Brexit Reflections: Mayday from Glastonbury

Dear Spectator Readers,

Mayday! Mayday!

I send up this distress call from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (a Celtic-knot of history, myth, magic and legend; a place of long-lost glory) in a ‘United’ Kingdom rapidly losing structural and social integrity.

In much of the world, today — May Day — is International Workers’ Day, commemorating the struggles and celebrating the achievements of industrial trade unionism. Here in Glastonbury, it is Beltane, the Celtic Festival of Fertility, the passionate union of the natural and divine.

King and Queen of the May. Beltane celebrations, Glastonbury, 2019. (Source: YouTube

King and Queen of the May. Beltane celebrations, Glastonbury, 2019. (Source: YouTube)

In many ways, both the marching workers and the dancing ‘pagans’ seek a radically fairer and more peaceful world, via either a more natural religion – a ‘return to the Goddess’ – or a new human ordering of nature to meet the needs of society. But what a difference in that ‘either,’ for while the Beltane vision may seem naively unanchored from reality, the reality it clearly grasps is the one now concentrating the hearts and minds of millions of new activists: the impossibility of improving human life through the relentless economic exploitation, capitalist or socialist, of the planet that gives us life.

As the harsh facts of science tell us, 300 years of industrial assault on Mother Earth have triggered traumatic (but still early) symptoms of runaway climate change, dramatically reducing the distance between existence and extinction for countless species that may soon include our own. What, then, was more urgently needed, or could have been more aptly named, than the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in April in London (and other cities and countries), a non-violent festival of resistance to ecocidal business-as-usual?


The real antithesis to XR in Britain isn’t the labour movement, which has increasingly accepted the need for a ‘Green Jobs Revolution’ — a post-industrial transformation of socialism (and democracy) itself — and which pressed the government accede to XR’s demand and declare a ‘National Climate Emergency,’ as it did last Wednesday.

No, the antithesis to XR is the Brexit movement — a last rebellion against the extinction of Empire; a paranoid fantasy that ‘foreigners’ have sapped the energy and will of once-Great Britain; a belief that, free of the sickening shadow of Brussels, new sprouts of freedom will appear, together with rapid growth fertilized by ‘free trade’ deals with the USA, the Commonwealth, and in particular Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the former ‘White Dominions’ of the imperial ‘Anglosphere.’

The ‘Churchill’ of the Brexit movement is Nigel Farage, confidante and admirer of Donald Trump, stockbroker champion of the common man, founder of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) — the ugly boil on the Conservative body politic Prime Minister David Cameron cunningly decided to lance with the ‘Leave or Remain’ referendum in 2016. In late April, with UKIP goose-stepping into overtly neo-fascist (and violently anti-feminist) territory, Farage launched a new ‘moderate’ party, known simply as ‘Brexit,’ which is currently tied with Labour in opinion polls for May 23 elections to the European Parliament. Elections Prime Minister Theresa May, current holder of Cameron’s poison chalice, is desperately hoping somehow won’t take place.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons)

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Guardian and Nation columnist Gary Younge, one of the few non-white people to witness the birth of the Brexit party, brilliantly evoked the demagogic ‘chemistry’ between leader and led:

They call him Nigel, and he arrived as a friend. You can smell the nostalgia on them. … ‘We’re a proud nation,’ one woman told me. ‘We’re a fighting nation. We will not be humiliated.’

And, of course, “whatever else they are” – they are not racist. This point is declarative, not discursive – a statement made in response to a question that has not been asked and a point that has not been made. They insist on their own decency and persecution. “Britain’s over, manners are over,” one man told Farage. “If I say I don’t like foreigners coming over here and taking all the jobs, I’ll be arrested,” he said, before not being arrested.


The ‘nation’ most Leavers are ‘proud’ of, of course, is not Britain but England: ‘Brexit’ has always meant ‘Engxit,’ just as ‘Britain’ has for centuries meant the English Empire, albeit one ironically rooted, as noted in my last letter, in the death of Anglo-Saxon England in the Norman Conquest.

In 1914, the question of Irish Home Rule threatened to explode ‘Global Britain’ at its ‘domestic’ core; defusing that bomb, indeed, was one motivation for London’s decision to enter the Great War, a cynical gamble sparking the 1916 Easter Rising, the horrors of the Irish Civil War, and the tragedy – and, now, the recurring nightmare – of the hard border between Ulster and Eire.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons)

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, London, UK, April 2019. (Photo by Jwslubbock, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, the question of Scottish Independence was seemingly ‘put to bed’ with a convincing referendum vote to ‘Remain’ in the UK. (Scotland officially surrendered its sovereignty, coincidentally, on May Day 1707.) But then, courtesy of Cameron, came Farage, unwitting savior of the separatist cause, with Scottish First Minster Nicola Sturgeon now pressing for a second Independence vote on the sound logic that if the question five years ago had been ‘Should Scotland Stay in a UK outside the EU?’ the answer would have been ‘No [Expletive] Way’!

But it isn’t just Britain, that Celtic Knot of Occupied Territories, that’s now unraveling: so too is England, itself a Little Britain of immense regional and cultural diversity, held for a political eternity in the vice-grip of London. Modern London, dynamically multicultural and massively pro-Remain – or, in Farage-speak, home to a highly-suspect ‘metropolitan elite’– would now rather follow Scotland back into Europe than preside over, and pay the price of, a diminished and contracting, internally-combustible ‘Union.’

For most environmentalists – as for those in the overlapping worlds of anti-war and social justice activism – their country (as Virginia Woolf said in World War One) “is the world,” and the Conquest they’re determined to end is the Conquest of Nature, the Rape of the Goddess, the human imperialism idiotically endangering human survival.

A common sign at the XR protests was (under a picture of the globe) ‘This Means More Than Brexit.’ But precisely because, as Gary Younge says, the ‘rebels’ understand “there is no meaningful national response to global warming,” and so see themselves “as part of a global movement…which requires seeing foreign people as human beings, and agreements and alliances between nations as fundamental to any possible solution,” Brexit matters terribly in framing and driving debates in Britain about its role and responsibility as a former imperial and industrial superpower in addressing a question too big for any single ballot: whether the planet remains inhabitable, or we leave it in ruins.

Featured image: Silent prayer at Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset by Tiverton, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Sean Howard



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