What’s the current situation?
It is a week since almost half (48% to 52%) of the United Kingdom (UK) reeled at the news that the majority had voted to leave the European Union (EU) – its constitution, ideals and politico-economic partnership. Since then the respective leave and remain campaigns have been posthumously dissected, their leaders and leadership questioned and the integrity and informedness of the voting public duly challenged.
As the title of this blog suggests, MattersduMonde is about matters that affect the world, often starting from the local, and health-based infrastructure with previous posts exploring the National Health Service and foreign aid programmes via the Department for International Development (DFID). However, if nothing else, these critical days since the largest suffrage determined political decision taken during my voting history, I have been struck by countrywide engagement with what it means to be the United Kingdom, more commonly – and loosely – used interchangeably with notions of ‘Britain’ and ‘British’.
Notwithstanding the disappointing level of abstaining voters particularly of the 18-24 age range, and the widely varying degrees of information or mis-information (given the complex, often contradictory and repeatedly deceitful policies of both campaigns) held by each voting citizen, every one of those 30 million plus voters has an opinion, before, during and most importantly following the outcome of last week’s referendum.
Bit of a mess? Somerset House ‘Utopia’ exhibition, detailed below.
Where does this ‘leave’ us?
While there is real value in reading, sharing and re-writing the present experiences and reactions of the UK’s constituents, it is imperative to note that while a local issue for many, the implications of this vote have global consequences, from Donald Trump’s looming presence in Scotland last Friday morning and that state’s predicted distancing from the result, to Northern Ireland’s renewed clamour for independence. Fundamentally, the economic, social and literal health of the populace of the UK we are ever a part of is ironically dependent on the peoples and places beyond this island’s increasingly literal borders.
Many leave voters cast their weight behind a campaign that promised an impossible finite end to free movement to the UK associated with membership of the EU. Many of these same voters claim it is acceptable for immigration in the form of skilled workers – doctors, lawyers, pharmacists. All of which crystallises into a persistent and little explored anxiety that this referendum was seen less as a heterogeneous, multi-faceted decision of unity in all its forms, and more of a reverse process founded on the widely silent, but influential idea of what the UK or ‘Britain’ really is.
The much-cited statistics that show a demographic skewing of the older population across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales towards a leave vote and vice versa at the other end of the age scale should be increasingly seen not based on electoral or life experience, but in terms of how this shaped one’s understanding of what it is to be British. What is palpably clear as orchestrator of the leave campaign, Boris Johnson, has shown in his sudden shadowy disappearance from the now 5-way race Conservative leadership line-up, is that the people of Britain and their understandings of it are so wildly different, that to try and unify them for a future Britain that is based on modern change, innovation and progression, is an insurmountable ask.
Utopian vacancies at Somerset House exhibition, 2016.
Indeed, our respective understandings of Britain and our role as citizens of this nation are most formally pinned to the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test first introduced in 2013 under the imperative ‘prove your knowledge of English or citizenship and settling’. Such lexicon of proof and knowledge are constructs bandied about during this referendum as though quantifiable. But of course, it goes without saying that such a test is so anachronistic when so many current citizens would not pass. It is intellectually comic that one of the questions in the aforementioned test is as follows:
Reproduced from the condensed version of the YouGov citizenship test for the Independent.
Aside from ideological correctness of such answers, many of the other constituent questions are so divorced from educational-derived curricular knowledge as well as national identity that this test’s value – and marker for ‘Britishness’ – is undermined.
Where has this come from?
Rather than suggest what our future will look like, as I don’t think that there is a clear nor comprehensive vision, or reality, this discussion turns instead to look back through history and literature to the model of utopian thinking and impossible dreaming that has coloured and discoloured every sovereign state and every independence narrative. Utopian thinking, the American dream, scriptural, Edenic Paradise are all permutations of a similar model characteristic of humanity – the striving for something that is perfect in the eyes of the perceiver.
Of course, perception rarely correlates with feasibility which in turn causes the very personal and emotive fall-out experienced by so many of us in the UK and beyond this past week. Furthermore, ‘utopia’ is etymologically rich, deriving from Greek stems to form the hybrid of ‘non-place’. From Thomas More’s possibility dreams (Utopia 1516) to Francis Bacon’s political ideology (New Atlantis 1627) and Margaret Cavendish’s wonderland of the imagination, the seventeenth century reader and audience alike were accustomed to the idea of ‘a world elsewhere’. In itself an epoch of upheaval across currencies of religion, philosophy and politics, these learnings and writings are increasingly critical to the immediate now.
In addition to the main Somerset House exhibition and series of talks, there are collaborative pieces running in conjunction with the neighbouring Courtauld Institute and King’s College London.
The debt Thomas More owes to humanism for the origins of Utopia is an area in which much debate has been devoted, in part due to the malleable connotations and contextual meaning of pigeonholed definitions. The Renaissance saw a resurrection of the classics and humanists heralded furthering the arts of reason and the dignity of man within the Christian doctrinal frameworks. Famously described as a ‘revival of good letters’, humanism was perhaps less ideological than often attested.
