It would be difficult to deny that the last 6 years has been an era defined by deep-set polarization across the Western world. From Brexit to Donald Trump to coronavirus, we have all experienced or at the very least observed the effects of entrenched political positions and the discord between “sides” that has emerged as a result.
It was watching the polarizing narrative of Brexit emerge during the referendum campaign in 2015 and 2016 that first engaged me in politics. I was 18 at the time, so this was my first major vote and one that would open my eyes to many of the simmering tensions that existed within British society. Fault lines became evident between not only the 4 nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but within each nation as well, for example where London differed in its Remain position to other major cities in England like Birmingham.
My book, BrexLit: The Problem of Englishness in Pre- and Post-Brexit Referendum Literature is an attempt to grapple with political polarization in the time of Brexit through the literary texts that were published in its wake. Through the lens of national identity and how that contributed, in England specifically, to a Eurosceptic majority, I analyze how authors reckon with recent events and allow us an opportunity to reflect and heal from the immediate moment.
But can literature really heal the divides that emerged on the campaign trail? It would be a delusion to imagine that all readers will come away from BrexLit texts with the same impression. Of course, one of the most powerful aspects of literature is that everyone reads the same texts differently. We interpret stories and words from our own narrow perspectives informed by personal experiences, political biases, and our hopes and fears. So, even when it comes to reading literature, it seems, we cannot really escape the effects of polarization—our differences inform how we interpret the world around us in every sense.
Furthermore, BrexLit is written from a predominantly Remain perspective, meaning that some of the texts I analyse in the book are hostile to the Leave point of view, with several entirely lacking any nuanced understanding of what a Leave supporter might look like (Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach is an unforgiving depiction of Leave politicians as cockroaches who have morphed into human beings and infiltrated the government to deliver their backwards agenda). This might discourage anyone who voted Leave from picking up BrexLit in the first place—having experienced the vitriol of family, friends, and indeed the media for several years, one might not want to replicate that experience in their leisure time.
Image by Ellie Foreman-Peck for The New Statesman
However, while BrexLit certainly has the potential to feed into and exacerbate polarizing narratives, it also has the potential to do the opposite.
One author whose novel Perfidious Albion I discuss in BrexLit is Sam Byers. Perfidious Albion is a distinctly dystopian vision of a small town that is being controlled by a tech company that is data mining residents without their consent. The text calls to mind the controversy of Cambridge Analytica and portrays a world where citizens are the subjects of behavioural experiments—as one character in the novel says, the role of the tech giant is to understand how people behave when they think they are free. On any reading, the novel displays a strong distaste for the political and social mechanisms through which the Brexit vote was influenced.
However, in an interview, Byers stated that his goal with this book was to capture the “feeling” of Brexit—a statement that provides insight into what BrexLit does as a whole. Once again, emotions are highly subjective, but Byers and other BrexLit authors such as Ali Smith and Jonathan Coe sought to bottle up the atmosphere post-referendum—undeniably one marked by division and mistrust—and store it in the pages of their books. Though they may admonish those who disagree with their political perspectives, BrexLit texts primarily serve as time capsules—historical documents that provide insight into the emotional aftermath of one of the most divisive political votes in recent British history.
Whether you agree with the portrayal of Brexit put forth by the BrexLit authors I analyse in my book, the merit of these texts is that they serve as a jumping off point for difficult conversations. Whether we are having them now while the wound is still sore, or in 50 years when we have forgotten the heaviness associated with the referendum, analysing the actions of characters in a fictional novel is far easier than analysing ourselves or our family members. Though they might resemble us, there is a distancing that takes place which allows us to reflect in ways that may have been otherwise impossible. BrexLit encourages us—on both “sides” of the issue—to reconsider how the narratives surrounding Brexit emerged, settled, and fragmented the population, and how we can strive to prevent that from happening again.
Literature aims first and foremost to make us think. As with all human endeavours, authors and their books are written with biases and political or social agendas, but the beauty of a novel, poem, or play, is that it is open to interpretation. BrexLit: The Problem of Englishness in Pre- and Post-Brexit Referendum Literature sets out my interpretations but may not be reflective of others’ readings. That is exactly the point, and my hope for both my book and BrexLit texts is that they serve as a medium for dialogue that allows us to better understand one another, discuss ideas without fear of persecution, and move forward less divided. We cannot turn back the clock and change the outcome of Brexit, but we can decide how to change our instinct to dismiss or act with hostility towards others for their political perspectives.
This could be seen as a naïve hope. We seem to have left behind a culture of respect and tolerance for those who don’t think like us. Recent calls for censorship on both sides of the political spectrum demonstrate how shutting out debate and conversation rather than engaging with it productively has become a rather bizarre cultural preoccupation in Western countries which otherwise promote freedom of expression and thought. To suggest that open discussion and exchange of ideas—even when they might be wrong—is inherently dangerous makes a mockery of every pursuit of knowledge and damages the potential for effective communication across political or ideological lines.
I for one hope that we can move past this kind of thinking rather quickly. If we have learned anything over the last 6 years, it is that sunlight is the best disinfectant; on issues as divisive as Brexit, we must be willing to reflect on recent events and discuss ideas openly, acknowledging the hostility and anger felt on both sides without re-engaging with it, and reminding ourselves that there are no winners among us while we remain divided. BrexLit may not be enough to stitch up our disjointed nation overnight, but it certainly provides us with a unique opportunity for recollection, dialogue, and discussion, which in turn allows us to step outside of the chaos, and heal, from the polarized present.