Brexit and Myths of Englishness

James Meek

Of the two folk-myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over; but St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, their problems disappear. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate. Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood-like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk-narrative of England to St George-like releases, often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English, or the non-British: the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966. The vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union was sold to the electorate and bought by many as a St George moment.

In his triumphant speech in the early hours of the morning when the referendum count was nearly complete, Nigel Farage concluded: ‘Let June the 23rd go down in our history as our independence day!’ The phrasing and the cadence told you that he wasn’t referring to India or America’s annual celebration of their freedom from imperial Britain. How could he be? He was imitating the actor Bill Pullman in Independence Day, the blockbuster sci-fi movie from 1996.

Pullman, playing the US president, is rallying a group of pilots about to launch a jet fighter attack on one of the gigantic alien spacecraft that have been attacking Earth. It happens to be 4 July. He ends his speech on behalf of humankind, with the music swelling: ‘Today, we celebrate our independence day!’ The fact that hundreds of millions of people have been killed, much of the world’s infrastructure is destroyed and the globe ends up littered with the city-sized, presumably toxic hulks of downed alien spacecraft is detail: the dragon has been slain. Humankind can sort the rest out later. So it was with Farage and his fellow Brexiteers. The ‘how’ of Brexit, its unexamined effect on the intricate, fragile fabric of peace, regulation and exchange the British live in, was a simple job a few clever chaps from some ministry or other could sort out in a morning: a free trade deal between Britain and the EU ‘should be one of the easiest in human history’, as Farage’s fellow-traveller Liam Fox put it last year. The security of food and medical supplies, keeping civilian aircraft flying in and out of Britain, the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people in the car industry, peace in Ireland, staffing the health service – bureaucratic nitpicking. Because the only consequence of killing the dragon that matters is that the dragon is slain.

Likewise the necessity of dragon-killing is so urgent it overrides any moral test for the methods used to carry it out. The murder of the Remainer MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign by a British nationalist terrorist – she was stabbed 15 times and shot in the head, chest and hand – concerned Farage so little that he said in his victory speech the vote had been won ‘without a single bullet being fired’. Nor did it matter that the Leave campaign’s successful strategy to sway undecided voters was based on fear, hatred and lies, backed by an enormous (for Britain) and uncertainly sourced donation of £8.4 million from the insurance salesman Arron Banks, who stood at Farage’s shoulder when he addressed the cameras on referendum night. Lies were precision-targeted to voters through a £2.7 million deal with Facebook. Most frequent were the lies that Turkey was about to join the EU (it isn’t) and that Britain paid £350 million a week to Europe (the real net figure was less than half that). The phrasing of the £350 million lie seems to have been fine-tuned according to the recipient: the Leave campaign spent its fake £350 million several times over. Many voters were told they had to choose between paying the EU and a better NHS (one ad asked us to ‘Imagine if we gave money to our maternity units instead of the EU! SAVE mATERNITY UNITS’), others that it was ‘£350 million a week to the EU or Flood defences for Yorkshire’. Another set of voters: ‘£350 million a week to the EU OR Support the UK steel industry.’ Another: ‘Imagine if we were able to keep our schools open because we weren’t sending £350 million to the EU every week!’

Within the lazy framework of the plot of Independence Day, my sympathies are with the Pullman character. The imperative to exterminate the aliens before they exterminate us, by any means and at any cost, is right. But the European Union isn’t a dragon, and people from other countries aren’t genocidal extraterrestrials. In order to parse Brexit as a St George event, Brexiteers had to portray their target – variously the European Commission, any one of Europe’s countries or leaders, or a combination thereof, immigrants, even Britons who wanted to stay in the EU – not merely as political opponents, not as well-meaning fools or chisellers or hoity-toity elitists, but as actively malign forces who wished to do Britain harm, either to line their own pockets or just for the sake of it.

The European Union wants to kill our cuppa,’ ran one of the Facebook ads. The startling thing about this isn’t so much that, in reality, neither the European Commission nor any member state can or would stop British people drinking tea (the lie had its basis in an unrealised EU proposal to ban the most power-hungry category of kettle as an anti-climate change measure). It’s the violence of the language, the attempt to whip up fear and hatred of a pitiless alien force that won’t listen to reason, that has no concern with national tradition or culture: the idea that Brussels wants to shoot the English cuppa just to watch it die. The ad was illustrated by a picture of a teacup with a union jack-tagged teabag nestled in a bouquet of patriotic souvenirs – a red double-decker bus, an old-fashioned black cab, an old-fashioned red phone box, a Big Ben. Threatening this pot-pourri of Englishness was a clenched fist, blue like the European flag, tattooed with a ring of yellow European stars.

