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The Brexit Carnival

During the referendum campaign it struck me that what we were witnessing wasn't so much an exercise in democracy as a gargantuan and protracted carnival - a pageant of unruly forces that had lain dormant for many years, but which had burst forth, invading the body politic and catching everyone off guard.

For some time now people have been portraying the EU referendum as a model of democracy. In his resignation speech, for example, David Cameron said that "the country has taken part in a giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history", a view that was echoed by Andrew Marr, who described the referendum as "this country's single biggest democratic act in modern times".

During the referendum campaign it struck me that what we were witnessing wasn't so much an exercise in democracy as a gargantuan and protracted carnival - a pageant of unruly forces that had lain dormant for many years, but which had 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 license, excess and abandonment. Where everyday life is serious and deferential, carnivals are playful and mocking. Their purpose is not to uphold the status quo, but 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.

European carnivals can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, which was a religious holiday devoted to the worship of the deity Saturn. Like the carnivals that appeared much later, the Saturnalia involved feasting, drunkenness, carousing and the reversal of everyday relationships. Master and servant would often swap roles, for example, with the slaves of the household being treated to a lavish banquet before a similar meal was served to the masters. During this festive period, each community appointed a master of ceremonies who was thoroughly indulged. His task was to parody the authorities and to entertain the people by issuing ridiculous commands. At the end of the Saturnalia he was cruelly dispatched - a ritualised way of killing off the old in order to make way for the new. In medieval times a similar role was often performed by a peasant who assumed the title, "The Lord of Misrule". He presided over the "Feast of Fools" and issued commands, the more whimsical and preposterous the better. When the carnival ended he too lost his position, often being burned in effigy.

Wiki Commons. Detail from Fête des fous, gravé par Pieter Van der Heyden.en 1559, d'après Brueghel

Fools and clowns were an integral part of the medieval carnival. Their job was to poke fun at everyone - at the rulers, the church, citizens, even themselves. In keeping with the customary suspension of normal conventions, they were allowed to say whatever they wanted. It's worth noting that, historically, the word "fool" did not have the pejorative meaning that it does today, and that it referred instead to someone who possessed the necessary talents to be amusing and provocative. Far from it being the case that fools were idiots, they were usually chosen for their superior acting skills and their ability to improvise and be entertaining.

While it's true to say that the referendum didn't involve any carnivalesque feasting, carousing or drunkenness - unless of course we include those photo ops of politicians quaffing beer in pubs round the country - there were unusually high levels of ridicule and derision. And it was flying in both directions. Like carnival fools 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.

There are at least three identifiable features of carnival humour.

• One is its reliance on the grotesque, which is evident in the bizarre and misshapen costumes worn by the revellers, and which was equally apparent in the garish accusations that Leavers and Remainers levelled at each other.

• Hyperbole is another feature of carnival humour, and there was certainly a lot of that around recently - like David Cameron's suggestion that Brexit might lead to the Third World War, or the Leavers' insistence that Brexit would make an extra 350 million pounds available to the NHS every week!

• Carnivals provide a temporary resolution of the age-old power struggle between opposing social forces by setting aside a limited period during which the unofficial society of the streets can take over from the official society of the establishment. In the process of mocking the establishment, carnival fools would automatically paint a fantasian picture of everything that the carnival had to offer. Exactly the same utopian themes have emerged in the upbeat futures offered by the Brexiteers. As soon as we get out of the EU, they assured us, we'll reach the sunny uplands - we'll be able to control our borders, pass our own laws, limit immigration, dispense with red tape and choose whoever we want as our trading partners. After Brexit we'll have it all!

There was a widespread disregard for the truth during the referendum, and it was much more pronounced than during the last General Election. While several commentators were horrified by the factual distortions and downright lies that were concocted during the campaign, they shouldn't really have been surprised, because if there's one guiding principle that governs carnivals it's the idea that participants can say exactly what they want and not be held to account for expressing an opinion, however tenuous its links to reality. After all, everyone taking part in a carnival knows that what you do and say during the celebrations doesn't count. That's because your actions and utterances exist in another world, which is completely separate from the one to which everyone returns when the carnival is finished.

