Brexit: A View from Inside England

by Gary White

My wife, Elyn, and I were in Penzance, Cornwall, UK, during the midsummer Golowan Festival. The Pirates of Penzance were out in full force, part of the play-acting that is part of this modern revival of an ancient pagan rite. But the festival wasn’t the only thing happening. At a street corner more commonly frequented by buskers and hangers-on, I saw a well-dressed older man holding up a large placard with only one word on it: “IN.” I looked at the other side, expecting it to say, “OUT,” but it also said “IN.” I wondered what “IN” had to do with Golowan, but then I realized that it referred to the “RemaIN” forces in the upcoming referendum, in which the UK was voting whether they wanted to leave (Brexit) the European Union.

Nearby I saw two tables covered with leaflets, one for the RemaIN side and one for the Brexit side. People were engaged in excited but polite conversation with passers-by, and it was clear that the locals were considering this decision seriously. The polling was scheduled for that very day. I didn’t take all this too seriously because I thought that the sensible Brits would surely vote to remain in the EU.

While Golowan Festival festivities paraded through the streets, the people of the UK voted. Little did we know that another carnival was about to begin.

That night we  attended a torchlit procession featuring Penglaz, a mythic figure with a horse’s skull for a head, that ran in and out through the crowd. We followed the dancing revelers through the streets of the town, accompanied by a rag-tag band of fiddles, flutes, concertinas, and drums. It was great fun. 

The following morning I heard the shocking truth: the UK had voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU. I could feel a seismic shifting of the earth beneath my feet.

What does it all mean? Of course, nobody knows, but what is immediately apparent is that it represents a major change for the UK, the EU, and for the world. I listened to the BBC as British Prime Minister, David Cameron, made his own exit speech in front of Number 10 Downing Street. Then government officials began dropping like flies. There were several conflicting pronouncements from the European Union side that shifted between conciliatory sentiments and calls for the UK to “get out as soon as possible.” Exit movements in several European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, were elated and increased their demands for their own “Nexit” and “Frexit.”

How David Cameron came to call for the Brexit referendum is interesting in itself. There has been an element in the Tory party that has been Euroskeptical since the days of Margaret Thacher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. In an effort to appease this element in his party, David Cameron called for the referendum in spite of the fact that he bitterly opposed it and fought it all the way. He depended on the referendum failing—but it didn’t. This will likely be the error he will be remembered for. A headline on the Vox World news site read, “Brexit is David Cameron’s fault.”

We continued to enjoy the ongoing Golowan Festival, but there was a sense of unreality in the air. We visited the stands selling goods and stopped to listen to the folk music bands. No one was talking about Brexit, but when I asked, some people admitted they were in total shock, others were furious, and others seemed very pleased with the results. We watched several parades made up of local school groups and marching bands, going on as though nothing had happened. But of course, something profound had.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farange, almost immediately said that his previous claim that £350M of funds going to the EU could be redirected to the failing National Health Service was a “mistake.” Is mistake another word for “lie?” And a Tory MEP (Member of the European Parliament) said that Brexit would not stop the free movement of immigrants into the UK. These were some of the primary reasons that many people had voted for Brexit, but that seemed not to matter at all.

When asked what their plan was for the UK after Brexit, the above leaders admitted that they had no plan—in part because they had believed that Brexit would fail. Rafael Behr, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, quipped, “Of course the Brexiters didn’t plan. Arsonists never carry water.”
We went to a local soap and cosmetics shop and found the owner, a friend of ours, in a heated conversation with a customer. They were talking about Brexit, of course. The man, who was quite a wag, provided me with this analogy for the Brexit vote: “How do you get a cat off your roof? Burn your house down!”

We met Cornish friends for yet another Golowan parade, and they told us that they had voted for Brexit, in part because they want to get back Cornish fishing rights. They gave a recent example. It seems that there was an unexpected major run of haddock just off shore from here, but the local Newlyn fishermen couldn’t harvest them because they hadn’t applied for the proper EU permits. In the meantime, French fishermen harvested the fish because they had the proper permits. I learned later that the fishing rights were not negotiated by the EU but by the UK government, and Brexit would in no way change the process of obtaining those rights. Another misleading bit of propaganda!

A refrain I kept hearing was that it is time now for the UK to reassert its sovereignty, which had been compromised by EU membership. I also heard calls for “England for the English”—which sounds like an anti-immigrant or even racist plea. (One result of Brexit campaigning has been an upsurge in racist attacks.)

To further complicate matters, there is now  a petition before the UK Parliament to hold a second referendum on Brexit. This petition has over four million signatures, well above the 100,000 required for Parliament to respond. Ironically, the petition was initiated weeks ago by a Brexit supporter who believed that the referendum would fail and wanted a second chance at it. What, if anything, might be the result of a second referendum is anyone’s guess.

A few days ago we met a young woman at the ticket shed at Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, an outstanding local attraction. She told me that she had dreamed of owning an olive farm in Spain but feared that she would no longer be able to relocate there. (There is a generational flavor to the division of opinion.) I observed that she had never lived in a Europe that was not united, and she agreed.

A week before, I had discussed the upcoming Brexit vote with our host at a B&B in Fowey, Cornwall. While he fried up our “full Cornish breakfast” of eggs, bacon, sausage, stewed tomatoes, and gluten-free toast, he commented that the EU was purposely being weakened by big corporate forces that don’t like its regulatory stance. A weakened or broken EU would obviously work to Monsanto’s advantage, since it has had difficulty in getting EU approval for its Roundup herbicide and “Roundup Ready” GMO seeds. I can certainly understand how Monsanto might be working behind the scenes in favor of Brexit and all the other “leave” movements across Europe. That there are other corporate interests that would like to see the EU fail seems likely to me and to others that I talk to here in Cornwall.

The week-long Golowan Festival is now over, and the Pirates of Penzance have put away their costumes for another year. Meanwhile, the political carnival continues. We just heard that Boris Johnson, the Tory politician who was one of the most vocal supporters of Brexit, has taken himself out of running to become prime minister. It seems that no one wants the responsibility for actually taking the UK out of Europe. Are politicians the real pirates in disguise?

Gary White blogs at Together with his wife, Elyn Aviva, they write and publish a series of guidebooks with the general title of “Powerful Places in . . .” ( Gary and Elyn have traveled from their home in Girona, Catalonia, Spain, to Cornwall to escape the heat of summer, only to discover that they have entered the firestorm of the UK’s move to leave the European Union. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire!”

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