A Burning of Storks’ Nests: Brexit, Epictetus, and the Fall of Troy

There is a play by Euripedes set among the high-born women of Troy. Beginning with the end of the siege and the death of Troy’s rulers, and ending with the women’s embarkation on the ships that will carry them into exile and captivity, the play therefore depicts the fall of a successful city state through subterfuge, the decadence that led to its fall, the subsequent cruelty of its Greek conquerors and the suffering of its innocent people. It is also one of a huge number of subsequent treatments of the Homeric myth, including other plays by Euripedes, plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Aeneid of Virgil, and the poetry of Ovid, linked by Geoffrey of Monmouth and William Shakespeare with W. H. Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Among its characters, it features Helen, the faithless wife of Menelaus for whose sake the war was fought; Hecabe, the wife of Priam, king of Troy; Andromache, whose husband, Hector, was killed by Achilles and his corpse defiled, and whose son was thrown from the city walls; and Hecabe’s daughter Cassandra, doomed by the gods always to prophecy truly and never to be believed, who predicted the fall of the city. To compare all this with Brexit seems hysterical? Kelvin MacKenzie wants to start a war with France.1

Like Cassandra, many who campaigned against Brexit will see in Boris Johnson’s inadequate Brexit deal2 the final fulfilment of their worst predictions. They foresaw, and now they know as a certainty, that Brexit will permanently harm the UK economy;3 that it will worsen inequality;4 that it will stifle the political lives of the Celtic nations5 and encourage the far right. And like Andromache, they will have witnessed the barbarity of their political opponents who have behaved, not as the responsible, public-spirited majority in a democracy, but as the swaggering victors in a war;6 whose policies reflect a rejection of learning, of science and of culture,7 and whose insults, jeers and threats have risen in a cacophony of hatred even as the utter emptiness of their political victory and the utter folly of their Brexit project has become apparent.8 Moreover they will have felt deceived and betrayed as both Keir Starmer’s Labour and Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats consign them to political exile by their rejection of any policy of return to the E.U.9 And while many look back on the time before 2016 as a political golden age, describing the triumphalism of London’s Olympic Games in terms reminiscent of the shallowness of Tony Blair’s ‘cool Britannia,’ others will recall the cruelty and greed10 that made this disaster inevitable.

Standing apart from other writers and thinkers in that Homeric tradition, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus is dismissive of the myth of Troy. The city’s fall, he says, is a mere ‘burning of storks’ nests,’ because it begins not with the mustering of an army or the launching of a fleet, but with the failure of a few individuals to control their passions: Menelaus his envy, Helen and Paris their desires, and even Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, the gods whose vanity and acquisitiveness demanded a beauty contest of which they bribed Paris to be the judge. Given such pride, such lust, and such folly, says Epictetus, the siege and destruction of a city becomes a tiresome inevitability, to the extent that the epics of Homer seem bloated and banal.11

From what point did Brexit seem banal? Whose personal faults are the cause of it? Many will blame Jeremy Corbyn’s stubbornness and weakness, in whipping his MPs to support Theresa May’s Article 50 notification.12 Or they will highlight Theresa May’s meanness and duplicity, in suppressing as many as nine reports that immigration from Europe did not depress wages while subverting the Brexiteers’ promises of a global Britain to support her own petty nationalism.13 Or they will criticise Jo Swinson’s arrogance and folly in acceding to Boris Johnson’s early election against the advice of two of her predecessors,14 or a widespread hatred of Jeremy Corbyn so blind that even when he offered a clear path away from Brexit through a second referendum on a final deal, Labour’s officials plotted to bring about their own party’s defeat, and hand over the task of government to a man unfit for public service.15 And this brings us to Boris Johnson himself, in all his monstrous and infantile selfishness,16 in subverting the entirety of the British state to support his own career.17

