Brexit in popular culture
Brexit is the commonly used term for the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, which resulted from a referendum on 23 June 2016. This article details the mostly critical response to this decision in the visual art, novels, theatre, and film.
The British government led by David Cameron held a referendum on the issue in 2016; a majority voted to leave the European Union. On 29 March 2017, Theresa May's administration invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union in a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. The UK was set to leave on 29 March 2019, unless the Brexit Withdrawal agreement was adopted by the House of Commons, in which case the UK would have left in May 2019. With the failure to ratify the withdrawal agreement by the British Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated a further extension until 31 October 2019. Later that year the withdrawal was delayed a further 3 months and struggling to pass his renegotiated deal in the way he wished Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the 2019 United Kingdom General Election on 12 December 2019, that gave the conservatives a majority of 80 seats, the UK subsequently left the European Union at 23:00 GMT on 31 January 2020.
Artists' sentiments toward Brexit
The response of artists and writers to Brexit has tended to be negative, reflecting a reported overwhelming percentage of people involved in Britain's creative industries voting against leaving the European Union. The claim by one, the visual artist Bob and Roberta Smith, writing in The Guardian newspaper during 2017 typifies this response:
Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.
Brexit in the visual arts
Responses by visual artists to Brexit include a mural, painted in May 2017, by the secretive graffiti artist Banksy near the ferry port at Dover in southern England. It shows a workman using a chisel to chip off one of the stars on the European Union Flag. In August 2019 the mural was found to have been painted over with white paint and covered in scaffolding.
In his 2017 art exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the artist Grayson Perry showed a series of ceramic, tapestry and other works of art dealing with the divisions in Britain during the Brexit campaign and in its aftermath. This included two large ceramic pots, Perry called his Brexit Vases, standing on plinths ten feet apart, on the first of which were scenes involving pro-European British citizens, and on the second scenes involving anti-European British citizens. These were derived from what Perry called his 'Brexit tour of Britain.'
Artist Clemens Wilhelm was commissioned by Scottish arts organisation Deveron Projects to mark the departure of the UK from the EU. His weeping willow Brexit Tree ' encapsulated both the sorrow of the UK's departure and hope for healing. It was planted on 31 January 2020 in a ceremony that included participation of Richard Demarco and A L Kennedy . A film work of the project will be released in January 2021.
Brexit in novels
The day after the referendum, gay niche erotica author Chuck Tingle self-published the 4,000-word book Pounded by the Pound: Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Britain Leaving the European Union, in which a large coin from the future comes to see the main character Alex to explain him the danger of Brexit, and together they go back to the past to sway voters against voting to leave the European Union, proving that all you need is love.
Peter Preston's 1998 novel, The 51st State, predicted a UK Prime Minister, following his father's dying wishes, withdrawing the UK from the EU, then joining the United States.
One of the first novels to engage with a post-Brexit Britain was Rabbitman by Michael Paraskos (published 9 March 2017). Rabbitman is a dark comic fantasy in which the events that lead to the election of a right-wing populist American president, and Britain's vote to leave the European Union, were the result of a series of Faustian pacts with the Devil. As a result, Rabbitman is set partly in a post-Brexit Britain in which society has collapsed and people are dependent on European Union food aid.
Mark Billingham's Love Like Blood (published 1 June 2017) is a crime thriller in which Brexit sees a rise in xenophobic hate crime. In the novel The Remains of the Way (published 6 June 2017), David Boyle imagines Brexit was a conspiracy led by a forgotten government quango, still working away in Whitehall, originally set up by Thomas Cromwell in the 16th century during the reign of King Henry VIII, and now dedicated to a Protestant Brexit.
Post-Brexit Britain is also the setting for Amanda Craig's The Lie of the Land (published 13 June 2017), a satirical novel set ten years after the vote to leave the European Union, in which an impoverished middle class couple from Islington in north London are forced to move from the heart of the pro-European Union capital to the heart of the pro-Brexit countryside in Devon.
Brexit is also the baseline for Douglas Board's comic political thriller Time of Lies (published 23 June 2017). In this novel, the first post-Brexit general election in 2020 is won by a violent right-wing former football hooligan called Bob Grant. Board charts the response to this of the hitherto pro-European Union metropolitan political elite.
