The Brexit carnival

Peter Collett with a letter from our January edition.

Recently, Prime Minister Theresa May warned that she would not ‘give in’ to those calling for a second EU referendum, saying that such a vote would be a ‘gross betrayal of our democracy’. Yet I argue, from a social psychological perspective, that what we’ve been witnessing isn’t so much an exercise in democracy as a gargantuan and protracted carnival. It’s a pageant of unruly forces that have lain dormant for many years but that have now burst forth, invading the body politic and catching everyone off guard.

Carnivals are found all round the globe. Although they come in various shapes and sizes, there are several fundamental features that they have in common. One is that carnivals only last for a limited period, during which time the official world, with its trappings of respectability and convention, gives way to an unofficial, festive world of extravagant costumes, music, laughter, feasting, drinking and revelry. While the official world is founded on respect for rank, and on restraint and responsibility, the temporary and unofficial world of the carnival is dedicated to licence, excess and abandonment. Where everyday life is serious and deferential, carnivals are playful and mocking. Their purpose is not to uphold the status quo, rather to expose and undermine it – to celebrate the forces of renewal and regeneration rather than those of orthodoxy and stability. This feature of carnivals is sometimes called ‘inversion’ or ‘reversal’, a reference to the topsy-turvy character of carnivals in which rulers are replaced by their subjects, solemnity by ribaldry, and caution by recklessness. At the end of the carnival (such as the Roman Saturnalia), the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ is often cruelly dispatched – a ritualised way of killing off the old in order to make way for the new.

While Brexit hasn’t involved carnivalesque feasting, carousing or drunkenness – unless of course we include those photo ops of politicians quaffing beer in pubs round the country – there have been unusually high levels of ridicule and derision. Like carnival fools or clowns mocking the established order, the Leavers lampooned the Remainers, who in turn did everything in their power to make the Leavers look stupid and irresponsible. The carnival humour has been typically grotesque, prone to hyperbole, and illustrative of a fantasian picture of everything that the carnival has to offer. There are several obvious candidates for the role of ‘Lord of Misrule’.

Everyone taking part in a carnival knows that what you do and say during the celebrations doesn’t count. Your actions and utterances exist in another world, completely separate from the one to which everyone returns when the carnival is finished. And typically, when a carnival is over, everything that was associated with it is dismantled and disappears. But that hasn’t happened with Brexit. Instead of the unofficial world of the carnival giving way to the official world of normality, it’s actually invaded the official world, and it shows every sign of continuing for many years to come.

It is also intriguing that several of the main ‘Brexit clowns’, having absented themselves from the scene in the usual carnivalesque way after the vote itself, have now returned to the tent. Their one concession to the public is arguably to have abandoned the clown car in favour of the gravitas train…

The carnival does have redeeming features. It involves everyone; equally inclusive and egalitarian. And the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out that carnivals encourage what he calls ‘misalliances’ – improbable partnerships between individuals who wouldn’t typically have anything to do with each other (think Sadiq Khan and Ruth Davidson). Perhaps there are lessons for the politics of the future here.

Similarly, political campaigners must surely learn the lessons of the carnivalesque aspects of what mobilises voters. Carnivals are unruly, energetic, inspiring and cathartic. They’re about vitality, renewal, excitement and fun. So when one side of a referendum becomes infused with the spirit of carnival, it’s bound to garner a lot more support than the prospect of things remaining unchanged. Given the choice between a Rabelaisian world of laughter on the one hand and a humdrum world of austerity and officialdom on the other, many people inevitably choose the former. The big challenge for Britain – and even more so for the United States – is how to ‘de-clown’ politics.

Dr Peter Collett
Oxford

For a full version of this argument: tinyurl.com/brexitcar

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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January 2019

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