The Brexiteers’ strategy was successful, and not only in winning the vote. (While the massive targeted drop of Facebook ads late in the campaign may have clinched victory for the Leave camp, the overall composition of the Leave vote was diverse. For some it was a vote against immigration; for some, a vote against an unaccountable authority; for others, particularly on the left, a vote against the economic effects of globalisation.) What the Brexiteers’ demonisation of the EU also did very effectively was to concentrate attention on the moment of the vote itself and the immediate events around it. It didn’t matter whether you believed Britain was trying to slay a dragon, or that a band of reckless liars was duping the country into thinking there was a dragon to be slain. Whether you deemed it a real St George event or a fake one, either moment was absorbing, horrific, dramatic.

Beside the obvious consequence this had of distracting from the complexity and meaning of Brexit, the strategy of turning the referendum into a St George episode gave Remainers, in the bitterness of defeat, a lingering point of focus. Certainly the scale of mendacity on the part of the Leave camp, from Farage to Boris Johnson – a man who regards truth as teacherly petit-bourgeois pomposity, deserving of the fart cushion and the paper pellet to the back of the head – spoils the legitimacy of the result. Even if leaving the EU were a nobler and more important act than it is, even if Leave would have won without the lies, the fact that Brexit was contrived with the help of falsehoods corrupts it. Can a good end be a good end if those pursuing it fake another’s wickedness to help them get there? Even if a used car was exactly the car you wanted, and the price reasonable, would you buy it from someone wearing a T-shirt that said: ‘Foreigners, Blacks, Jews, Asians, Catholics and Muslims out of England Now’?

No matter how outrageous – or illegal –the behaviour of the Leave campaign, for the losing side to continue to focus on the referendum campaign and result is to be drawn onto the Brexiteers’ turf. That isn’t to say campaigners shouldn’t be investigated and prosecuted if appropriate, or that there shouldn’t be a public vote on the nature of a Brexit deal with the EU. But the win-lose, legitimate-illegitimate argument about the referendum is a fight that plays out on the Brexiteers’ territory. The Brexiteers assert that the myth has been enacted (‘We killed the dragon!’). The Remainers deny the myth (‘You lied, there was no dragon!’). This makes it an argument about myth, and here the Brexiteers are on stronger ground. Every myth has two facets, the story that is told to make events or states of being comprehensible to people, and the underlying events or states that provide the material for the myth; a stylised, simplified dramatisation of change, and the change that demands dramatisation. Reckless, hypocritical, deluded, mendacious and chauvinist as they are, the Brexiteers found a real set of circumstances, and misapplied a popular, off-the-shelf folk myth to it. By simply rejecting the Brexiteer myth, without offering another, better one, the Remainers appear to deny the underlying changes. ‘Look,’ the Leave voter says to the Remainer. ‘Look at the abandoned coal mines, the demolished factories, the empty fishing harbours. Look at the old people lying sick on trolleys in hospital corridors and how there aren’t enough school places to go round and how you can’t afford a roof over your head. Look at my debts. Look at the low-wage work that’s all that’s left. Look at the decent jobs that have gone abroad. Look at the foreign workers we have to compete with, where did they come from? Who are all these strangers? If the problem isn’t the EU, what is it?’ The Remainer struggles to answer. Why?

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One of the strangest Facebook ads declared: ‘The EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears!’ The claim seems to relate to an episode in 2013 when EU member governments were trying to come up with a common position on an international move to ban the world trade in polar bear skin, paws and teeth. Most EU countries, including Britain, were in favour of the ban. Denmark was against. In the end, the European Commission persuaded those in favour of a ban to abstain, the proposal was defeated, and the trade in bear parts continued.

