Brexit broke the story we’d been telling about ourselves as a nation – we need to write a better one
If you read fiction, go to the cinema, play video games, or watch TV drama, it’s probably happened to you at some point. You’ve been happily enjoying a story when it does something so outlandish, so at odds with its own logic, or so out of line with genre expectations that your suspension of disbelief flies out of a tenth-floor window.
The technique can be deployed to great effect by writers of metafiction, for whom reminding the audience that the story is just that is part of the point. Other times, it’s simply a failure to convince that kills our belief in the story. (Star Wars fans are willing to accept mystical Forces, lightsabers and spaceship battles, but who didn’t groan at ‘Somehow, Palpatine returned’?)
For me, June 24th, 2016 was one of those moments. I’d spent most of the previous day glued to the TV, following coverage of the referendum; still half-asleep, I heard my partner roll over, look at the BBC website and announce, “We’re f***ed.”
The result took a while to feel real. The fact that Wales had voted for Brexit took longer.
To be shocked, of course, was a privilege, a function of being white and English-speaking, with a ‘British’-sounding name. It’s easy to be naïve about how accepting a country you live in when the prejudice isn’t directed at you. The story is always easier to believe when it makes room for you to begin with. Still, it’s not an exaggeration to say my sense of identity had been damaged somewhere deep down.
The thing about stories is, they’re not just entertainment. They’re also the building blocks of how we think about ourselves. Psychologists call the way we build our sense of self through stories “narrative identity”—through telling our life stories and giving them meaning, we create a coherent picture of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.
Nations and communities, too, are built through narrative. It’s no accident that Benedict Anderson, in his study Imagined Communities, identifies the beginnings of the modern nation with the invention of the printing press. Our national story constructs how we see our national character, and tales of proud battles for independence and plucky underdog resistance are predictably popular, as the UK establishment’s invoking ad nauseam of the Blitz Spirit illustrates.
So, what were the stories I’d grown up with about Wales? The Chartist Rising and the Rebecca Riots. Nye Bevan founding the NHS. Miners travelling to Spain to fight fascism—and later, at home, embattled by the cruel Thatcher government. Stories that emphasized the fight for fairness and emancipation and the underdog status of the Welsh working class. There were protests at home, but also a recognition of the right of everybody in the world to that same emancipation.
At the same time, the movement for Welsh independence sought an equal place for Wales among the nations of Europe, not the lonely pre-eminence of Britannia ruling the waves. We believed in fairness; or at least, we did in the version of Wales I’d constructed out of those stories. We looked outward, not inward: no insular Little Englanding here. We cared about more than just ourselves.
Or did we? Those stories didn’t have room for Brexit, for a Wales that cleaved to an inward- and backward-looking UK and blamed its problems on foreign scapegoats. Their internal logic broke under the weight of this new evidence. They stopped working. I wasn’t sure I belonged to this place anymore.
It’s usual here to note that not every person who voted for Brexit did so out of racism or xenophobia—and certainly, dissatisfaction and neglect in communities battered by years of austerity played a part. But equally, it’s absurd to pretend that a campaign funded by some of the richest people in the UK constituted some kind of working-class uprising, or that years of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the mainstream press had nothing to do with it. The uptick in hate crimes that followed the referendum was real. The bullishly British-nationalist Westminster government that Brexit enabled is still in power.
These things aren’t fiction, but stories enabled them. The narrative of a plucky British underdog under attack by the hostile forces of bureaucracy and immigration is a seductive one—and, in Brexit, it offers a simple ‘win’. It’s about more than just EU membership, of course. It draws on notions of lost pre-eminence, of glory days to be recaptured, conveniently leaving out the colonial horrors on which those things were built. The national identity this story offers is exceptional, threatened, and therefore utterly compelling. This sense of national greatness in decline, of a lost golden age to be returned to, is endemic to authoritarian regimes, and resonates with the first of Robert Paxton’s five stages of fascism.
What’s the cure? Probably not facts, figures, or even bitter experience. The Johnson government remains points ahead of its opposition even with empty petrol stations and supermarket shelves. I’m no politician, but if there is any hope to be had, I think we’ll find it in stories.
Partly, that means acknowledging that the old stories were inadequate, and incomplete. For all that they talk about fighting for the rights of ordinary people, they too often fail to remember that ‘ordinary people’ aren’t just those who are white, or who were born here. Communities of colour and immigrant communities in Wales have existed for centuries, and Welsh complicity in British colonialism means that links to empire and slavery are built into the landscape and the industry that shaped it. Writing a better story, going forwards, means being aware of these things, not sweeping them under the rug, and refusing to cling to a narrow and limited idea of who is ‘really’ Welsh.
It’s possible. The inclusion of Black history in the Welsh curriculum is a step in the right direction. There is work being done, and there are places to educate ourselves: the 1919 Race Riots Collective and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic History resource in People’s Collection Wales are somewhere to start.
Young people, whose support for independence has surged in recent years, are also more socially accepting, more likely to be out as LGBTQ+, more aware of racism and police violence, more urgently concerned with climate change. Future Wales probably won’t be a magical utopia, but it could be a place that chooses to reckon with the worst parts of ‘Britishness’ instead of reproducing them. It could look forward, instead of back to an imaginary golden age built on colonialism and brutal class exploitation.
Or it could sink back into that reactionary ‘Britishness’, cede control piecemeal to Tory Westminster, and lose its identity in the process. It could be a horror story, a cautionary tale. Let’s hope not.
JL George was born and lives in Cardiff. She writes weird and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies including Resist Fascism, The Black Room Manuscripts, and Into the Woods. A 2019 Literature Wales bursary recipient, JL George is a graduate of Manchester and Cardiff universities and her academic interests lie in literature and science, the nineteenth-century Gothic, and the classic weird tale.
The dystopian vision explored in The Word is inspired in part by Brexit and right-wing extremism. A shorter extract from the novel won the 2019 New Welsh Writing Awards: Aberystwyth University Prize for a Dystopian Novella. The Word is published on 28 October 2021 by New Welsh Rarebyte and you can buy a copy here.