The Longue durée of Brexit: Politics, literature and the British past
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Carey, Daniel. (2021). The Longue durée of Brexit: Politics, Literature and the British Past. In Jürgen Barkhoff & Joep Leerssen (Eds.), National Stereotyping, Identity Politics, European Crises (pp. 51–71). Leiden: Brill.
The complex proposition posed by Brexit challenges us to reinvestigate British reflections on identity from an historical point of view. This contribution considers a range of precedents, beginning with the English Reformation before considering questions of sovereignty, separation, immigration and exceptionalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The claim is not that history straightforwardly facilitates an understanding of the fissures associated with Brexit, but rather that the present is ironised as much as it is explained by the past. We have much to learn not just from history but from works of poetry, fiction and drama that engage with historical concerns of identity and politics. The contribution looks first at Defoe’s poem The True-Born Englishman (1701) and aspects of Robinson Crusoe (1719), with their mixed-conceptions of identity, followed by attention to Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry V, and the plot twists of Cymbeline, a romance predicated on separation from Roman authority. The contribution concludes with Churchill and the contradictions in British attitudes to Europe inherited by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, which promise to endure as the UK redefines its relationship to Ireland and Continental Europe.