On Oct. 1, three professors, Associate Professor of History David Campion, Assistant
Professor of Political Science Leah Gilbert and Professor of English Rishona Zimring. met before a student audience in a panel called “Brexit and the Future of Europe.” The professors explored Brexit from a multidisciplinary perspective.
According to Campion, British nationalism goes back to the Middle Ages, and the “King’s Great Matter,” which was when King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church to escape the authority of the Pope. He compared the Pope’s power in the Middle Ages to that of the European Union (EU) today.
“That came to an end in 1533, with a law passed in Parliament called The Act of Restraints in Appeals. That basically meant that the King … was the highest authority (in Britain),” Campion said. “In many ways you have the first example of real sovereignty in Europe.”
Subsequently, Britain would go on to industrialize and imperialize. Distinct from the rest of Europe, it became the most powerful nation in the world. This separation continued into World War II when Britain was the last European country to not have either fallen to or allied with the Nazis.
“Fortress Britain was in many ways a very international destination,” Campion said.
Despite this multiculturalism, World War II helped create an independent British identity.
Campion then discussed the beginnings of the EU — the European Economic Community (EEC).
In 1957, the French prime minister predicted that if Britain were allowed into the EEC, it would “wreck the very Union that it wanted to join (because) Britain itself would never sit comfortably in the (EEC),” Campion said. “Britain had a longstanding hostility to the European continent.”.
Britain did not join the EEC until 1973. Only two years after they joined, they held a referendum to leave, yet two-thirds of the country voted to remain.
Campion argued that in June 2016, when the U.K. voted to leave the EU, it was not as unprecedented as it may seem.
“The (2016) referendum was quite simple: Should the United Kingdom remain in the European Union?” Campion said. “You voted yes, or you voted no.”
An intense campaign followed. The Leave campaign won by a slim margin: Campion called it “quite an upset,” because polls predicted the opposite.
“The politics of the EU have been turned upside-down,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert began by defining some essential vocabulary. She highlighted the single market (countries in the EU share one market), the customs union (there are common customs going into the EU and no customs between EU countries) and the proposed Irish Backstop (that the Irish border should remain open no matter what Brexit deal results).
She used these terms to outline the major conflicting Brexit strategies.
“Those who advocate for a hard
Brexit are those who want the UK to leave the single market as well as the customs union, and they argue that the UK leaving (both) will make it freer to make its own trade agreements with other countries,” Gilbert said.
“(This) contrasts with those who argue for a soft-deal Brexit,” Gilbert said. They recognize that “the UK needs to leave … but given that, they don’t think Britain should have such a large break from the EU, because there are so many potential unknowns,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert also spoke on how Brexit has changed British leadership. Britain has had three Prime Ministers since the referendum: David Cameron, Theresa May, and currently Boris Johnson. Johnson is now insistent on meeting his latest Brexit deadline of Oct. 31, with or without a deal.
“No matter what,” Gilbert said, “it’s gonna be a really interesting month.”
With her background in literature, Zimring encouraged the audience to consider a more complicated picture of Brexit voters.
She came to three conclusions in her presentation. First, she spoke on a work of Modernist British literature, exploring why the relatable characters in the novel might have voted in favor of Brexit.
“The two most sympathetic characters in E.M. Forster’s novel ‘Howards End’ would have supported Brexit,” Zimring said. “(The novel argues for) nostalgia, sentimentality, and a connection to the English countryside.”
She then referenced contemporary films: the movies “Blinded by the Light” and “Yesterday.” Both were released this summer and exemplify British life today.
“The two films … were about the immigrant experience in England, and both were about the success of assimilation,” Zimring said.
Thus, she argued that the main characters in these films would have voted against Brexit.
Third, Zimring says her book, “Social Dance and the Modernist Imagination in Interwar Britain,” led her to question “who voted for leave, and whether we’ve really heard their voices.”
The panel wrapped up with over 40 minutes of audience questions. Campion said he hoped students left “(with) a deeper understanding of how complicated Brexit is and just how consequential it is.”