Yet for others, the roots will lie deeper, just as they do for Epictetus who castigates human weakness for the fall of Troy without excusing the gods, and the gods of Brexit are the myths on which the British state is built. In the David Cameron years, presenting itself as a voluntary union, it warned the Scottish people not to expect to cherry-pick the terms of their succession, before seeking to cherry-pick the terms of its departure from Europe.18 It scorned the idea of a monetary union with an independent Scotland,19 as though such an idea could only have arisen from the febrile imaginings of the inferior Celtic mind, conveniently forgetting its precedents in the Eurozone itself, in southern Africa, in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, in Singapore and Brunei, and even in the terms under which the Irish Free State was formed. And in the May and Johnson years it conveniently cast the lie of voluntary union aside, returning to the myth of the unitary British nation, beset by saboteurs and separatists within, in danger of being ‘torn apart’ as the peace of Europe was supposedly not being ‘torn apart’ by Brexit20 — a myth of nationhood whose purpose, as Gwynfor Evans argues, is to silence and subsume the Celtic peoples,21 and whose fruit is to make the European Union seem an unprecedented assault on national sovereignty, and to silence and subsume the English people beneath the brutality of their own far right. If Brexit is to be undone, then the lie of British nationhood must also be undone, and unionist Remainers must re-examine their own unconscious prejudices against the Celtic independence cause.22

  1. @kelvmackenzie (Kelvin MacKenzie), ‘Once out the door we should remember Macron putting the truck drivers and their cauliflowers to the sword. The French have been our natural enemies for centuries. On Jan 1 let La Guerre begin. After all the Paris boulevards are tree lined so the Germans could march in the shade.’ Twitter, 22nd January 2020, 5:27 pm. 

  2. Martin Kettle, ‘Boris Johnson has “got Brexit done.” With a deal that will please no one.’ The Guardian, 24th December 2020. 

  3. George Osborne, ‘HM Treasury analysis on the immediate economic impact of leaving the EU: George Osborne's speech.’ Transcript of speech given 23rd May 2016. ‘Gov.UK, 23rd May 2016. Sonia Sodha, Toby Helm and Phillip Inman, ‘Economists overwhelmingly reject Brexit in boost for Cameron.’ The Guardian, 28th May 2016. Lianna Brinded, ‘Brexit does not provide a single major opportunity to improve the UK economy in the long term.’ Business Insider, 29th March 2017. Pippa Crerar, ‘Each Brexit scenario will leave Britain worse off, study finds.’ The Guardian, 18th April 2018. 

  4. Kitty Stewart, ‘Who will suffer most from Brexit? Effects by region, sector, skill level and income group.’ London School of Economics Brexit Blog, 13th May 2019. 

  5. Richard Percival, ‘How Brexit could break devolution.’ The Conversation, 7th March 2017. Libby Brooks and Steven Morris, ‘Plan for post-Brexit UK internal market bill “is an abomination.”’ The Guardian, 9th September 2020. 

  6. Carole Cadwalladr, ‘Arron Banks: “Brexit was a war. We won. There’s no turning back now.”’ The Guardian, 2nd April 2017. 

  7. Henry Mance, ‘Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove.’ Financial Times, 3rd June 2016. Elisa Menendez, ‘Brexit blow to British students as UK won't be involved in Erasmus programme.’ Metro, 24th December 2020. 

  8. A friend passed on to me the following message which he received on Christmas Day from a Brexiteer: ‘Well now, don’t you look a total twat like your fellow quisling inbreds. Now there is a deal you can all go cry to your Mummys [sic], or piss off to Europe, which we would encourage as lazy gobshites aren’t welcome here. And you lot are like a permanent black cloud. Don’t care if you cry to Mummy quora [sic], plenty of other places to revel in the brown[-]nosing remainer tears. It’s going to be a sweet sweet Christmas[.] Boris trumped you all and make [sic] you look whining pricks, great!’ It cannot be denied, even by their enemies, that Brexiteers did everything in their power to warn us of the ugliness of their cause. 

  9. Andrew Woodcock, ‘Brexit: Lib Dems to drop commitment to UK membership of the EU.’ The Independent, 21st September 2020. James Tapsfield, ‘Labour leader Keir Starmer says he will NOT try to rejoin the EU if he wins the next electon because the Brexit debate is “over.”’ Mail Online, 23rd May 2020. 

  10. Ashley Cowburn, ‘This man died 18 days after his benefits were stopped. Now his sister wants the DWP to stop the suffering.’ The Independent, 9th March 2016. Sam Chambers, ‘Sir Philip Green responsible for “systematic plunder” of BHS, say MPs in scathing report.’ The Independent, 25th July 2016. 

  11. ‘Discourses.’ ch. xxviii. In The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, The Manual, and Fragments. trans. by W. A. Oldfather. Vol. I. London: Heinemann, 1925. pp. 177-187. 

