A Front Row Seat for Brexit

Yesterday after my class visited the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (including the museum inside this time, which is a fascinating exploration of the invention of modern time) and the Thames Tidal Barrier (more on this soon), we went to Westminster, hoping to see the march to and rally at the E.U. Commission London HQ by a contingent of pro-EU folks. There was no sign of them, alas, or of many Remainers at all, save for a guy in a Mini Cooper bedecked Scottish and EU flags who circled Parliament Square a few times with bagpipe music blaring, smiling as he absorbed a few “f*&$ off, you wanker!” comments/shouts.

But by and large the gathering did not have the air of menace and potential violence that a Trump rally often has. And really, “front row seat to Brexit” is quite an exaggeration: the number of Brexiteers there celebrating was quite small, at least by late afternoon–there were far more media (from around the world) and law enforcement and spectators. Based on photos in the media this morning, the crowd did swell some, but in London, at least, the main attitude toward this history-altering event was more resignation or mourning. Now the UK has 11 months to negotiate the terms of their departure. It seems probable that Scotland will agitate in earnest for another independence referendum, though the government in Westminster seems to hold most of the cards on that, at least for the short to medium term.

What troubles me most about what we saw were the uncanny similarities to Trumpism (and Orbanism and LePenism, etc.)–there was one fellow with a sign filled with opprobrium for “fake news” (not to mention an anti-Semitic attack on George Soros) on one side (see left) and a scurrilous attack on “Remoaners” on the other side branding them as “traitors” (yet another epithet being thrown around too loosely these days).

Like many of those with provocative signs or outlandish Union Jack-themed attire (or both), he was clearly angling for press attention, and as I watched two different people interviewed him, each time he obligingly ended with a pro-Brexit song (to the tune of “Jerusalem,” a song that evidently is becoming a kind of alternative national anthem–it was, in fact, striking how many English flags with the St. George’s cross there were, as though nationalistic reductionism has not yet run its course) and a smile.

The crowd was predominately, though not exclusively, older and white. And the anti-establishment triumphalism was palpable. The world has yet to figure out this very real (though amplified by the manipulative fantasies of persecution peddled by the LeFarges and Trumps of our historical moment) economic and social division that defines politics in so many countries. Divisions that have, to some extent, always defined politics but which now seem to haunt civil society. It just seems that the exact same story only with a different accent is unfolding many places at once. There’s nothing original about this observation but it was interesting and not a little disturbing to see up close a different society’s fractures. It is also a bit chilling to see religious fundamentalism being mobilized alongside politics as some of the photos in the gallery below illustrate.

Churchill is rolling in his grave. “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy,” he told an audience at the University of Zurich in 1946 when Europe was still filled with the rubble of war and the costs of not recognizing interdependence were clear for all to see. His statue in Parliament Sq. seemed rather melancholy yesterday.

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