Brexit Reflection: Letter from a Ruined Castle

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d…

Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2 (‘A Castle in View’)


Dear Spectator readers,

I pen this cry of disquiet and dismay on March 29 – the day on which, for two years, the British government has vowed it will leave the European Union – in the ruined castle of my hometown of Berkhamsted, just north of London: an aptly surreal, if all-too-serene, setting to reflect on the interminable tragicomedy of Brexit.

In 1066, the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, accepted the English Crown here from his defeated Saxon foes, a decisive turn toward ruthless centralization and the inexorable Conquest of Celtic Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In 1495, four centuries after the imposition of ‘the Norman Yoke’ – as radicals through the ages have termed it – the castle began its decline with the death of ‘Proud Cis,’ Dame Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of Richard III, a woman of great brilliance and beauty who somehow survived the self-destruction of her family in the War of the Roses, living the last quarter-century of her long life here in legendary (albeit opulent) piety and increasing seclusion.

Berkhamsted Castle, March 2019. (Photo by Lee-Anne Broadhead)

Berkhamsted Castle, March 2019. (Photo by Lee-Anne Broadhead)

The Duchess died just three years after Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ to a ‘New World’ Europe claimed a ‘God-given’ right to rule – and plunder of its human and natural wealth. By the end of the Victorian era, English (mis)rule over the British Isles had morphed into Britannia’s (mis)rule of much of the planet, an Empire on which ‘the sun never set’ – until the costs of defending it in two World Wars proved a yoke too heavy even for ‘John Bull’ to bear. Britain, it seemed to many, was suddenly ‘ungreat,’ a sea change confirmed in their eyes by ‘retreat’ into the European Common Market in the 1970s.


Other ‘eyes’, of course, saw other things to dislike in the European Project. For millions of anti-imperialist socialists like my father, the Common Market was little more, and nothing less, than a capitalist bankers’ club, an attempt, dressed in the language of peace and friendship, to dictate the terms of socio-economic development not just within Europe but between Europe and the Third World. This was, for example, the initial view of Ann Clwyd, a Welsh Labour MP I worked for as a student intern a Westminster in the 1980s. From 1979-84, Ann was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), fighting the good fight against ‘free market’ fundamentalism, but also coming to appreciate the benefits of European regional development as a counterforce to the ravages of the Thatcher Tories’ scorched-earth attacks on industrial Britain.

Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, UK. (Photo by Jonfarman at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, UK. (Photo by Jonfarman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I went to Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1984 (for Peace Studies in the midst of the brutally-repressed Miners’ Strike) the town center was in a grim, ‘irreversible’ decline I then saw reversed by European funding, investments in the ‘creative economy’ leading most dramatically to the restoration and re-opening of the Alhambra Theatre.

‘The’ European Project, many ‘Reds’ and ‘Greens’ realized, was in fact many, often contradictory, projects: capable, yes, of birthing capitalist monsters like the Single Currency, destroying the social fabric and future prospects of Greece and other ‘peripheral’ economies dominated by the Franco-German heartland, but also a mechanism for redestributing wealth from richer to poorer regions; establishing vital safeguards and protections for workers, consumers, and the environment; elevating the importance and impact of arts and culture; and fostering a sense of tolerant, transnational identity, at its multicultural best — a sense not just of European but human solidarity, anathema and antidote to the poisons of right-wing, even neo-fascist populism.

Some on the left were unpersuaded by this view of the Project not as panacea but terrain, a field progressives vacate at their peril – but in the 52%-48% Brexit referendum of June 2016 probably under a fifth of ‘Leavers’ were motivated by the old-school conviction the EU was irredeemably capitalist and, thus, inherently reactionary. The great majority – whatever party (if any) they supported – was overtly nationalistic, proclaiming a ‘patriotism’ invariably singling out immigration, from Europe and elsewhere, as the nightmare of post-Imperial history from which, to be made great again, Albion must awake.


Is this depiction of Brexit as John Bull’s last stand (and, perhaps, ultimate Pyrrhic victory) too harsh? Well, a key Leave motif, recurring in both conversation and coverage, is that Britain has been ‘diluted’ by immigration, the pure White wine (of, especially, a mythic Olde England) watered down. The fantasy is not merely perverse – especially for a country which, for centuries, sent millions of its people to ‘settle’ (and steal) other lands – but dangerous, for it’s delusions (not dilutions) of grandeur that threaten now to tear a still-developing but potentially dynamic and diverse democracy apart.