  12. Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, ‘Corbyn to order Labour MPs to vote for article 50 trigger.’ The Guardian, 19th January 2017. 

  13. Rob Merrick, ‘Theresa May suppressed up to nine studies that found immigration does not hit UK wages, claims Vince Cable.’ The Independent, 6th September 2017. 

  14. Michael Savage, ‘Key Lib Dems warned party not to back December election.’ The Guardian, 14th December 2019. 

  15. Jon Stone, ‘Anti-Corbyn Labour officials worked to lose general election to oust leader, leaked dossier finds.’ The Independent, 13th April 2020. Max Hastings, ‘I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.’ The Guardian, 24th June 2019. Daniel Finn, ‘UK Liberals Could’ve Stopped Boris Johnson. They Wanted to Stop Corbyn Instead.’ Jacobin, 23rd June 2021. 

  16. Max Hastings, ‘Boris Johnson: brilliant, warm, funny – and totally unfit to be PM.’ The Guardian, 10th October 2012. Andrew Rawnsley, ‘Boris Johnson: The Gambler review – no blame, no shame’ cites an incident in which Boris Johnson kicked a door so hard that he broke his toe because he had lost a game of table tennis with his sister. The Guardian, 18th October 2020. The same propensity for violence was more thuggish still in his plot with a criminal friend to have an investigate journalist violently attacked. See Simon Murphy, ‘”A couple of black eyes”: Johnson and the plot to attack a reporter.’ The Guardian, 14th July 2019. Dan Bloom, ‘General election: 43 lies, gaffes and scandals that make Boris Johnson unfit to rule.’ The Mirror, 10th December 2019. See, more recently, Andrew McDonald, ‘Dominic Cummings: Boris Johnson knows its “ludicrous” he’s prime minister.’ Politico, 5th July 2021, and Ian Dunt, ‘Week in Review: Two years of Boris Johnson have corroded Britain’s public life.’ politics.co.uk, 23rd July 2021. Martin Fletcher, ‘After two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office has never been clearer.’ New Statesman, July 2021. 

  17. Harriet Line, ‘David Cameron claims Johnson “didn’t believe in Brexit” in blistering new attack on new PM and Gove.’ The Guardian, 14th September 2019. 

  18. ‘UK says independent Scotland would lose the pound.’ Euractiv, 7th February 2014. Mark Chandler, ‘Italy prime minister Gentiloni says UK cannot “CHERRY-PICK” perks in Brexit trade deal.’ The Express, 15th December 2017. ‘UK cannot “cherry pick” Brexit deal says Germany’s Spahn.’ Video. BBC News, 14th February 2017. Alan McGuinness, ‘Brexit: EU's Michel Barnier tells Britain he will not allow “cherry picking”' in trade deal talks.’ Sky News, 10th June 2020. 

  19. Nicholas Watt, Severin Carrell, Ben Quinn and Caroline Davies. ‘David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg unite to urge Scots to vote no.’ The Guardian, 10th September 2014. 

  20. Steven Poole, ‘Crush the saboteurs! How hard-Brexit rhetoric turned Leninist.’ The Guardian, 19th April 2017. Karl McDonald, ‘Theresa May takes aim at “separatists” as she begins Welsh offensive.’ iNews, 25th April 2017. Especially see the case of Tory candidate for the Senedd, Calum Davies, who seeks to abolish the Senedd, and deprecates references to the U.K. as a ‘union.’ Nation Cymru, 6th January 2021. 

  21. Gwynfor Evans, Land of My Fathers: Two Thousand Years of Welsh History. Swansea: John Penry, 1974. p. 316 ff. 

  22. Kirsty Hughes, a former director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, provides clear pragmatic reasons why Remainers should support the Celtic independentist movements. In her view, the EU would refuse membership of the UK in its current form, first, because its size would shift the new balance of power among its existing twenty-seven members, and second, because without a new referendum on Scottish independence, the UK is no longer entitled to be considered a stable or democratic state. See Adrian Zorzut, ‘EU open to Scotland joining bloc but “very reluctant” to let rest of UK back in.’ The New European, 8th July 2020. Under those circumstances, former members of the UK, including England, are more likely to be admitted to membership as independent nations. 

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