Dulcie Everitt on BrexLit

What made you interested in British politics?

What got me interested in British Politics was Brexit itself. I was in Year 13 at Wimbledon and it was the first time I really witnessed and engaged with a political moment that I knew was going to have a huge impact. It wasn’t until I was at university and saw books emerging in response to Brexit, such as Autumn by Ali Smith, that I got stuck into the relationship between literature and British politics.

Do you feel that Boris Johnson is an emblem of British nostalgia or more of an opportunistic politician who took advantage of the wave of isolationism?

I think first I should note that while my book does cover the rise of English nationalism in the lead up to Brexit, my primary focus is on the literature that resulted from the referendum, rather than an attempt to judge on the campaign itself – there are plenty of other books out there that are doing this at the moment. 

Nostalgia is a very common political tool intended to invoke the feeling that things were better in the past which, of course, in almost all cases, they were not. Nostalgia appeals to groups of people who feel ‘left behind’ or disenfranchised from the society that has been developed, and can be an extremely effective way of building a political platform. Donald Trump, for example, used the campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ to imply that America was losing its ‘greatness’ and that he could reclaim it. For those who are sceptical of the progress being made, or who do not benefit greatly from it, this is an attractive message. ‘Take Back Control’ did exactly the same thing – it convinced people throughout the UK, but primarily those in England, that control had been lost, or actually, that it had been taken from them by the EU. 

I think my view of the campaign is less about Johnson as a person and more of him as a politician vying for power. He was among the first to recognise that David Cameron had made a really big mistake by asking people to vote in this referendum, and he seized that opportunity. He knew that there was actually a campaign to be won on the Leave side, which is something that Cameron didn’t bank on when calling the referendum. Cameron called the referendum in a move intended to appease the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, and expected Remain to win comfortably. He thought that the benefits of being part of the EU were too obvious to deny, and this left him on the back foot throughout the entirety of the Brexit campaign. So I do think Johnson was opportunistic, and for him at least, it paid off. 

How big do you think the influence of Brexit Literature has on voters and the narrative surrounding the Leave campaign?

I don’t think BrexLit influenced voters because, as I define it, BrexLit texts were all published after the referendum vote. In terms of influencing the narrative moving forward, it will have a huge impact.

I’m fascinated by literature written during and about conflicts because they offer an opportunity to experience the atmosphere and emotion of conflicts- which is hugely important to remembering them. The Spanish Civil War is a prime example. The conflict itself was almost forced into oblivion by the Spanish government, which instituted an Amnesty Law after the Dictator, Francisco Franco, died, which essentially said: ‘everyone forget that happened.’ Franco was in power for 40 years and hundreds of thousands of Spaniards died under his regime. The only way the government felt the country could move on was to simply put it all behind them and start again. For this reason, and the fact that most people who lived through it are now either dead or extremely old, literature is one of the only tools we have for preserving memories of the conflict today. So I think there’s a lot to be said for Literature taking a moment and immortalising it- not just to tell good stories, but to bottle up history and pass it on.

I think the immediacy of BrexLit is a huge reason why it will be even more valuable retrospectively. It captures the moment in a completely different way than if authors had written about it in 20 years. Some of the literature that I cover in my book is dystopian, offering no way out of the chaos that Brexit induced. But some are more hopeful, and suggest that despite the chaos, there is room for growth into a better country. Either way, they serve to document the moment and encourage the reader to reflect on their own values, their own beliefs, and what they want out of the future. 

The ways that the eight texts I cover in my book depict England and Englishness is going to have an impact on how people remember the referendum, and how we move forward from it as well. 

You discuss in your summary English exceptionalism and British exceptionalism as a whole. How do you see it developing the next decade now that we’ve actually left the EU- do you think we’ll go past any feelings of superiority?

English exceptionalism is not necessarily something that we would instantly recognise or articulate ourselves. The notion of exceptionalism relates to the formation of nationalism, and was articulated by the academic Arthur Aughey. It is significant in the context of my book because it tells us a lot about the way English identity has formed. Many modern nation-states have developed their nationalism in the post-colonial era as a way of redefining and reasserting themselves on the global stage, having previously been dominated by Britain and similar powers. England did not have to do this; it was never oppressed but was, rather, the oppressor, which meant that the only self-conceptualization it needed during the rise of Empire was to imagine itself as the superior nation. This narrative has endured.

