Philippa Gregory’s narratives of national grievance
The decade preceding the EU referendum saw intensifying debate on the nature of Englishness, shaped by an anxiety about the loss of national and cultural identity. Links between nationalism and shared perceptions of history are well-documented, and recent years have seen a popular turn to imagined national pasts, one frequently visited period being the reign of Henry VIII. In order to explore the intersection of historical fiction and contemporary English identity, this chapter reads two novels with a Tudor setting, published in 2014 and 2015 by the best-selling author Philippa Gregory. The texts are found to be expressions of England’s ‘postcolonial melancholia’ (Gilroy, 2004). Ostensibly concerned with the ruptures of Henry’s reign, they are preoccupied with change and loss, lamenting the loss of privilege and portraying the emerging modernity as an invading force that threatens ancient birth-right. A picture of English grievance emerges which sheds some light on the visions of a prelapsarian England that help to shape the contemporary nation as it searches for a sovereignty it imagines itself to have lost.
Paul Kingsnorth, John Berger and the pros and cons of a sense of place
In 2014, Paul Kingsnorth published The Wake, a post-apocalyptic historical novel set in the years after the Norman invasion that tells the story of a group of native guerilla fighters who resist the ‘Norman yoke’. Read in our historical moment and against the backdrop of some of Kingsnorth’s political essays and articles, The Wake appears as a Brexit novel avant la lettre that constructs an authentic Anglo-Saxon Englishness, obliterated through invasion by the Continental Other. The threat that the foreigners pose to English identity serves as a template to the threat that globalisation and the ‘myth of progress’ pose to contemporary English identity. A comparison of Kingsnorth’s positions with those of John Berger throws the contingency of the traditional political categories of left and right into stark relief. Berger is equally straightforward in emphasising the importance of a sense of place, belonging and local identity in the face of globalised capitalism, but while Kingsnorth draws on a new right rhetoric of authentic place-based national identity, Berger’s Marxist humanism allows for a thinking of the nexus between place and identity not infatuated with narrow-minded particularism and exclusionary discourses of nationhood.
This chapter delineates major historical changes in the role that Europe has played in domestic discourse on the territorial order of the United Kingdom. It is argued that Europe has a uniform effect neither on this discourse nor on the territorial order itself. Instead, the impact of references to Europe is contingent upon both the state of the European project and the historical domestic context at a particular time. The EU and the European integration project have opened windows of opportunity for political actors in Britain to introduce and advocate particular constitutional notions and models. The Brexit process, as the most recent such window, may very well provide an unmissable opportunity for those who want to break up an already highly fragile United Kingdom.
This chapter discusses The Aachen Memorandum (AM) (1995) by historian Andrew Roberts as a paradigmatic example of one important branch of Eurosceptic novels. It analyses the novel as a dystopian narrative that depicts the European Union as a dys-EUtopia, set in a future where Britain has become an undesirable and unpleasant place that shares salient features with the dystopian societies of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. The chapter argues that Robert’s influential novel takes an extremely Eurosceptic perspective, extrapolating the EU’s integration efforts and policies into a totalitarian means of control through constant surveillance, propaganda or the re-writing of history. The chapter illustrates how the Eurosceptic novel actively promotes national identity and sovereignty, drawing upon a storehouse of Eurosceptic tropes and repeating a certain nationalist version of British history that sets Britain against a EUropean Other. Expressing and disseminating widespread Eurosceptic fears, Roberts’s novel thus anticipates Brexit.
Imagined communities in the Conservative Party’s discourse on Europe (1997– 2016)
The freedom of movement within the EU continues to be a hotly contested topic in British politics. This chapter argues that this debate is closely connected to the enlargement of the European Union – most notably the ‘Eastern enlargement’ in 2004. The author explores how the accession of ten new members was discussed by Conservative Party leaders in Parliament in the years preceding the Brexit referendum, asking if EU member states and their citizens were framed as part of a new ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson), or as culturally different outsiders. The analysis reveals that while the support for EU enlargement endured throughout the researched years, Tory party leaders, even when in opposition, exclusively emphasised the economic benefits of enlargement for Britain. This only changed in 2011 when UKIP had successfully put immigration on the agenda. Subsequently, a major shift occurred from highlighting benefits to the national interest to calls for stricter border control and active discouragement of migration.
