The Brexit carnival

Peter Collett with a letter from our January edition; plus a response.

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

For a full version of this argument:

Illustration: Tim Sanders


Remaining Officially Ad Hominem? In That Case I'll Leave

In his article, The Brexit Carnival, Peter Collett quotes PM May saying that a second Referendum would be a 'gross betrayal of our democracy'. His counterargument is that, 'what we've been witnessing isn't so much an exercise in democracy as a gargantuan and protracted carnival.' However, Collett’s metaphor of the carnival only distracts from arguing anything of substance regarding the Brexit process, instead involving only ad homimen attacks at the Brexiters.

Initially, it seems as if both Leavers and Remainers are caught within the carnival, as if one was Punch and the other was Judy. For example, he continues: 'Like 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.' Although Remainers are playing the carnival game, note that Brexiters are here both the Punch and the Judy; they are the 'fools and clowns'; they are 'stupid and irresponsible'. The Remainers, however, have no such negative labels attached to them.

Instead, a politically irrelevant distinction between 'official' and 'unofficial' is then mapped onto Collett’s anti-Brexit meditations. For example, he continues: '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 years to come.' So, despite the fact that Brexit was the successful position in the Referendum vote, and Remaining was the unsuccessful position in the Referendum vote, Brexit is somehow here managed to be labelled negatively as 'unofficial', and the world without Brexit is somehow labelled as 'official'. How does that happen?

In his letter, Collett has provided exactly zero sensible counterarguments against the actual reasons for voting Brexit: to take back control of money, borders, laws and trade. At least this argument presented to voters a positive vision of the UK as existing sovereignly outside of the political jurisdiction of the EU. Indeed, not only does Collett provide exactly zero sensible counterarguments against Brexit, he also provides no positive vision for why the UK should Remain within the EU.

The so-called 'official world of normality' never existed. The official world of normality – or rather, let's say 'liberal democracy' – is actually supposed to cater for different political viewpoints; and there is thus no reason why Brexit cannot be seen as a legitimate political position within contemporary UK liberal democracy. Treated pragmatically rather than ideologically, all Brexit really involves is a renegotiation with the EU regarding our trading relationship, in order to leave membership of its increasingly politicised structures as a superstate.

Collett’s article only offers its readers familiar ad homimen tropes where Brexiters are simply dismissed as 'fools and clowns', 'stupid and irresponsible'. Remainers should drop the silly name-calling, because it only makes them look like ignorant clowns – who are only preaching to the converted, because everyone knows that ad hominem isn't a persuasive and substantial form of argument.


Dr Andrew Clark

Research Outputs Officer
University of Portsmouth

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