Brexit and the campaign to leave the EU revived a lot of latent beliefs about what it means to be English – to be in control, to have ultimate power over itself (and others) – and I think it’s going to take a leader to reflect on those issues and to come up with something better in order to build a cohesive identity rooted in something less archaic. 

This is especially true because within the UK as a whole there’s not a strong cohesive sense of nationalism either; Scotland, Wales and (Northern) Ireland have nationalist movements of their own which form in opposition to England and Englishness. There just isn’t a strong sense of ‘Britishness.’ Until that develops, if it ever does, there will be a temptation for English people to continue to root identity in exceptionalism because there’s no other way to define ourselves.

For that cohesive British nationalism to develop, there has to be a sense of what Benedict Anderson describes as an ‘imagined community’, meaning that wherever you are throughout the UK, you feel a sense of connection to people that are also British who you haven’t met before. Anderson locates the rise of modern forms of nationalism as simultaneous with the rise of print capitalism, the novel, and the newspaper, arguing that they provided the means for representing the imagined community of a nation. The rise of print capitalism in the eighteenth century provided a new opportunity for those in power to disseminate identical information across entire nations. Where information had chiefly spread by word of mouth, now stories and ideas were received almost simultaneously and in identical form. When a population located within the same geographical area is reading the same texts, its people are inevitably tied together in new and significant ways, and this forms a basis for the ‘imagined community’. Now of course we have TV shows, movies, books, and national news outlets that distribute the same information, but we also have the echo chamber of social media which complicates Anderson’s theory today. It’s also clear that Scottish or Welsh culture is not shared by English people – often we don’t learn about it or understand it unless we make a concerted effort. The wounds of the British (English) army fighting the Scots at Culloden or  enveloping Wales into England without agreement, for many, have not healed, and so even with shared narratives there remains a lot of bad blood that prevents many from embracing the concept of Britishness over Scottishness, Irishness, Welshness, or Englishness. 

So, I think it’s going to take someone to imagine Englishness and to communicate an image of England as a nation that embraces globalisation and cooperation without seeking control. It will take more than devolution to heal old wounds, and it will take a concerted effort to create a strong sense of collective Britishness that is not tarnished by the past. The narrative of a globally-facing England exists, but it hasn’t embedded itself in our national consciousness just yet.

You mention British imperialism and how we were very colonialist for a period of time-do you think that Englishness as a concept holds pride for that, or does it make more of an effort to bury that side of history?

I think we’re often presented with a false, palatable version of Imperialism, but the truth isn’t completely buried. We know that the British Empire was at times violent and ruthless. But when we talk about it, in school or outside of school, it’s not the violence we focus on. For example, the Queen still talks about the Commonwealth, which is borne out of colonialism. Today, she talks about it as a global network of countries working together, which is a great way (perhaps the only way) to reframe it moving forward. If the Commonwealth is going to exist that is how it should exist. While positives have come from the Commonwealth, I don’t believe that we, as a country, reflect enough on the damage that past generations did to create it in the first place.

Do you think politicians in the UK have neglected those feelings of pride and patriotism? And do you think that triggered the Leave campaign or do you think leaving the EU was bound to happen? 

Within mainstream politics, I’m not sure about neglected, but certainly underestimated. However, ‘fringe’ politicians like Nigel Farage have not neglected those feelings, but fed them. Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been a steadily growing force in British politics since it was formed in 1993. The party’s primary—and arguably only—political message lies in its opposition to the Maastricht treaty, and its desire to take the UK out of the EU. But even before there was an opportunity to make this happen, UKIP’s popularity was on the rise. This is often linked to the 2008 economic crash and the widespread disenfranchisement that resulted from it. 

I think that by ignoring the fact that there was a strong sense of injustice and Euroscepticism out there, Cameron definitely opened things up for the Leave campaign to be successful. I don’t think that leaving the EU was necessarily bound to happen, but when you’re up against a campaign that prods at people’s emotional instincts, trying to fight that with numbers and the complex benefits of trade that the EU offers us is a fight you’re probably going to lose. 