Germans as aliens in post- war British popular culture
This chapter is concerned with post-war British perceptions of Germany. It is argued that by continuing to locate Germanness as the alien Other to Britishness in the post-war period, Britons could hold on to a secure sense of British identity and unity forged in wartime. Many post-war British novels, films and comic strips depicted Germans as alien to all humanity. While the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck! epitomises this tradition, the 1957 box-office hit The One That Got Away, starring the German actor Hardy Krüger and based on the true story of the prisoner of war Franz von Werra, challenged the stereotype. The fact that the dashing and good-looking Krüger exhibited character traits considered typical of British heroes, such as daring, wit and resourcefulness, led to uneasy and ambivalent responses in audiences and critics. Twelve years after the war, the humanness of Germans could still only be acknowledged in British popular culture as an anomaly.
A Gibraltarian writer’s personal testimonial on the road to Brexit
In this reflective autobiographical piece, the UK-based Gibraltarian novelist M.G. Sanchez describes a verbal assault he suffered in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and then goes on to remember other occasions in the past when his British-Gibraltarian identity was similarly impugned. Drawing on his experiences in the UK, Gibraltar and mainland Europe, he suggests that the Brexit mindset existed years and even decades before Brexit itself, its spirit of divisiveness and rebellion fanned all along by the populism of the right-wing press and the nativist prejudices of a large number of Britons. By way of conclusion, Sanchez states that what most surprised him about the Brexit referendum was not that the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, but that almost half of the population voted to remain. His own experiences, he says, had convinced him that the Leave campaign was going to win by an even bigger margin.
This chapter discusses the British relationship with the Continent through the usage of the term Iron Curtain, both in broader popular discourses and with a particular focus on three travel narratives (by David Shears, Anthony Bailey and Tim Moore) that span almost fifty years of British and European history – from the pre-détente Cold War years to the Brexit era. The narratives reflect the evolution of British views of borders and geopolitical orientations, engaging with the Iron Curtain as the hardest European border to date as well as Britain’s position towards/within Europe. Significantly, the travel narratives represent the Iron Curtain not only as a (changing) material structure, but also as a lasting trope of exclusion and isolation. The analysis is informed by Henri Lefebvre’s theory of space as well as border studies and cultural explorations of nostalgia.
Revisiting the cultural significance of the white cliffs of Dover
In the build-up to the EU referendum in 2016, the white cliffs of Dover loomed large over a debate crucially driven by concerns over immigration. This chapter discusses the problematic legacy of the cliffs as a key symbol of British insular exceptionalism and (racially) exclusive identities, with a focus on how travel accounts have both constructed and challenged the powerful symbolism of the white cliffs of the mind. The chapter discusses travel accounts by H.V. Morton, Christopher Isherwood, Jonathan Raban, Caryl Phillips and Jamaica Kincaid. Looking beyond the cliffs towards the English Channel as a space of cultural contact and exchange, this chapter argues for a broader and more inclusive perception of Britain’s national border.
The British vote to leave the EU is frequently explained with reference to the effects of immigration, the rise of populism, the country’s imperial past, memories of the Second World War, its attachment to parliamentary democracy, and its special relationship with the United States. Relevant as all these issues are, to fully understand Brexit it is also necessary to pay attention to the strong cultural forces that have driven the vote to leave. To put it simply, many people in Britain are literally Eurosceptic in the sense that they do not feel European, but instead see Europe and ‘the Europeans’ as the Other. Chiefly drawing on literature, and connecting the discourse of traditional anti-Catholicism with contemporary anti-Europeanism, this chapter explores the origins, nature and consequences of British cultural exceptionalism.