The myth of plucky little England struggling to free itself from the yoke of Europe
Seán Moncrieff: Myth has been a huge driver in the Brexit catastrophe, barging its way past facts, history and common sense
A man interviewed by Sky News on his way into a Brexit Party meeting said he wanted Brexit at the end of this month so “we can get back to being the British empire”. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Isn’t Brexit supposed to be happen next week? Maybe not. So surreal have the last few years been that from day to day, minute to minute, it’s become impossible to predict what’s going to happen.
It feels like we’ve lost our collective capacity for surprise, for identifying the strange. It’s been beaten out of us. Everything is strange now; which means nothing is. It’s like going to the shops to get milk and returning home with a yak farm instead. And it’s happened a thousand times. I’ve brought home a set of solar panels, an AK47, tickets for the opera, a small mechanical digger, blood pressure tablets and a large spoon and each time I’m armed with a logical-sounding reason for having bought whatever it was. The house is full of junk, and there’s still no milk, but I’ve done it so much it now feels normal. No one in our house expects the milk to arrive.
Our experience of reality, our trust in it, is based on expectations. When you go to sit down, you trust that the seat you just saw is beneath your backside. If it suddenly disappears, it forces you to questions all the other assumptions you’ve made, which in turn exposes you to every other crazy possibility. What before you discounted as not being real, might actually exist.
It’s one of the ways stage mentalists work. By continually subverting expectations, they lead audiences to infer the possibility of extra sensory powers, of magic and myth.
Myth has been a huge driver in the Brexit catastrophe, barging its way past facts, history, compassion and common sense. This is the myth of plucky little England, struggling to free itself from the yoke of European oppression. Yet at the same time – because contradiction has no power here – it’s also the myth of Britannia, the world power. A man interviewed by Sky News on his way into a Brexit Party meeting said he wanted Brexit at the end of this month so “we can get back to being the British empire”. It’s the spirit of Dunkirk, conveniently forgetting that at Dunkirk, the Allied forces were running away.
It’s easy to sneer at the deluded Brexiteers – and given that this will hurt us as much as it hurts them, it is one of the few compensations we have. Yet the truth is that we all live within myths. As individuals, we have our origin stories and every country has its founding tale. Ireland’s is an uncomplicated line of resistance to British rule, where our heroes are virtuous, their leaders villainous. Everyone supported the push for independence, to create an Ireland completely scrubbed of all colonial influence.
Or at least that’s the story we used to tell ourselves. As we grew up as a country, we (mostly) came to accept that the push of history is far messier; and during the Troubles we witnessed how our founding myth could curdle.
The row over our relationship to Northern Ireland was about those different myths. We wanted to leave our old one behind so as to continue to create a new version of ourselves, while Britain – at least the Brexiteer part of it – wanted to resurrect a moribund myth of the imperial past. Post-colonial versus colonial: fundamentally contradictory and near impervious to creative ambiguity.
The only certainty we have now is further uncertainty – for us, and particularly for them. Brexit, I suspect, is only the start of a process for Britain. For some years, the French have been publicly ruminating on how they are no longer a world power. Britain has yet to have that conversation with itself. All we’ve seen so far are the beginnings of a massive identity crisis, an attempt to make time stand still, and perhaps the beginnings of a culture war. The fractures in British society are going to get much worse before they get better.