Naturally the Brexiteers wanted to emphasise the wickedness of the EU by portraying the bloc as a bear-murdering police state, and assumed voters wouldn’t look too closely at the details. The reason Denmark was against the ban was to support the Inuit hunters of its autonomous dominion Greenland, who every year kill a maximum of 156 polar bears, feeding their families with the meat and making clothes and ornaments from the skin, paws and teeth. On the face of it, the real story is toxic to the Brexit cause. Far from showing the EU as Brexiteers like to portray it – a monolithic bureaucracy ruthlessly crushing national non-conformity, paying no heed to cultural difference and local sovereignty – the EU comes across as agonisingly cautious in its deliberations, clumsily trying to please everyone, aiming to do the right thing and, in the end, protecting the ancient traditions of the Inuit hunters against the big, politically correct, liberal-infested, tree-hugging nations of Europe. The bear-hunting Inuit of Greenland have more than a few things in common with shire Tories: proud and fond of their land and their traditions, lovers of meat, guns and petrol, they are local conservatives who feel they have a right to be considered part of nature, opposed to global conservationists who feel humankind has irreparably broken its covenant with nature. Without the heft of the EU on their side, there is every chance global sympathy with the polar bears would have crushed the Greenlanders. One reasonable interpretation of the story of the EU and the Greenland polar bears is that the best chance for individual peoples and countries to protect their interests in a world of international agreements is a limited surrender of freedom of action in exchange for security in numbers.[1]

It may seem not to make sense for the Brexiteers to invoke the EU’s defence of a relatively poor, relatively powerless, environmentally incorrect minority to show that the EU represses dissent. But if your starting point is them and us, the familiar v. the other, the townsfolk v. the dragon, the Earthlings v. the aliens, all that’s required is to identify non-English-speaking foreigners doing un-English things (such as killing polar bears), blame it on the EU, and begin storytelling. Abstract principles such as the right to cultural self-determination for minority peoples are there to lend lustre to your defence of your own people, not to help you identify the complaints of your people with the complaints of others, because that’s what they are: others.

The Brexiteers’ opponents, the pro-EU ideologues of the Remain camp, don’t have that mythic simplification to fall back on. They see themselves, in general, as rational, enlightened people, aspiring to a universal morality. They are liberals. They endorse the principle of the right to cultural self-determination not just for the native English, but for all peoples, the Greenland Inuit included. At the same time, they support other abstract, universal principles: women’s rights, sexual minority rights, ethnic minority rights, animal rights, children’s rights, environmental protection, migrants’ rights, equal opportunities, education for all, democracy, free trade, free movement of people, free movement of capital. These two idealistic strands are in deep contradiction with each other. A belief in the imperative to conserve the traditional, authentic and distinctive in local cultures clashes with a fervent promotion of universal rights and freedoms. This is the liberal bourgeois dilemma: the irreconcilability of the desires for universality and particularity. Unlike their traditionalist counterparts, such as the Brexiteers, liberals do not have a myth to smooth over the contradictions in their case. It is right that the Inuit of Greenland live their authentic native lives, true to their place and their heritage, hand-butchering their ursine quarry and hauling the meat home to their families. Would we prefer them to eat imported chicken? At the same time, it is right that the polar bear be protected, for the whole world’s sake, for the sake of our children. Menaced by climate change, the bears need to be saved from the hunters. Save the hunters; save the bears. Where is the myth that can encompass this?

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Closer to home, British liberals both supported large-scale coal mining as the enabler of traditional, authentic, working-class communities, and abominated it as global warming’s lead culprit. Only an accident of history allowed these sentiments to be consecutive rather than concurrent. Liberals prize the authentically local, the person or product or way of being that is truly, traditionally, of place; they are sad and angry when that authenticity is cheapened, commercialised, tainted by globalism, even though their own restless, flocking quest for local authenticity in multiple locations each year contributes to the globalism that torments them.

At the libertarian, neoliberal end of liberalism, there are occasional personal shocks for those whose wealth usually enables them to keep the contradictions at a distance. A friend of mine who prospered as a fund manager in London stepped back from finance and became involved in a charity that helps disadvantaged young people. On her way to a meeting of the organisation in a northern English town the taxi driver began telling her about its economic woes and she realised the multinational responsible for hurting the people she was trying to help was one of the companies she’d invested her clients’ money in. At the communitarian end – the part of the liberal spectrum where I like to think I reside – there’s a tendency to assume that ‘good’ localism (the ideal of the ‘thriving local community’, locally sourced food, the preservation of vernacular local architecture and traditional local landscapes) can be neatly separated from ‘bad’ localism (hostility to immigrants and new ways of doing things). It can’t. While writing about the closure of a Cadbury’s factory in the west of England, I was pleased to find there was still one small family chocolatier left in Bristol, producing chocolates by hand in an old atelier in the city centre.[2] My heart sank when the artisan patriarch launched into a tirade about how most of the children born at the local maternity hospital were born to foreigners. I liked his localism, until suddenly I didn’t. Writing about Britain’s housing crisis, I spent hours with an elderly resident of a council block in Bethnal Green, a fourth-generation East Ender.[3] Eventually, after many fascinating stories about her life, she said: ‘The majority of people in here now are immigrants. Would there be a housing crisis if we hadn’t let so many people in? Now the white English are a minority.’ I liked her localism, and then, suddenly, not so much. Who was the more nativist here? Her? Or me, being so pleased at first that I’d found somebody whose personal history in that place reached back so deep?

