Brexit done, UK undone

What would various literary and historical figures have made of Brexit?


When Douglas Hurd writes about British Foreign Secretaries since 1815 (‘Choose Your Weapons’, published 2013), a recurring theme is that Britain has never had a ‘comfortable’ relationship with continental Europe. 

In historic terms, England’s first split from a continental European organisation where England had played an active part was when Enery the Eighth fell for Ann Boleyn’s charms and defied the Pope. That UK vs Europe struggle continued roughly from the 1530s till Guy Fawkes’s catholic plot proved unpopular some seventy years later when Protestantism had won over a majority of hearts and minds. Neither Harold Wilson’s referendum in 1975 nor David Cameron’s in 2016 ‘lanced a boil’. 

The LME’s battle in the coming years is surely to win over hearts and minds at a fundamental philosophical level. As is well known, today’s young people are, if the various opinion polls are accurate, highly likely to want to rejoin the EU when they hold the levers of power.   

What about the Labour Party? It is well rehearsed that most Labour voters, and over 95% of MPs are, and were in 2016, Remainers. Clearly being seen as unwilling to implement the ‘will of the people’, especially after the huge Johnson victory, is not going to be popular with many in the UK. 

Whatever the Brexiteers claimed during the Election – Labour always did acknowledge the referendum result. Labour voted to implement Article 50 (we simply wanted a second referendum to agree on exactly what was meant by the first Brexit referendum).  Even the doziest Brexiteer would have noticed that the Civil Service, the media and certainly our Labour Party have done little else over the last three years than respond to the people’s will in the June 2016 referendum.

Respecting the result of the Election is not incompatible, though, with the LME, and others, winning more hearts and minds to the cause of Britain at the heart of Europe. This is particularly true for today’s young people who will still be alive and active, and holding the levers of power, if and when the UK next decides to ask the people on its troubled relations with continental Europe.

Brexit done, UK undone

Can the literary classics help Labour Europhiles find the right path in the coming years? Clearly, the battle to put Britain at the heart of Europe is now a marathon rather than a sprint. The debate in the next few years will no doubt be about the large philosophical questions, rather than budget contributions and straight cucumbers. In winning over more hearts and minds to the cause, a long historical perspective is needed.

Going back in history, what would Britain’s great writers make of Brexit? The poet and cleric John Donne (1572-1631) famously wrote “No man is an island entire of itself”.  The verse continues:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 

own were; any man's death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind. 

And therefore never send to know for whom 

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. “


Donne was of course famous for his wit. He fell from grace when he famously married Anne (Donne), who was too young to consent in her (rich and well-connected) father’s view, so poor Donne ended up in prison as a result of the marriage. In his pithy words, it was: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone”.  Perhaps if alive today he would work out a wittier version of something like  “Johnson won,  Got Brexit done…. So UK undone” ?

England hath made a shameful conquest of itself

Shakespeare succinctly describes the ‘shooting yourself in the foot’ that is Brexit when John of ‘Gaunt’ (i.e. Ghent in Belgium) famously muses on the mess caused by that ‘inept Tory’ equivalent of the late 1300s (Richard II). The nationalistic lines are often quoted: “This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, …. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” with the later lines “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” been known to get a (somewhat inappropriate) laugh in post-June 2016 productions.

Campaigning in poetry, governing in prose

Coming to the last century, could George Orwell have possibly been anything other than an ardent Remainer? He is the inventor of the parody of petty nationalism in the ‘Two Minutes Hate’ in 1984. He so deeply saw the Spanish struggle as his own struggle that he went to fight there (and got shot) in the International Brigade in their Civil War. He was also Arts Editor of Tribune, ridiculing the absurdity of misplaced British patriotism in his essays in the forties, 

And what of the great Dickens himself? Though very much an English author, like Orwell, he upped sticks (not so easy in the nineteenth century with a family in tow) and lived in continental Europe. They lived in Italy (where he learnt Italian) and in Switzerland, and he sent his sons to school in France, where he regularly travelled himself for long periods. 

One of Dickens’s many biographers, his great-great-great-granddaughter, is in no doubt Dickens would have been a Remainer. To continue to the present day, no surprises that JK Rowling herself has made it absolutely clear that Harry Potter would definitely have voted Remain, as he believed in a “free and fair democracy”.


By Councillor Dave Poyser - London Tour guide who leads guided walks on Orwell and Dickens