Bard’s birthplace mirrors a scepter’d isle riven by Brexit discontent
Stratford-upon-Avon reflects Britain's bitter divisions, although both sides agree that Westminster has failed them
In William Shakespeare’s ancient birthplace, discontent over Brexit runs even deeper than three years ago when this “scepter’d isle” shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union.
The 2016 referendum revealed a UK divided over much more than EU membership, and has sparked impassioned debate about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and what it means to be British.
Just days before the UK was originally supposed to leave the EU on March 29, nothing is resolved: it remains uncertain how, when or if it ever will. Brexit, and the future of the kingdom, is in play.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, which voted in line with the national 52-48 decision to leave, both Brexiteers and Remainers are aghast at what they said was the national humiliation of Prime Minister Theresa May’s collapsing exit negotiations. With its Anglo-Saxon heritage, black-and-white Tudor houses, understated wealth and lucrative Shakespeare tourist business, Stratford is as typically English as a town gets. But under the gilded surface, both sides of the Brexit divide have ominous warnings for the politicians in London: dash our dreams and face a much deeper fissure that will bleed the UK for generations to come.
For Molly Giles, a barrister in Stratford who campaigned to leave, Brexit is under attack. She warned that if it is thwarted the long-term stability of the country will be in peril too. “It would not be an open wound, it would be a deep internal wound that is slowly bleeding,” Giles, a 36-year-old local Conservative Party councillor, said on the banks of the River Avon where swans glided beside rowers.
“We would not be able to come together,” she said.
Figures in both camps lay claim to Shakespeare, a towering figure of national pride who recast some of Europe’s great love stories and tragedies and quarried the history of kings for some of the jewels of the English language. Brexiteers say he would have voted leave and Remainers say he would have voted to stay.
In a famous passage of Richard II, Shakespeare, writing just half a century before the English Civil War, chided the Bordeaux-born king for bringing England to its knees in the 1390s. “This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise ... That England that was wont to conquer others hath made a shameful conquest of itself,” nobleman John of Gaunt intones.
The Bard may have died four centuries ago, but some argue Britain’s modern rulers have once more brought the nation low. May, who voted to stay in the EU, is a failed prime minister who has “mis-sold” a poor deal and so should make way for true Brexiteers, Giles said.
The result of Brexit being foiled would not be a French-style yellow vest burning of the capital’s boutiques, she added. Rather, the 17.4 million people who voted to leave would be cast into the political wilderness and many would be susceptible to demagogues in the future.
“The problem then is: who steps into that vacuum? Who turns up to then appeal to these people to say: ‘I’m someone completely different’, and actually not just completely different but somebody who says: ‘I’m going to trash the system and that is why you should vote for me’.”
Cast either as an epic opportunity or a grave mistake, Brexit has turned many of the assumptions about Britain upside down just as the world grapples with the rise of China and the West’s deepest divisions since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Calm political discourse has been replaced by fury, and often suspicion; the two-party political system has crumbled; the unity of the UK has been questioned; and its reputation as a pillar of economic stability has been tarnished.
Opponents of Brexit say it will torpedo what remains of the UK’s post-imperial clout, make its population poorer, and strain to breaking point the sinews that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
While the anger of Brexiteers increases in line with the uncertainty of the outcome, the bitterness of those who want to remain has grown steadily since the June 23 2016 referendum. In a townhouse in Stratford some of those campaigning for a second referendum gathered last week ahead of a major march in London. The mood was one of anger, despair and defiance.
Sophie Clausen, a writer and artist originally from Denmark, said the battle was personal. Recalling the rhetoric that had fostered her sense of mistrust in British politicians, she cited May’s comments that those willing to move abroad were “citizens of nowhere” while EU workers in Britain had been able to “jump the queue”.
“I don’t think this can be healed,” Clausen said. “It will take a generation.”
Despite living in Britain since 1994, she was not allowed to vote in the referendum.
Jonathan Baker, a retired head teacher, said he would continue to campaign for EU membership even if they lost a second referendum. “If it takes another 30 years to get back then so be it,” he said. “We’ll do what the Brexiteers have been doing. We won’t give up.”
Battle of futures
For some, Brexit was driven by anger at an elite in London who, they believed, neglected swathes of the country. For others it was a chance to reclaim sovereignty and control of its borders, free Britain from a sclerotic EU and build an economy more suited to a world racing into a technological revolution.
But for many opponents, Brexit is a plot hatched by shady financiers who sold a lie to millions of voters in an attempt to build a supercharged capitalist island state that will sweep away the social consensus of post-World War 2 Britain.
At the heart of the debate is a belief on both sides that Brexit is a fight for two opposing futures, and that the downside is Britain left behind by the world as a marginal island in the north Atlantic. Treachery is feared. Both sides are united in contempt for the political leaders in Westminster.
“There are no giants at the moment, there’s none, they’re midgets,” said Sally Bigwood, who used to run a business training accountants. Bigwood grew up in Virginia in the US and came to Britain in 1966. She wants another referendum.
“We are fighting for the future of the country, to define what Britain is. Is it going to be a caring, inclusive society or is it going to be extreme capitalist where the only thing important is making money. That is what this is about.”
From the other side, Edward Fila, a 70-year-old former candidate for the anti-EU UK Independence Party, agreed that Westminster had let the country down, but said the division would only heal once Britain had followed through on the result of the referendum. A failure to leave, he said, would not only shatter the two parties that have dominated British politics for more than 100 years, but tear at the broader fabric of society.
“We have to have a conclusion to this, it has to be done,” he said, sitting in front of the vast Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. “Regardless of what pain we all have to go through, there has to be an outcome.”