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The Myths of Brexit

James Harpur

“Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ ...” These words were delivered in a speech to the Conservative Group for Europe by John Major, then British prime minister, in April 1993. They are remarkably similar in tone to Éamon de Valera’s 1943 radio address to the nation, in which he famously conjured up “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens …”

Both Major and de Valera wanted to reassure their audiences that their respective countries’ way of life and sense of identity were rock-solid, despite current crises. In Major’s case, it is ironic that his type of vision of Merrie England, aimed at pro-European Tories, could have ultimately lain behind the decision by a majority of Britons to vote Leave in the referendum this year. For the Brexit tug-of-war, I suggest, was less to do with practical issues such as immigration, single market, and contributions to the EU etc than with two potent archetypal myths, which lay like a vast iceberg beneath the tip of temporal concerns.

The first was the myth of the golden age, the fabled time in the distant past when people lived in peace and harmony with themselves and nature. It was first articulated in the West in the Theogony of Hesiod, who described a past time when people used to live like gods in a “golden age”, free from care and toil, forever feasting and enjoying the fruits of the Eden-like earth. Then, down the ages, they descended to the increasingly fractious silver, bronze, heroic and, last, iron age. The latter, we are told, was marked by war, children scorning their parents, and the just and the good being dishonoured. Naturally enough it is no surprise that every generation feels part of the iron age: it is the consequence of the human condition, as Adam and Eve found out after their Edexit. No more peace and harmony for them, but thorns and thistles and labour pains, until a return to dust. The olden days always seem more blessed.

At times of war and other crises politicians reach for myth and poetry to stir, bind or reassure their nations. As Jung and his followers in particular have shown, myths are powerful precisely because they use images, not logic, and engage at a subliminal and collective level. They press emotional buttons and seize the imagination in a way that resists reason. The war-cry of UKIP and other Leavers was basically “We want our country back”, for which read any number of Vaseline-lensed versions of Major’s mythic Britain. How could a rational argument, such as the advantages of the single market, compete against something like “invincible green suburbs” or the delights of “warm beer”? And how could faceless European bureaucrats ever hold a candle to that mythical species “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion”?

John Major was only a more recent articulator of golden-age values. Some of the most memorable speeches ever written have drawn on variations of the same myth, connecting their audiences to a glorious national past. In about 430 BC, Pericles, commemorating the Athenian dead during the first year of the war with Sparta, stiffened his people’s resolve (so Thucydides tells us) by celebrating the past achievements of Athens, such as her institutions, her democracy, and the liberties her citizens enjoyed. Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, reminded his audience of how their “fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. And in his 1943 address, De Valera invoked the idealised past not only with “sturdy children” and “happy maidens” but by alluding to St Patrick, the “island of saints and scholars”, the Young Irelanders, the Gaelic League, and the Irish Volunteers. He even used the phrase “golden age of Irish civilisation”.

Of course the golden age is a fallacy – it is not the function of myth to present historical accuracy. Things were better and worse in the past. Yes, there was less pollution, no atomic bombs, no global warming, no factory farming, and people had a deeper relationship, perhaps, with the natural world. On the other hand, in early Victorian times there were more than two hundred capital offences; you could be hanged for poaching a rabbit, picking a pocket or stealing ribbons from a shop. And who would prefer attending a Victorian school to a modern one? Who would have enjoyed being an eccentric herbalist in seventeenth-century Salem; or having an eye operation in medieval times, when the standard practice was phlebotomia cum coctura, cauterisation by burning?

Those Britons who believed their country’s destiny lay firmly in the EU took the wrong tack when they argued over practicalities. The only way to fight myth is with myth, and the Remainers failed to exploit a potent one of their own: the myth of the New Jerusalem, the idea that an ideal community is not a mirage of the past but something that can actually be constructed on earth. It’s a futurist myth, drawing its power from faith in human ingenuity, good will and determination. It lies behind Plato’s ideal republic and the utopian schemes of countless other dreamers, from Calvin’s puritan Geneva to Castro’s communist Cuba.

The European Union, with its mind-forged, rather than organically grown, institutions is the latest utopian’s dream. Congeries of politicians, lawyers, economists, scientists and civil servants are happily creating rules and initiatives to bind together the nations of Europe. And who would dare to doubt their benevolent goal? Their great mythic aim is that of the Second Coming: peace on earth (aka Europe) and good will to humankind, irrespective of nationality, creed, gender, age and social status; a true commonwealth founded on post-Christian, liberal values.

Yet, like the golden age, the New Jerusalem myth is fallacious too. Its chief flaw is its guiding motto: “If only.” We can create a just and equal society, a religiously tolerant society, a society in which people can travel and work freely between borders, and so on – if only we had just a few more regulations, perhaps another committee, more checks and balances, better communication with national citizens, better understanding by the media, and more money to pay for roads, bridges, tunnels, art centres and so on. If only.

Like golden agers, committed New Jerusalemites are too embedded in their myth to let snags, like the flawed nature of the human condition, stand in their way. They are driven on by their holistic vision of a dream society with its liberal, rational values – liberty, equality and fraternity. Whereas golden agers thrive on nostalgia and the conviction that the past is the template for a happy and successful society, the NJ project is fuelled by hope and held together by the glue of blinkered optimism.

Brexit was fought at a mythic level, and the golden age, with its appeal to the restoration of national identity, triumphed. But only just. The Remainers failed to paint their vision in mythic oils, preferring the pointillism of practical details. Other countries, for example France, could well be obliged to stage the same mythic tug of war in the near future. Indeed America has just had such a battle: the choice between Donald Trump’s backward-looking “making America great again” (subtext: it’s not “great” at the moment, so let’s return it to the state of its glorious past) or Hillary Clinton’s “vision for America”, which, as her website set out, looked to the future with detailed proposals to create a huge new mythical national family (“stronger together”).

Clinton’s reforms concerned disability rights, LGBT rights, the tax system, infrastructure, manufacturing, housing, national security, protecting wildlife, and many more. It was a bold, optimistic programme, but by rejoicing in detail Clinton sacrificed the myth, which thrives on broad, imaginative strokes. That’s why Trump won, against all the rational odds. Skimpy on myth-puncturing detail, he stirred people with a vision of a purist golden age, when corruption and elitism would be swept away and the apostolic piety and simplicity of the Founding Fathers would be returned. It’s a lesson for any power-seeking politician to absorb. It’s the myth, stupid.

1/2/2017

James Harpur is a poet living in West Cork. His latest book, Angels and Harvesters, was a PBS Recommendation and shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Prize. He is a member of Aosdána.

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