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The strange performance art we call Brexit

The strange performance art we call Brexit
British Prime Minister Theresa May dances as she walks out onto the stage to deliver her leader's speech during the final day of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England on Oct. 3. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

My mother, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and emigrated from the U.S. to Britain in the late 1950s, used to distinguish the two societies in this way: “In the States,” she’d say, “they hate you because you’re black, a Jew or a woman. In England they hate you for yourself, and only incidentally because you happen to be black, a Jew or a woman.”

It’s this intrinsic sense of their own politeness and moral rectitude — they wouldn’t dream of being personally offensive but would rather join, insidiously, in the collective othering — that marks the English national character.

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Not that I believe any nationality has an objective character, but it’s certainly the case that English individuals, in common with their Americans and the French counterparts, like to behave in a manner they assume to be “English.”

And that’s probably the best way to explain this strange thing called Brexit. To paraphrase Karl Marx, it’s the consequence of a great flock of English individuals getting it into their woolly heads that this is the way to make history.

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It’s precisely because Brexit is a sort of performance — with all these people and their leaders pretending to be doughty Brits — that it’s so very hard to suspend disbelief in it. And if you can’t suspend disbelief in the show you’re watching, how can you figure how it’s going to turn out?

It’s this aspect of English moral superiority that makes the Brexiteers so much more dangerous than the anti-European Union movements in other countries.


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With less than six months to go until the most significant European-wide constitutional change since the eastward expansion of the European Union following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there’s absolutely no consensus on what will actually happen.

Every day all media are full of anxieties. If there’s a so-called “hard Brexit,” with no agreement on either immigration or trade, the doomsters foresee 20-mile tailbacks from the Channel ports and air passengers blocking up an already crowded Heathrow Airport. These would be immediate consequences. The long and lashing tail of such a Brexit could also, its opponents say, wreak havoc on an economy even now suffering losses some estimate as 500 million pounds ($657 million) a week due to the English people’s willful decision.

Earlier this month, the Conservative Party held its annual conference in Birmingham. But rather than seizing the opportunity to showcase bold new political initiatives that will allow a Britain unshackled from the sclerotic Brussels bureaucracy to fly freely and profitably, Prime Minister Theresa May cavorted onstage to the strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” before delivering a set of policy pronouncements predicated upon the most Panglossian possible economic forecast.

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This was a case of a gender-dysphoric dancing queen, for May is an emperor with no clothes whatsoever, held in power solely by negative energy of her would-be successor, the blond bombshell known as Boris Johnson, whose own little anachronistic act is especially contrived to convince Brits they can indeed go back to the future.

Of course, anyone who takes an interest in British politics has been witnessing the conflict between pro- and anti-European Conservatives since Christ stopped at Eboli (due to his being a stateless Middle Eastern migrant), but the important thing to stress is that Britain’s alliance with Europe was, is, and always will be profoundly divisive.

A Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath, took Britain into the European Economic Community, as it was called, in 1972, but when the Labour Party next gained power they called a referendum to decide on continued membership. That this was won by a substantial majority speaks more for inertia than conviction on the part of electorate.

Inasmuch as British pro-Europeans acted, in the subsequent decades, as a vector through which continental Europe infected these Isles, so they also carried the Anglo-American disease of unfettered neoliberalism into French and German economies. Oh, and British retirees bought up most of southwest France.

But despite the British middle classes’ determination to eat their way through most of continental European culture, while their children ricocheted around the continent on low cost airlines getting drunk one week in Krakow, stoned the next in Barcelona, and despite the superficial veneer of Europeanness metropolitan British cities now share with their counterparts over the Channel, the British heart has never really fallen into line with the British head.

At root, the British, and most especially the English, see themselves as intrinsically different from other Western Europeans, and the Second World War, the very ostensible reason for the move towards ever closer economic and political union, remains the reason. I have sat at dinner with prominent British public intellectuals within the past year — liberals, not Brexit supporters — and heard them dismiss the French as a nation of Nazi collaborators.

What they think of the Germans obviously doesn’t require much speculation. It’s this further aspect of English moral superiority that makes the Brexiteers so much more dangerous than the anti-European Union movements in other countries. Part of the performance of being British, and you could see this triumphantly on display in the post-Brexit blockbusters “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour,” is suspending disbelief in the idea that Britain alone was responsible for the defeat of Hitler.

It’s this that gives the English — and such unionist Scots, Welsh and Irish who are prepared to subordinate their own nationalist aspirations to their shtick — the necessary chutzpah to, as they put it, “punch above our weight” on the international stage.

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Unfortunately, as my mother could’ve told them if she were still in the land of the living, this is no kind of strategy at all, and if you punch above your weight, sooner or later someone will knock you flat on your ass. Or do I mean arse.

Will Self is a novelist and professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University in London.

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