Stanley Johnson's Kompromat (published 23 July 2017) is a political thriller that suggests the vote to leave the European Union was a result of Russian influence on the referendum, although Johnson has insisted his book is not intended to point the finger at Russia's secret services, but is "just meant to be fun."
Jonathan Coe's Middle England (published 8 November 2018) is a state-of-the-nation novel which re-introduces some of the author's earlier characters from The Rotters' Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004), and moves from the election of the coalition government in 2010, through the riots of 2011, the 2012 Olympics, the 2016 referendum and its aftermath, ending in 2018.
Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in the UK after Brexit. With a far-right party in power, only British-born people are permitted to remain in the country, and the book examines the consequences of populist and isolationist policies on the protagonist and his friends.
Sam Byers' Perfidious Albion is set in East Anglia, and examines power, influence, and nationalism in the UK after Brexit.
PV Wojnicki's The Game Changer is set in a slightly altered reality where Vote Leave lost the referendum by a narrow margin and are the ones calling for a second referendum. With a General Election imminent the COVID-19 pandemic strikes, causing a rise in right wing nationalism and sees the protagonist getting inadvertently drawn into politics.
Brexit in theatre
In theatre, in June 2017 the National Theatre in London presented a play by Carol Ann Duffy, entitled, My Country; a work in progress. An allegorical work, the play uses the device of a convention called by the goddess Britannia who is concerned about the future of the British people. The play differs from some artistic responses in that Duffy and the National Theatre-based the attitudes of the characters on stage in part on the responses to interviews, conducted by the regional offices of the UK Arts Councils, with ordinary people, but excluding responses from London and the south-east of England, where most people voted not to leave the European Union. As a result, according to Dominic Cavendish, writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, "the bias is towards the Leave camp." However, in fact, the play, that only featured British voices, was an example of how the British theatre artists largely ignored the perspective of migrants, contributing to “the paradox of simultaneous hyper- and in-visibility of immigrants in the UK” in the Brexit debate. Much more interesting were contributions from the UK-based migrant artists “in which migrant artists claim[ed] agency over their representation within public spaces and create a platform for a new social imagination that can facilitate transnational and trans-local encounters, multicultural democratic spaces, sense of commonality, and solidarity." Rosaura (an adaptation of Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca) created by actors Paula Rodríguez and Sandra Arpa was performed in London just after the Brexit referendum. It reimagines Calderón's story through contemporary politics with Rosaura following Astolfo to the Court of Europe. There he battles Segismundo in a reality show-style election. An Evening with an Immigrant is an autobiographical piece by a British-based Nigerian poet and performer Inua Ellams. It premiered in July 2016 at the Soho Theatre in London. Ellams recalls his life between Nigeria, the UK, and Ireland and comments on the British colonial past and its role in the current migrant crisis. Bubble Revolution by Polish playwright Julia Holewińska, directed by John Currivan and co-created and performed by Kasia Lech at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival focused on growing-up in communist and post-communist Poland and experiences of speaking English as a foreign language. The three productions used “memories rooted in their native and non-native cultures as a platform for the audience to engage with transnational conditions in today’s Europe and the UK, and explore these and spectators’ own experiences through a translocal gaze”.
Brexit in film
In 2016, the television director Martin Durkin wrote and directed an 81-minute long documentary film titled Brexit: The Movie, which advocated with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The film was produced by the production company Wag TV with a budget of £300,000. The production costs were sourced primarily through crowdfunding via Kickstarter alongside a £50,000 contribution from the hedge fund Spitfire Capital. In May 2016 the film premiered in Leicester Square, with notable figures such as Nigel Farage and David Davis (who later became Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) in attendance.
A documentary film was released in 2018, called Postcards from the 48%, which is described on the film's website as: "A documentary film made by and featuring those who voted Remain, the 48%, to show the other 27 EU Member States that it was far from a landslide victory and just why we are fighting to stay part of the EU." A review on Shadows on the Wall wrote: "This is a comprehensive, factual exploration of the issue, grappling with the referendum, its ramifications and the way the split vote has fractured British society."