In 2005, Andy Beckett wrote in the Guardian about the then novel middle-class English fashion for Englishness – ‘the feverish popularity of beach huts, and of knobbly local potatoes at farmers’ markets, the rebranding of fish and chips and sausages and mash as restaurant dishes, the transformation of peeling old resorts such as Whitstable and Hastings into locations for second homes and fashion shoots, even the status of the name Jack.’ He went on:

The current taste for English things, it is hard not to notice, has happened at the same time as the rise of Euroscepticism, and the emergence to national prominence of Ukip and the British National Party. The new sellers of Englishness seem to be a gentler kind of nationalist … but they do sometimes seem to be fighting the same sort of rearguard action.

The trickiest contradiction in the Remainer-liberal view relates to the European Union itself. British liberals like to see support for remaining in the EU as a marker, of and by itself, of good universal values: openness, receptiveness to other cultures and ideas, freedom for people to move and work in different places, widely pooled security. And Britain in the EU does approach these values more nearly than Britain on its own. But they aren’t applied universally. Britain, on its own, is an exclusionary, overwhelmingly white, post-Christian society; Britain in the EU is part of a larger, overwhelmingly white, post-Christian society that excludes 93 per cent of the world’s population from freely moving, living or working there. Since the Brexit vote, a number of EU citizens living in Britain have had horrible experiences with the immigration authorities. But the horrible experiences of the Windrush generation, people who have lived in Britain for decades and have beeen officially persecuted, in some cases forcibly expelled to countries they were brought from as children, happened while Britain was still in the EU. Two hundred people a month are dying in the attempt to cross the EU’s closed external borders.

Most Remainers I know think it’s a sufficiently strong stance on openness to be firm in their insistence on free movement within Europe, firm on the rights of migrants and refugees, and vague on the ideal degree of permeability of the external borders of the jurisdiction in which they live. There aren’t many takers for absolute global freedom of movement; but to spell out the exact nature and justification of the consequent limits to absolute freedom provokes in liberals a fear of infection with the disease that leads to Brexity symptoms of racial exclusivity. The shudders that greeted Gordon Brown’s call for ‘British jobs for British workers’, or Jeremy Corbyn’s complaint of ‘wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe’, are proof enough.

To the extent that there is a Remainer folk-myth, it only underlines these liberal contradictions. One of the oddities of Britain’s new division is that the tags are the wrong way round: Leavers are really Remainers, in the sense that they’re the ones who want to stay in an idealised version of a more ‘traditional’ Britain – they wish things had remained as they were, whenever that was. And Remainers are actually Leavers, in the sense that they are, in principle, those most ready to embrace the new, to welcome strangers and change, to travel far from home to seek their fortunes. To the extent that there is a Remainer myth it is a meritocratic one, the fairy story trope of the youngest child who boldly goes away from their humble birthplace and, through some combination of innate virtues and the basic decency of the world, is rewarded. It’s Puss in Boots; it’s Beauty and the Beast; it’s Billy Elliot. The problem with this as a cathartic, organising, explaining myth is that it is divisive rather than unifying. In the St George myth, all the people (in Brexiteer parlance, ‘real’ people, ‘decent’ people, ‘ordinary’ people) are together in the town, while the evil that troubles them, the dragon, is outside. In the youngest child myth, people are divided into those who go away, the heroes and heroines, and those who are left behind. The going-away is not only literal but conceptual; a journey not only in space, in wealth and class, but in education. If the goers-away ever return to the left-behind, they come as visitors. The poor woodcutter’s youngest son who goes to the city or marries the king’s daughter can never afterwards return to woodcutting poverty. Billy Elliot, the younger son of a coal miner, becomes a ballet dancer; I wonder if even miners are ready for a fairy story about the son of a ballet dancer who is determined, against the odds, to prove he can pull on overalls and spend the working week underground hewing coal.

