Every June 23rd, la noche de San Juan, people across Spain observe Midsummer with bonfires, music and dancing, a pre-Christian tradition that’s still celebrated in many parts of Europe (though not, alas, in the UK). The celebration in our tiny village in Cantabria, on the rugged, green north coast, was modest-a small fire in the garden, a few friends, toasted marshmallows, a bit of music, and a ritual burning of things we want to be rid of. Just before going to bed I threw a piece of card with the word #BREXIT into the flames, wishing for the whole business to go away. It was a symbolic ballot, the only kind I could cast since, as a British expat (should I now say “Brexpat”?) of more than 15 years, I’m no longer entitled to vote in my native land.
I woke early, sweating, from a dream in which Leave had won, and went downstairs to make sure that it had only been a midsummer night’s dream, only to discover that, on the contrary, Brexit was the opening act of a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare at his peak: horrible to watch, yet you can’t tear your eyes away from the stage, the slide into chaos as compelling as it is inexorable. The plot was straight out of King Lear. A vain king asks three rash questions [Cameron’s three referendums, if that isn’t blatantly obvious], and the third time, he doesn’t get the answer he wants, it tears the whole kingdom apart.
I was deeply shocked, like so many people-including the Leave voters who thought it was just a protest vote because Remain was bound to win, and the young people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, and woke to find their elders had just voted away their European identity.
I’m 46 now; I was 22 in 1992, the year the Maastricht treaty was signed, creating the EU, and I remember feeling disoriented at the time, as if my country had been taken away overnight and replaced by something new, unfamiliar, bigger, more diverse. Something called the European Union. In the Brexit referendum, it makes perfect sense to me that people my age or older-people who in 1992 were over 21, with their identity already established-mostly voted Leave, and those younger than me mostly voted Remain. And, of course, the places with the strongest links to Europe voted to stay-London, the multicultural capital; Scotland, with its “auld alliance”; Northern Ireland, which, uniquely in the UK, shares a border with another Member State.
But as for the rest of England and Wales, I was dismayed by just how hard the Leave message had hit home. Not just in desperately poor places, either. My home district of Warwick was the only place in the whole West Midlands that voted Remain. Birmingham, Coventry-hell, even Stratford-upon-Avon, one of the world’s biggest tourist towns, the global reference point I have spent twenty years telling foreigners I come from, voted (narrowly) to Leave! In Devon, the county that I see as a spiritual home, only Exeter and trendy Totnes (South Hams district) voted Remain.
Perhaps the harsh reality was that, all my life, I had only half-known the land of my birth. Being half American, I’d never felt 100% as if I belonged, and it wasn’t a big step from there to feeling that England, with its class obsessions, political constipation, imperial pretensions, and its quiet desperation, was a prison I needed to escape. But it was still home, it wasn’t that far away, and I’d always be able to go back, wouldn’t I?
Three days after the referendum, with the shock of Brexit still raw, and the trolls who’d brought it on back in hiding under their bridges, Spain held its own election. Bad timing or what? Of course, I was supporting Unidos Podemos, but once again, I couldn’t vote, since I have never felt Spanish enough to apply for a passport, nor-until the rise of Podemos-seen any particular reason to vote for any of the parties.
Five years ago, in May 2011, when the indignados of the 15M occupied the plazas to demand Real Democracy Now, I was cheering them on. Down at the Plaza Arriaga in Bilbao I bumped into a friend who said he thought the indignados should start a new political party. I was cynical then, and said you couldn’t put a forest into a filing cabinet, but I was wrong. Five years on, that movement has captured the town halls of Spain’s biggest cities, and now, six months after the stalemate election in December, the new party looked poised to leapfrog the Socialists and become the party of government.
Yet most people I knew were hardly enthusiastic about the prospect. They couldn’t believe that Podemos was any less elitist than the established parties; what was the point of replacing la casta (the clique) with a neo-casta? What if the top brass of Podemos were just another bunch of politicos jockeying to surf to power on a wave of other people’s revolutionary zeal? Wherever there is a microphone there will be people who are good at grabbing it and holding onto it; and the people who started hogging the microphones at the 15M in 2011 are, in many cases, still holding them.
Who knows, in the end, whether it was that ambivalence and distrust, or the entrenched power structures of the main parties, or fear of post-Brexit instability, or the disenfranchisement of young emigrants, or the general unreliability of the voting system (which I can vouch for, having once been called to serve as president of an electoral college in Bilbao; we can certainly assume some vote-fixing, according to the unbreakable rule of politics that if a system can be corrupted, it will be) or whether it was just that Pablo Iglesias himself failed to light a spark, coming over as a clever-dick politics lecturer with no real-world experience. But whatever the reason, now, after another election, Spain is back where it was six months ago, with parliamentary deadlock and no clear way forward.
Hopes not crushed but not fulfilled either, back to normality. The political revolution, or change of guard, as you wish, has taken root in the well-connected cities and regions-Podemos won the most representatives in the Basque Country and Catalunya-but it certainly hasn’t reached into deepest Spain. Here in Cantabria, the Partido Popular won the most votes in 96 out of 102 municipalities, with only the PSOE for relief, and the same happened right across the rural centre.
While the parties in Madrid are warming over their boring, fruitless negotiations of last winter, across the bay of Biscay the bonfire of the British establishment rages unchecked. Without a doubt, the shock of Brexit has triggered a new global economic crisis that will unfold over the coming years, without the slightest respect for national borders. That crisis, like the last one, was bound to come sooner or later; nothing whatsoever has happened to make the global financial and political system more stable or sustainable since 2008; and the crisis will unfold whether or not Parliament gets an act together to invoke Article 50 and formally leave the EU this year, next year, sometime or never. The week since the referendum has seen the collapse of the pound, the Labour party and the England football team; whatever next?
But just as it takes a very special nation to lose at football to a squad of part-timers from a volcanic island with less than 1% of your population, it takes a very special nation to vote (even if unwittingly) for its own collapse. And in a way that gives me hope. Without in any way agreeing with the liars and trolls who led the Leave campaign, I would say this: these people represent the shadow side cast by our violent, mechanized, inhuman culture, which we need to take a good hard look at, however ugly. And in the days since the referendum I’ve reluctantly and painfully come around to the view that, from an ecological perspective, the Leave result could actually be a good thing, if we can make good use of it.
Given the extreme malignancy of the global capitalist economy, maybe a managed collapse (if such a thing is even possible) gives us the best chance to save what we can of our precious ecological and cultural heritage. When a month’s worth of rain falls on London-specifically-on referendum day, perhaps it can serve as a reminder that Gaia may not be allowed a vote, but she does have interests, which we urgently need to make coincide with our own-because she is the one we are burning on our bonfire of the ages.
Robert is one of the New Voices team now joining the Ecologist platform to bring a different perspective to the issues we are all facing. Here’s what he says about himself:
Robert Alcock is a writer, ecological designer and activist based in northern Spain.