On Wednesday June 22 we were at the Globe in London, in the audience for the Scottish play. After the interval the Porter began: ‘Here’s a knocking indeed!’ What followed was part Shakespeare and part ad lib, as is common enough at the Globe, where the audience is truly part of the action and responds gleefully and noisily when the opportunity arises. ‘I had thought to let in some of all professions, that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire,’ the Porter muses. Nigel Farage, MEP and leader of UKIP was mentioned as someone who might helpfully go that path, to howls of approval from a packed London house. The next night, June 23, we dined with a young relative, who came to the restaurant in South London wearing an ‘I’m in’ badge—she has never known a Britain outside the EU, and was pretty confident that the Remain camp would prevail, largely because she couldn’t imagine not being part of Europe. On June 24 we woke, astonished.
Later that morning we travelled to Cambridge. And in a coincidence almost impossible to imagine outside fiction, we were to see King Lear there. The group who met to dine before the play included a well-known playwright, and several academics. Many of us ordered haggis chips, which are far nicer than they sound, and we all thought of Scotland, and I, of the Scottish play and the terrible outcome of Macbeth’s usurpation, which I was thinking of in terms of politics and power, of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Given the group, we were subdued, until someone said that they really hoped that when they woke up next morning they would find that it had all been a terrible mistake and that of course we were Remaining. No-one laughed at the sentiment, but neither did anyone imagine that wishing would make it so. Lear, of course, seemed to be exactly the right play for the moment: look what happens when emotion trumps reason and kingdoms divide.
Was it a mistake, though? The voice of the people was heard, certainly. What they were saying isn’t quite so clear, and many comments since from Brexit voters suggest that it was the political caste per se, as much at the EU itself, that was the focus of protest. Whether the vote, which has sent shock waves around the world, and particularly in Europe, will have as its outcome some radical political change—which might be the best possible result—only time will tell. Because, surely, this is in part what the vote meant. This is the 60 per cent of the 40/60 society saying they have had enough. And well might they say that as much in Britain or, rather, England and Wales, as anywhere else in the western world. Because it was England and Wales that voted to leave: Scotland did not, nor did Northern Ireland. It was England, in the shires, in the de-industrialised north-east, and in towns around the middest part, that voted to go, as did the valleys of Wales.
Plaid Cymru is now considering Welsh independence. It a sobering to note, as I write in the week after the vote, that more than 3 million people have signed a petition to parliament asking for a debate on the issue; equally sobering is the fact that, as is now well-known, after the polls closed the second greatest number of searches in the UK on Google were on the question ‘What is the EU?’. When the Scots were voting in their referendum on whether they should stay in the United Kingdom or go, they had a White Paper to turn to; at the very least it might have been thought that a decision so momentous as leaving the EU would deserve something similar.
Are we in or out? Until Parliament ratifies the referendum result and invokes Clause 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, nothing has changed. Except that both the major parties are in turmoil as I write, and Boris Johnson has been the subject of a stabbing-in-the-back Shakespearean in its proportions. And to complete the chaos in Westminster, once more the left seems determined to tear itself apart just at the moment when a strong opposition is most needed and most likely to make a difference. If leaving the EU doesn’t make you tear your hair out, this might.
Rumbles of a call for a referendum in France are beginning to circulate and Scotland’s bid to be dealt with by the EU as a separate nation are being quashed, for the moment at least. Amidst all this drama, and against the sad backdrop of some very nasty anti-immigrant violence and xenophobia, the larger issues of global capitalism, which has been the elephant in the room all along, and most importantly the environment, are off the agenda. We might all be best to take a breath, and remember that Lear had to go mad before he saw sense.
– Valerie Krips