Brexit Tragedy: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in Julius Caesar
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” says Mark Anthony as he addresses the Roman people in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar. If anyone has been reading the past week’s articles about Brexit, I am sure you will have noticed the recurring references to Brutus and Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s aforementioned tragedy. In the play, as Caesar returns triumphant from the battle of Munda he is offered the crown by Anthony, but his friends, Cassius and Brutus, conspire to assassinate him. The plotting to remove Caesar from power results in his stabbing by his own trusted friends whose defense lies in the belief that, if Caesar ever became the king (here the fears are about him becoming king, monarch, and a tyrant), he would have acted against the good of the Roman people. It is not difficult to read this tragedy as an allegory of the post-Brexit events that are unfolding in front of our eyes. Both Boris and Jeremy are our contemporary Caesars, in some way or another, who were stabbed by their own trusted friends. Like Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, Michael Gove—the person who Boris thought would be his own campaign manager, now running for the Conservative party’s leadership—and Corbyn’s Labour MPs, who turned their backs on him, have become their detractors. The modern conspirators make clear that their actions are guided by their commitment to their ideals, the people and truth, but such actions are fed by personal and party interests. Like Brutus and the other conspirators who stabbed Caesar at the front, Gove and Labour MPs have stabbed their trusted friends at the front, and not the back. But perhaps the biggest stab has been delivered to Britain itself by its own people, and by a single “yes” to Brexit.
Johnson’s attitude after Brexit was ambiguous about the result and seemed to favour remaining within the EU, while Corbyn’s precarious position within his own party was caused by his alleged inability to offer a strong Remain message. Johnson, who campaigned for Leave, seems to have had a change of mind after the result, something that commentators ascribed to him not actually favouring Brexit but only using it to further his position within the Conservative party. Similarly, Cameron, for his own party interests had promised an EU referendum without considering that this arguably “harmless” decision would have had serious repercussions. And, Corbyn, who, according to many speculations was pro-Brexit, campaigned for Leave, is facing now a torn Labour party and harsh criticism. As he recently stated, he would try and navigate through issues for the best post-Brexit deal, and, despite repeated orders from within and without his party to step down, he has been holding onto his position firmly.
While Left and Right have conflicting agendas, no one has yet to step forward to trigger the exit mechanism. For many people, Brexit seems such a bad idea now given the already felt but also as yet unknown consequences that might ensue in the years to come. Many scenarios, alternatives, and speculations unbound as people are trying to make sense and find hope in the current situation. We are in need of a deus ex machina, a Batman or a Superwoman to lift this veil of uncertainty. Even on Tuesday, when Keanu Reeves was seen outside the parliament in London, Stuart Heritage of The Guardian joked about hopes being rekindled in the prospect of Keanu being the new prime minister. But, despite such frivolous comments, people are trying to navigate through the issues while contemplating possible exits and new avenues beyond the current cul-de-sac.
Perhaps there is hope after all. There are various voices arguing that since the referendum was proposed and accepted by a specific body, it can also be revoked by that same body. It has been said that it is only advisory, not legally binding, while others described it as plainly unlawful. For many voters losing their EU citizenship, Brexit is seen as an unjust and undemocratic decision that they cannot change or cancel. The only ones standing, defending their European inclusion is the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon who will try to block any legislation that will enable the UK to leave the EU. As she explained in an interview to Gordon Brewer, many Scottish are furious for being taken outside the EU without their will. In many ways, both democratic and EU nations are founded on the supposed free will of their citizens and every single part of the body of the nation should be respected and heard. For some commentators, it felt that there was no such political equality within the UK or the EU given that “British voters were hostages of the British government and the Tories’ Eurosceptic wing.” (The Guardian, anon) An International Public Law Professor, Philip Allott has argued that the decision for a referendum might be unlawful because it alters the legal status for people within the UK and for many without the UK. It is unlawful because it gives the government absolute control and was initiated by taking into consideration the interests of a particular political party and not those of the public. Since governments are supposed to serve the whole nation, and not a “favourable constituency”, Allott stressed that the referendum affected the whole country and that the opinions of a “large minority” should be heard. The decision to have a referendum was, for him, “arbitrary and unreasonable and disproportionate.”
Robert Hunter argued that it is possible that the referendum results can be ignored: “Parliament is sovereign. It voted to hold the Brexit vote; it can vote to ignore its practical effects.” As he noted, the results are damaging for many people, particularly those minorities that are always ignored: “Young Britons are condemned to live with a decision that will affect them forever because some old people (my generation) don’t like the way things are going for them. People who work hard for a living but got nothing from globalisation still won’t get a square deal. The same with the Scots. (Westminster could have helped, but didn’t.) Arrogant leaders in both key parties thought Bremain was a “slam dunk” and so did nothing for the left out. Even now they don’t understand why Brexit happened.”
Brexit: The Norway Model
On the other hand, despair spreads, infecting every single thought when you begin to comprehend the possible models for trade in post-Brexit Britain. If you look at the Norway model—UK will be a member of the European Economic Area, able to have full access to the single market, but it will continue to financially contribute to the EU, accept most of its laws, including free movement—it soon becomes visible that the UK relinquishes any presence in the European Parliament, blindly accepting EU laws, and having no power at all within the EU. It sacrifices its EU voice for retaining its European market. But where does this deal leave the UK? It was better off remaining within the EU and enjoying all its privileges, including participation and contribution to the European Parliament. Like Norway, the UK will have no say in the ways regulations about the single market are created. It is otherwise, the “nearly but not quite” model for EU membership as Damian Gayle in The Guardian named it. While many Brexiters voted against freedom of movement and regulation of immigration, they failed to see that they were condemning themselves to the limits of a non-EU UK, throwing away their own EU privilege to move freely within Europe. But for many unemployed and doomed within grimy housing estates, the possibility of ever traveling to Brussels or Paris, of ever tasting the privileges of free movement are inexistent, so voting against it meant nothing to them. They weren’t denying the right to anyone by malice, but they never considered the possibility that not being able to travel freely in the EU will be damaging to many. Perhaps, the idea that voting does not have any consequences is a symptom of our current mentalities, of entertainment voting, popularized by The X Factor and reality TV, where not liking one, voting for someone to leave or stay, has no consequences.
“Beware the ides of March”
Like Caesar, the people of Britain have ignored the warnings about post-Brexit crisis. Unfortunately, many English, took for granted their EU privileges while demonizing Europe. They assigned to Europe all those problems and disappointments, blaming it for everything they thought was wrong in their own country. The EU is no angel of course, but it is not the sole perpetrator of all the injustice and inequality many experience today, and whose roots lie not in the face of the other, but in the undemocratic structures of contemporary societies. If Brexit taught us something, that is—whether one is a political party or a sovereign individual—political decisions should not be made based on personal interests, but in a democratic manner, for the benefit of the whole of society.