Every carnival needs people who are prepared to play the part of the fool, and the Brexit Carnival was no exception. If you were casting director for the Brexit Carnival, you couldn't have done better than to select Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove - the perfect candidates for the "Lords of Misrule". Nigel Farage, with his foreign-sounding surname, his jovial disposition and his stentorian delivery, loves to wind people up and taunt his fellow MEPs. Boris is well known for his wit, his indiscretions and his ability to extemporize. During the referendum campaign, crowds would gather whenever Boris was in town - not so much to hear his arguments as to witness his buffoonery and his talented comic turns. Michael Gove has also shown signs of comic potential, but since assaulting Boris on stage with a rubber knife, he's been cast in the role of pantomime villain. The remark that Michael Gove made during the closing stages of the campaign - that "people in this country have had enough of experts" - was deeply anti-intellectual, but it was perfectly in tune with the spirit of carnival because it appealed to people who want to reject authority.

The referendum campaign displayed several other carnivalesque features.

Firstly, carnivals typically involve everyone. In this respect they're very different from festive events like the Mardi Gras, where a colourful procession is watched by people who don't actually take part in the proceedings. In a carnival proper most if not all of the adult population gets involved. Officials who are normally in charge join the throng, blending into the crowd, just like everyone else. As we saw, the referendum was equally inclusive and egalitarian, inviting everyone who was old enough to take part.

Because carnivals are so inclusive, people from different backgrounds are thrown together. In his study of carnivals, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out that they encourage what he calls "misalliances" - improbable partnerships between individuals who wouldn't typically have anything to do with each other. There were numerous cases of misalliance during the referendum campaign - like the time that Labour's London mayor, Sadiq Khan, joined forces with the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, to argue the case for Remain, or the occasion when the former party leaders, Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock, took part in a campaign phone-in alongside David Cameron. But the oddest sight of all was the spectacle of George Galloway campaigning with Nigel Farage! Like carnivals, referendums make strange bedfellows of individuals who wouldn't ordinarily be seen together.


When a carnival draws to a close, all the clowns return home, hang up their costumes and resume their normal everyday existence. On this basis alone one should have foreseen that the three main Brexit clowns would also absent themselves from the scene. And that's precisely what they did - Boris Johnson withdrew from the race to become the next Conservative Party leader, Nigel Farage resigned as leader of UKIP, and Michael Gove disappeared to spend more time with his family. When their services to comedy were no longer required, they all made a rather sudden exit - which, of course, is exactly what a carnivalesque reading of events would have predicted. It would also have predicted that, as it drew to a close, the carnival would require a symbolic sacrifice, even if it involved the then Prime Minister. Finally it would lead us to expect that, because carnivals conclude by reinstating normality, the most likely person to become Prime Minister after Cameron would be someone from the Remain rather than the Leave camp, and definitely not one of the clowns!

While in several respects the Brexit carnival has been put to bed, there's also a very strong sense in which it continues to live on. 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 will continue to do so for many years to come. Maybe that's why so many people still feel disoriented in the aftermath of the referendum, and why an appreciable number of those who voted to leave are now having second thoughts. Deep down they expected their actions during the Brexit carnival to be contained, and not to continue to dominate their lives after the carnival was over.

During the referendum campaign lots of people were surprised to discover just how well the Leave Camp was doing. They were hoping that the people who were attracted to Brexit would come to their senses before casting their vote, and that reason would prevail. What they failed to recognise, however, was that the carnivalesque aspect of the referendum made the Leave Camp inherently more appealing. 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, it's easy to see what people are going to choose.

In recent days we've been reminded that certain former Prime Ministers were extremely suspicious of referendums. Quoting Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher famously described them as a "device of dictators and demagogues". Did her aversion to referendums arise, not so much from the association with despots, but from an instinctive recognition of the uncontrollable and unpredictable forces that referendums can unleash - forces that threaten to undermine the delicate social contract between voters and the government, if they're not properly contained? When David Cameron agreed to offer the British public a referendum on the EU, did he ever consider the possibility that it might turn into a carnival that refused to go away after it was over? Maybe somebody should have warned him.

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