A two-hour television drama film written by James Graham and directed by Toby Haynes, named Brexit: The Uncivil War (simply Brexit in the US), was released in January 2019. It depicts the lead-up to the 2016 referendum through the activities of the strategists behind the Vote Leave campaign, that prompted the United Kingdom to exit the European Union. It aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom on 7 January, and aired on HBO in the United States on 19 January. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of the official designated Brexit-supporting group, Vote Leave.
Brexit in video games
In the football management simulation Football Manager 2017 and its successor Football Manager 2018 Brexit is an event within the game. There are multiple possible outcomes decided by chance reflecting both a soft Brexit and a hard Brexit. Consequences of a hard Brexit are, among others, EU football players needing working visa to play in English teams.
Not Tonight is a role-playing game set in an alternate timeline shortly after Brexit. The player takes the role of a European-born immigrant who must survive under a far-right British government to avoid deportation.
Pokémon Sword & Shield is set in a region inspired by England and Scotland. When it was announced that half of the Pokémon introduced in previous games would be unobtainable in this entry, fans began protesting the decision and referred to it as "Dexit".
Brexit in social media
Arguably, nowhere exhibited a greater display of opinion surrounding Brexit than online social media platforms. Social media had a significant short-term influence on the referendum result and supports the argument that Brexit was not inevitable but was in fact a response to a multitude of influences and events in the build-up. For example, there are numerous sources that claim that 400 fake Twitter accounts were created in Russia which is argued to have added 1.76% in the pro-leave voting share.
Brexit in music
In November 2018, The Good, the Bad & the Queen released Merrie Land, which reflects on the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union and being British during the prelude to Brexit. The lyrics are complemented by the loping basslines, sparse guitar, and intricate drumming, which contribute to the overall dark sonic ambience of the album.
The Breunion Boys are a Dutch boy band created by artist Julia Veldman in response to Brexit. The group's debut song, "Britain Come Back" was released in December 2018.
In October 2019, along with a group of musicians calling themselves Article 54, the journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden released The Hustle, an eight track concept disco symphony album with tracks inspired by the UK's Brexit negotiations. Tracks from the album were debuted on the 10 October edition of the BBC One political programme Brexitcast. It then appeared on the iTunes UK Album Chart, where it quickly began to outsell ABBA Gold. The album appeared on the Official UK Charts on 18 October, debuting at number 56 on the download chart.
In March 2020, Riz Ahmed —the popular actor and one half of the rap duo Swet Shop Boys—released his first solo album, The Long Goodbye. It has been described as a "concept album that reframes the UK's relationship with British Asians as a "toxic and abusive" love affair that has reached its breaking point in the wake of Brexit and the rise of the far-right." It is the quintessential break-up album—except that the breakup baggage is "the weight of colonial trauma" and that the ex-girlfriend Britney stands in for "Britannia."
Brexitovka, also known as the Brexit Vodka, is a premium craft British vodka from Norfolk in England which commemorates Brexit. It is the first brand of spirit to explicitly commemorate Brexit. Brexitovka was launched by an Anglo-Polish eurosceptic Przemek de Skuba Skwirczynski at the February 2017 UKIP conference with the slogan "Celebrate Brexit in style or drown your sorrows with Brexitovka".
Brexit in commemorative stamps
In 2018, Boris Johnson sparked governmental outrage by backing calls to introduce a commemorative Brexit stamp. The Postal Services Minister Margot James branded the proposed commemorative stamps as 'divisive.'
Austria's post service printed 140,000 commemorative stamps to mark the event of Britain's departure from the European Union. However, the commemorative stamps had to be reprinted due to changes to the official date for exit.
Endorsed by the dictionary
The noun Brexit was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2016, which identified its originating among economists in 2012. A senior editor said it had become widely used with "impressive" speed, having proved itself more popular than "Brixit", or the more accurate "UKexit". The editor added: "Brexit's inclusion in the OED December update within five years of being coined is highly unusual... by late 2016 it was a global word." Other variations began to appear such as Brexiteer, and brexit as a verb.
In October 2019, Académie Goncourt chairman Bernard Pivot tweeted (in translation): "I propose to insert the word 'brexit' (without capital letter) into the French language. It will indicate a cacophonous and insoluble debate, a bloody shambolic reunion or assembly. Example: the meeting of the joint owners ended in brexit." (The inclusion of the British expletive is supported two-fold by the Collins-Robert French Dictionary.)
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