‘Left-behind voters’ is one of the phrases often used by Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist who has been prominent in studying and explaining the deep roots of English euroscepticism, the rise of Ukip and the Brexit result. Since the referendum Goodwin has declared himself alienated from the Remainer-dominated British intellectual class, arguing that it neglects analysis of the longer-term malaise affecting post-industrial Britain in favour of narrow attacks on the methods used to win the vote for Leave and denigration of Leave voters as deluded fools:

Perhaps I was woefully naive, but in the days after the referendum I felt excited; anxious about the short-term fallout but excited about the long-overdue debate that I assumed was en route; a national focus on addressing the divides, inequalities and grievances that had led to this moment. Perhaps this was what Britain needed, I thought, a radical shock that would throw light on what had been simmering beneath the surface for decades … Today, looking back, I see that most people never really had an interest in exploring what underpinned Brexit. To many on the liberal left, Brexit is to be opposed, not understood.

There’s a lot of truth in this. But Goodwin performs a sleight of hand: he opposes ordinary Leave voters against an arrogant Remainer elite as if those were the two sides at issue. There is a Remainer elite – let’s call them the Euists – but there is also an arrogant Leave elite, the Brexiteers, encompassing powerful figures in the media, politics and the traditional landowning class. And just as there are ordinary Leave voters, there are ordinary Remain voters, many of whom, though typically younger and better educated, feel as powerless, angry and betrayed as their counterparts on the other side. The polarisation of British society signified by, and deepened by, the referendum is real, but that doesn’t mean Remain and Leave voters were living in two different countries, or were completely insensitive to each other’s preoccupations. The idea that Remain voters were winners who only cared about themselves and Leave voters were losers screaming for help is simplistic. Yes, the Brexiteers seized the chance to portray the vote as a St George moment, and yes, the Euists had no comparable narrative to offer in opposition. But if, accordingly, the Euists seemed to be denying the damage the country is suffering, that isn’t true of most Remain voters.

The damage is twofold: economic and cultural. Economically, high-status jobs with good pay and conditions have been replaced by low-status jobs with bad pay and conditions; housing has become scarcer and more expensive; taxpayer-funded public services such as health, education, police and the criminal justice system have got worse; and privatised user-funded public services such as water and energy have increased in cost to the benefit of their (mainly overseas) owners. Culturally, the distinctiveness of place is being erased by a creeping uniformity whose paradoxical hallmark is a shallow diversity. In a narrow sense, the blame for these ills is distributed differently: one side blames immigration and the EU; the other, austerity and globalisation. Looked at more broadly, both halves of the electorate are dismayed by the same phenomena – economic decay and the corrosion of identity. To see a relationship between hostility to immigrants from far away and hostility to capitalists from far away is not to equate them, but to acknowledge the coincidence of mood. In the same way, the blaming of immigrants and the blaming of government spending cuts are two quite different responses to the strain on public services, but they meet at the heart of the problem, which is that British government spending is not increasing at the same pace as the population of Britain. According to my calculations, taking inflation and population into account, the British state now spends 6 per cent less on public services than it did in 2010 – an absolute cut that most affects the poorest and the oldest.

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Between the actual condition of Britain and the versions of it presented by the elite persuaders – the myth-wielding Brexiteers and the Euists appealing to material self-interest – there are the overlapping representations in the minds of individuals, a mix of abstract ideas, principles, memories and legends. It is a kind of dreamscape. The Euist attempt to summon a Remain majority out of the British electorate failed because it treated them, respectfully enough, as no more or less than individuals with beliefs who applied them to circumstances and reached conclusions. The Brexiteers succeeded because they shared the dream-vision of enough of the voters.

What is the dreaming of the Leavers? An inability to articulate it in full doesn’t mean it isn’t there, complementing rather than ruling out rational or enlightened self-interest. It’s about personal ancestors, the things they did and where they came from; it’s about remote, titanic figures, some real, some fictional, some generic, a pagan pantheon apart from God – the queen, Churchill, James Bond, Bobby Moore, Sid Vicious, Margaret Thatcher; the miner, the Spitfire pilot, the NHS nurse – and sacred spaces, some famous, such as Wembley or Waterloo or Dunkirk, some idealised: the factory, the village, the rural airfield in 1941. Each summer, millions of people go to arts and music festivals and sporting fixtures, a rich and familiar cultural calendar well covered in the national media. But each summer, too, invisibly to the patrons of Glastonbury and Edinburgh, a similar number of people fight their way through enormous traffic jams and crush barrier-festooned railway stations to go to air shows, a ritual celebration of speed, noise, precision engineering and war. The 2018 tour calendar of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows display team, whose nine aircraft trailing coloured smoke as they perform aerobatics form the highlight of these displays, is dotted with the names of Leave strongholds: Torbay, Great Yarmouth, Cleethorpes, Hastings, Folkestone, Sunderland, Clacton.