Ultimately, Leave wouldn’t have had the opportunity to win if it weren’t for Cameron calling a referendum. And whether that was inevitable at some point I’m not sure – although I can see an argument for yes considering that we had one before in 1975. 

As a follow up to that, do you think, then, British values were neglected in the Union, or do you think there was just a general misconception about what the EU was for?

I guess this is a question of what are British values? If British values are isolationism and a desire not to participate in a global community then yes, British values were neglected in the European Union. But that doesn’t fairly represent the population as a whole. Also, since constituent parts of the UK voted differently, I would again say that there isn’t such a thing as a collective sense of ‘Britishness’ at all.

Brexit was paraded as an opportunity to restore the UK to a former glory- a promise that is often echoed by politicians in countries all over the world. (Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ springs to mind.) The implications of Brexit were sorely misrepresented to the public, in part for political gain, but perhaps also in part because no one knew what it meant to leave the EU- it had never been done before.

As I mentioned, a narrative, both cultural and political, does exist for a more inclusive, open Britain. BrexLit often appeals to the possibility for growth and rejuvenation despite the hatred and chaos that was brought about by the referendum. But until that narrative becomes one that unites us rather than divides us, it will continue to challenge the foundations of Englishness and threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.

Do you think it’s also a reflection of a global shift towards isolationism such as that offered by Trumpian policies in the US? 

Absolutely. In the last 20 years or so, the Western world has witnessed a resurgence of nationalist, isolationist sentiment. The fact that Donald Trump was elected the same year as Brexit happened is not a coincidence. It’s reflective of a western swing towards the right – towards conservatism and the protection of self before others. It also represents pushback against a globalised, liberalist world. 

Do you think it’ll trigger other countries to do the same and start leaving unions or do you think it has potential to actually discourage that? 

I think it has the potential to do either, but the way things are going right now I lean towards thinking that it will discourage other countries from leaving. The EU knew from the outset that if Brexit was successful for the UK other countries would potentially want out as well, so they have intentionally (and understandably) played hardball during the negotiations so that Brexit doesn’t result in us keeping all the benefits of the EU without paying into it. 

Why do you think many British people don’t feel aligned with European values? 

I don’t really want to make any sweeping statements about it because everyone has different reasons; I think there’s a temptation to project one character onto everyone who voted Leave and who rejects the European project, but that’s not helpful or true. 

One of the books I read in an effort to understand the lack of alignment with Europe is called Rise of the Right. It is written by two political scientists who spoke to a number of members of the English Defence League, a far-right political group. They found that those they spoke to have not felt the benefits of our open, marketised society, and saw their lives as a constant struggle. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the EU itself, but when used as a scapegoat for the struggles of regular people, it became an entity upon which many could attach blame. Again, the idea of taking back control appealed because it suggested that there would be actual opportunities for change that weren’t dictated by the bureaucracy of the EU, and that could be carried out by our government, for us alone. 

Leave’s campaign offered a change that Remain didn’t and gave its supporters hope for a better future. Whether or not that hope was merited is besides the point – it was the possibility for change that was important, especially as for many, though of course not all Leave voters, they had nothing else to lose. 

One other thing to note is that the EU wasn’t always a political entity. It began as an economic enterprise and has morphed into something far bigger over the years. For those who were sceptical about it in the first place, or have witnessed this change, this can look like overreach and once again invites the sense that control is being stripped from us and placed in the hands of foreign leaders who may not have our best interests at heart. 

What was your favourite text that you analysed or favourite book the analysed, and which one do you think was most reflective of the person that we have today, post-Brexit?

My favourite BrexLit text was Autumn by Ali Smith, in part because it was one of the hardest to write about. Autumn involves numerous moments of surrealism and subliminality, and one has to really look closely at the text to decode its meanings. It is also one of the least direct BrexLit texts in terms of how it addresses Brexit, which made it even more exciting to dig into and analyse. 

I also like Autumn because on my reading, it is a hopeful text. Despite its clear Remain perspective, there is room for growth at the end of the novel that some other BrexLit texts I covered do not allow for. Rather than leave us with a sense of profound doom, Smith encourages the reader to work towards a better incarnation of Englishness – one based on love as opposed to hate.