Whilst the humanist influences of Plato and Erasmus are powerfully vocal in Utopia, so too is a contradictory turn from them, most notably in discussions which theorise beyond the boundaries of Christian monogamy both on personal and national levels. The principal elements of utopian writing so understood, are a chance landing or shipwreck on the coast of what turns out to be an ideal commonwealth followed by a return to – specifically – Europe, and a commentary on what has been remarked.
What are the dangers of utopian thinking?
So too, as argued by Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) who engaged with and practised a form of experimental science through her literature, imaginative freedom is considered a prerequisite for intellectual maturity, social change and intellectual development. Indeed, commonly held truths (or unexamined perceptions or ‘proof’ of what Britain is) are utopian experiences that must be deconstructed for they are ultimately unavailable for representation and appropriation.
In Cavendish’s The Description of the New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666), Cavendish, herself the actual and literary figure of the ‘Duchess’ of Newcastle finds herself on a satirical trajectory as scribe to a beautiful maiden – the Empress – who writes her way into another world with different stars in the sky and creatures on its shorelines. When the Empress desires to share this found world, the guiding-force of the Duchess encourages her to construct her own, redirecting utopian expectation away from material production to shared creative activity.
The ‘Britain’ idealized in the subconscious of all voters is a utopia of sorts – not a venture until is examined in the open – but still an irreconcilable state. The other; the ‘European’ in this case, like the Orient and prolific discourses in the field of global health of the ‘west and the rest’ quickly become the subject of the languages of dream and Utopia, ‘the object of a powerful fantasy’ (Hall, 1992).
Readers and citizens must surely be left wondering about the value of the ‘otherness’ of Utopia and its paradoxical comparability with sixteenth-century England. Unlike Plato’s Republic, Utopia is not a maquette for an ideal commonwealth; it seems more dramatically to be one of More’s theatrical metaphors ‘in which disparate and seemingly discontinuous aspects of […] existence come together, touch, and resonate’ (Greenblatt, p. 27).
And the possibilities of such dreaming?
The contradictory design and rhetorical paradoxes of these cited utopian writings are self-interrogative, challenging, and reflects the wealth and the weakness of words to influence worlds. The final line of More’s Utopia hovers in the subjunctive, so what happens next is for us to decide. Certainly, the utopia of one human may be the dystopia of another, so to the very last, the polemical nature of the literature and author remain. More specifically, when angling this pitch through a perspective of health and globality, the idea of a global society should not be construed as a utopian world free of conflict. Rather, as in most national societies, one would expect a global society to be characterised by ongoing political conflict and competing views. As Frenk (2010) notes, ‘what the notion of a global society does imply is that underpinning such conflicts would be a widely shared understanding of health interdependence and an acceptance of some responsibility for the health of others as members of the same society—in other words, a shared commitment to realisation of health as a human right based on a recognition of our common humanity’.
Is this pathetic fallacy? Dark and gloomy Somerset House quad the weekend post-Brexit vote. Might just be the monochrome filter.
It so happens that it is the 500th anniversary of More’s Utopia celebrated in a challenging and ever-relevant events programme at London’s Somerset House. Yet, as the programme preface articulates: the text and commemorative events are, once again, ‘not a blueprint for the future, instead he [More] places importance on the process of dreaming in the now. His work continues to inspire communities and provide a framework for true innovation in our time.’ In a world that has just witnessed the return of ESA astrologer Tim Peake from the International Space Station, surely the brand of extra-terrestrial exploration and utopian dreaming as read through Francis Goodwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) indicates the worth in looking at the bigger picture and reassessing the simple but time-old answers we would give to an alien asking ‘what is Britain’?
With constant personal reflection translated into political representativeness, I think there might be hope for a Britain that is united in understanding the nation is ‘great’ for being in flux, flawed but imperatively free. A renewed brand of utopian ideology, distanced from it as a reality, will be instrumental in shaping this future.
‘Paths to Utopia’: as simple as an OS map…
Bruce, S. (ed.), (1999) Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis and the Isle of Pines (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Comp, A. and F. K. Pizor (eds.) (1971), The Man in the Moone: An Anthology of Antique Science Fiction and Fantasy, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson)Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel (1979), Utopian Thought in the Western World (New York: Belknap Press).
Frenk, J. et al (2010), Global Health is Public Health in The Lancet. Vol. 375; pp. 535-6.
Greenblatt, S. (1980), Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: The University of Chicago Press)
Hall, S. (1992), The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. Available from: <https://analepsis.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hall-west-the-rest.pdf> [Accessed 28 June 2016]
Lilley, K. (ed.) (1994), The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Logan, G. M. (1983), The Meaning of More’s Utopia (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
Nelson, E., Greek Nonsense in More’s Utopia. The Historical Journal, 44 (2001), pp. 889-917.
Skinner, Q. (2002), Visions of Politics. Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Image Credits (all): A. Bow-Bertrand. The featured image reads ‘Utopia’ transliterated into Thomas More’s alphabet.