexiteers.
By mid-2018, BBC News ran a headline warning of a “Tarot revival thanks to Brexit” – featuring an interview with designer Tina Gong, who argued that “Tarot is to reclaim that control when we feel we lack it”. “The witch,” Gong explained, “symbolizes everyone that has been an ‘other’ and that has no place or control in the world, such as women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community … [Reading tarot] is to take this otherness that was used to exclude us, to shame us, and celebrate it instead”.
It is clear that there is quite a complex politics at play in the way the occult is thought about in Brexit Britain – from the reclaiming of witchcraft imagery by fourth-wave feminism, to its implication in metaphors of being a “slave” to emotion, irrational and out-of-control. The latter belongs to an imaginative worldview the British empire was built on: the idea that those who apparently exhibit self-control must act as custodians for all those who supposedly cannot. Does this fantasy still haunt today, or has it run into trouble as the UK’s influence and importance is so obviously waning?
Last year, artist collective Project O (Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small) produced a video artwork that navigated these questions. Saved (2018), on display at London's Somerset House from September 2018 to January 2019, depicted two women of colour in swimwear and what looked like loose robes made of plastic performing magical rituals in a post-apocalyptic liquid landscape.
Does the artwork deliberately stage racist ideas of “barbaric” or “tribal” primitivism that cropped up in Brookes’ cartoon? Or – as Gong claimed – is the engagement with occultism by women of colour an attempt to “reclaim control” by celebrating what once was the source of shame? Could both be going on at the same time, and if so, what does it mean for the imagined binary between scientific Enlightenment “rationality” – itself absolutely implicated in the historical project of European colonialism – and the idea of magical, irrational, out-of-control subjects claimed to be in need of a (white) custodian?
Published in November, Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry featured a number of contributions by people of colour – whose verse was framed through the language of magic. At the same time, Leavers and Remainers were increasingly using the occult as an insult to describe those on the other side of the referendum or UK/EU divide: describing them as hosting "diabolical" and "dark forces" – "false prophets" making deals with the "devil" or subject to "demonic possession". Brexit itself has been described as "unleashing demons", and journalists have joked that "the level of parliamentary esoterica is now set to critical" – part of "the surreal state of Britain as it contemplates an uncertain future".
A month after Project O’s exhibition opened, a Leave voter told Sky News: “Let’s get back to being a British Empire again”. Exhibiting a similar sense of entitlement, a former head of MI6 warned that Brexit would “will make Britain less influential on the world stage”. Throughout the EU negotiations, both Leavers and Remainers have demanded that the UK should be a “rule-maker” not a “rule-taker” – the latter position recently described by Leave MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as a “slave state”.
Given Somerset House’s history as the headquarters for the British Navy from 1789-1873 – a building whose architecture exudes both a sense of classical order and, amongst all the sea and river motifs, features many mythical mermen creatures – could the exhibition of Saved at such a specific site be an attempt to highlight and challenge the very logic at the heart of the British empire: the division of some into rulers and others ruled? With antique glass vessels and minerals, the characters are both agents of the magical rituals they perform – and yet in the moments where they would violently flail, they also felt out of control.
In the video, the figures would twist and turn – their bodies caught in glitching loop cycles, fragmenting their form into distorted and out-of-joint strips across the screen – like traumatic replays of past violence, trapped in time. A hypnotic soundtrack pounded through Somerset House’s high arched ceilings: pulsating somewhere between a pied piper tune and a military parade march, with unsettling occult undertones and a profound sense of deep pain. Some of these bodily gestures might have symbolised the struggling limbs of drowning bodies, perhaps a reference to the millions who died crossing the Atlantic Middle Passage or the thousands crossing the Mediterranean today.
The artwork speaks deeply to the pain and trauma of such supposed “custodianship” – and the resistance by people of colour to enslavement, mass murder, and systemic violence; including the attempted obliteration of many local belief systems by missionaries and colonial administrators. In doing so, Saved also undermines the rhetorical strategy that underpins whiteness as a collective norm: the saviour complex, the fantasy of taking care of those who supposedly cannot themselves.
Saved puts pressure on this very fantasy, precisely at a point in time when Brexit has articulated and further exacerbated a crisis about Britain’s place in the world. In January, BBC News ran a series of TV interviews with members of the public: the reporter described “a strong sense that we are all at sea”. An interviewee chipped in: “I would like us to be a great nation out of the EU, like we used to be” – but another dissented: “The expectation that we will return to times of empire, that ship has sailed and it is all over”.
Although the British empire began to break up a century ago, the way it has been deeply internalised by many British people is clearly in the throes of a profound crisis – amongst both Leavers and Remainers, who feel the loss of their version of the UK. But in Saved, Britannia is no longer ruling the waves: all that is left is a post-apocalyptic watery wasteland, in the very heart of what was once the centre of British naval power. What might the artwork tell us about the demand, made across the referendum divide since 2016, that we “take back control”?
Magic and the occult may have become a metaphor to articulate fears, held by Leavers and Remainers, of a “civilised” Britain becoming a “slave state” or “slaves” to emotion. At the bottom of this fear is an anxiety about the waning influence of a conceptual binary that strove to justify British imperialism and the UK’s subsequent foreign and domestic policy: people are either “rule-takers” or “rule-makers”, either in control of themselves or in need of custodianship.
Perhaps now we are presented with an opportunity to rethink this entire imaginative worldview. The UK will have to face its diminished status on the world stage: its loss of importance, power, influence, sense of mastery. It will have to come to terms with being interdependent with its neighbours – and the British people will have to also come to terms with the sense of powerlessness they now face. Perhaps it is through the very prism of articulating our anxieties about feeling out of control – the occult – that we can also glimpse an image of ourselves no longer ruling the waves.
Dr Edwin Coomasaru is a postdoctoral fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, researching the gender politics of Brexit’s art and visual culture