Anti-Brexit protest, March 2019. (Photo by Tomas Davies, CC0 Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Brexit protest, March 2019. (Photo by Tomas Davies, CC0 Wikimedia Commons)

‘Undiluted Britain’ is, of course, officially unspeakable: the term of choice is the less chilling, if no more meaningful, ‘Global Britain.’ Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London on February 19, Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson – controversially plucked from comparative obscurity as Theresa May’s chief whip to replace the disgraced sexual-harasser Sir Michael Fallon in November 2017 – did his best to insist ‘Global Britain’ was “much more than a pithy phrase.” Waxing Churchillian he intoned:

As we look at our position in the world, we should remind ourselves that we are a nation with a great inheritance. A nation that makes a difference. A nation that stands tall. Inevitably, there are those who say that we are in retreat. Those who believe that, as we leave the European Union, we turn our back on the world. But, this could not be further from the truth. Whether people voted to leave or remain, they believe Britain must continue to play an important and major role on the international stage.

It is my belief that Britain has its greatest opportunity in 50 years to redefine our role. As we leave the European Union. And, the world changing so rapidly it is up to us to seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. We will build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required. We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership.

As there is, evidently, no greater power than violence, the heart of Williamson’s ‘vision’ is “transforming defense through increased lethality,” to achieve the noble goal of “armed forces with more mass.”

First (or most violent) things first, Britain will modernize its Trident submarine fleet to remain a nuclear-weapon-state for at least “another 50 years” – another half-century, that is, of wanton disregard for the country’s legally-binding commitment under the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate “in good faith” the elimination of its arsenal.

But the sacred duty of “enhancing our mass and increasing our lethality” extends in many directions, from “pioneering robotic fighting” on the battlefield, through “swarm-squadrons of network-enabled drones” and a “Venom kinetic strike capability” in the air, all the way to the final frontier:

And to our armed forces quite simply the sky is not the limit. In space, they look forward to the investment we are making to enhance our space operations center…


Williamson’s rousing peroration – “Some still wish to cut Britain down to size and send her back to her shores…” – led inevitably to “Brexit” which “has brought us to a moment…when we must strengthen our global presence” by – you guessed it – strengthening “our lethality” and enhancing “our mass.” “It is up to all us,” the Secretary concluded in an ungrammatical flourish, “to make sure that our great nation seizes and grasps the opportunity that present themselves with both hands.”

Interestingly, both Williamson and May campaigned as Remainers, though both fiercely criticized key EU institutions, processes and laws – making one ask why they didn’t, except for careerist reasons, want to leave – and were happy to play up, not allay, fears of excessive immigration. As Home Secretary, indeed, May was notoriously hardline, glorying in the creation of what she dubbed a “hostile environment,” ostensibly only to pressure ‘illegals’ into leaving but acting also to intimidate and stigmatize many legitimate claimants and even full British citizens, such as the bureaucratically-persecuted ‘Windrush’ generation of migrants from the Caribbean.

Theresa May meets European Parliament President Antonio Tajani [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Theresa May meets European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of writing, May’s days as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ Prime Minister are coming to an end, though Britain’s remaining time in the EU is harder to assess. But while the outlook remains, to put it politely, unsettled, after five weeks here it’s clearer to me why many Leavers were prepared to take such an enormous gamble.

They wanted ‘their home’ – their Castle – back.

Your sincerely (depressed),

Sean Howard


P.S. With the passing of ‘Proud Cis,’ Berkhamsted Castle left history with ‘no deal.’ Things fell apart – though the massive walls were at least taken apart, by rich and poor alike, to good purpose, repairing and building a town free of its grim, medieval shadow. No deal or bad deal – though I still pray for the sane reprieve of a Second Referendum – could Brexit spell the death of the fantasy of a Great-Again Britain, a final crumbling of illusion providing useful material for building a more modest and humane society? Though even if that is where we’re headed, no one in their right mind would start from here.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.




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