Goodwin has characterised Britain’s current political landscape as the embodiment of Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between ‘politics as faith’ and ‘politics as scepticism’, moderated by Margaret Canovan’s more optimistic version: she saw populism as pragmatic democracy’s necessary redemptive shadow. The trouble with this in the context of Brexit is that it puts all the faith and redemptive hope, all the inspiration, all the archetypes of surrogate religion, all the dreaming, on the Leave side, stranding the Remainers in a dreamless, materialist Britain of cold calculation and joyless efficiency. Besides being offensive to Remainers, this is inaccurate. When the reality of EU administration is so often so clearly bumbling, awkward and lame, when the great majority of Remain voters will never exercise the freedom to live and work on mainland Europe, what can the mysterious yearning to continue to be ‘part of Europe’ be but an act of faith, a response to impulses in one’s political unconscious? When I interrogate my own Remainerness honestly, I find not only rational, pragmatic fears of Brexit, not only the personal legacy of past trans-European love affairs and a brother with a German wife living in Berlin, but a more intangible and perhaps not altogether wholesome dream of personal freedom and strength by association – of being an element in a continent that is at once vast, variegated, rich, and stands as a forcefully secured island of civilisation; and of losing myself in wanderings in the furthest and least fashionable corners of that continent. It doesn’t seem either sceptical or pragmatic, but nor is it ‘wrong’.

To say that Leave and Remain voters perceive the same symptoms of economic and cultural stress, and to argue that both sides are informed by their dreaming as much as by self-interest, is not to suggest their worldviews are very close together. There is something dark and troubling in the othering of the EU by the Brexiteers, in Leave voters’ acceptance of the referendum as a St George event. Goodwin has looked at poll results to see what Remain voters want in the coming years: more affordable housing, higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage and the abolition of tuition fees. And Leavers? After securing Brexit, slashing immigration and cutting foreign aid, the top priority for Leave voters is higher defence spending. There is war in their dreaming.

As Goodwin points out, the only place where Leavers’ and Remainers’ political desires meet is on the need for higher spending on the National Health Service. And there is hope here for a Remainer myth, or at least a liberal one. The NHS is Britain’s great Robin Hood project, taking from the rich (that is, taxing people according to how much they earn) to give to the poor (providing healthcare to everyone whether they can afford it or not). Britain leans towards St George abroad, Robin Hood at home. (The Second World War was both the ultimate St George event, the slaying of the Nazi dragon, and the ultimate Robin Hood event, the spur to the creation of the welfare state.)

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Whatever course the Brexit process now takes, the future for those who believe themselves tolerant and outward-looking, but resist Britain’s economic and cultural corrosion, must be to project the Robin Hood myth outwards beyond Britain. The failed liberal slogan for the world that sounded so loudly in the afterclap of communism’s fall – ‘democracy and the free market’ – lacks the Robin Hood kicker: fairly shared wealth. The measure of the success of globalisation shouldn’t be how easily the wealthiest can suck rents from the majority and keep the proceeds through a combination of capital mobility, tax havens and wage suppression, by shuffling production and workers between national jurisdictions. It should be how far the world as a whole approaches a high baseline of shared security and prosperity: how far Indonesia, China or Egypt is reaching up to establish universal education, healthcare, housing, water and energy supply; how far Britain, the United States or Italy is levelling down; and where the levels meet. There’s a great deal of utopia in this notion, a vast amount of political work, and a horrifying cosmos of practical detail, and it may seem absurd to try to frame it, politically, in mythic terms, in terms of dreaming. But it is the very complexity of the problem, set against the demands of millions of citizens in a genuine democracy, that demands a working narrative. Whatever the lip service paid to free trade by the Brexiteers, the implied follow-through of a St George Brexit, for Leave voters, is Britain as a fortress against globalisation and immigration. Us against It. A Robin Hood Brexit sets as the terms of its openness a high standard of wealth-sharing at home and a correspondingly high standard of wealth-sharing to the countries it is most open to. A good first step towards this would be for Britain to stay in the EU. But starting from the wrong place doesn’t mean you can’t head towards where you want to go.

[1] Confusingly, Greenland has had a voluntary ban on the export of polar bear parts in place since 2008. On the face of it a new ban wouldn’t have made any difference – but it would have hurt their fellow-Inuit in Canada, who do earn money from the international bear trade.