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Another Atlantis: The Literature Behind The Brexit Dream

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

By Stephen Bench

“In Brexit-land, the two-eyed gammon shines a blinding light”

The classic era of Utopia is rooted firmly in the 19th Century, even if the term was coined hundreds of years earlier by Sir Thomas More, and even if by the end of the century the hope that had driven utopian fiction had shifted to the despair that fuelled the birth of dystopia.

Moore was looking for what he called the ‘no place’. It seems fair to say that, today, this is exactly the place Britain seems to be heading. For the Brexiteers, it seems that it takes little imagination to connect the idea of Brexit to Utopia.

This is undoubtedly fitting, considering that the right (dis)honourable member for 1880 is front and centre of the omnishambles currently being borne out across Britain’s civic sphere. This is not to say that Brexit is good or bad; or that the EU is naughty or nice; but rather, that the dreams of the rich haven’t changed much in the last few hundred years. This is readily apparent when one takes a look at classic Utopias.

Looking backwards

Perhaps the pinnacle of Utopia, for its political motivation and influence if not its literary quality, is Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”. This is a story of a man who awakens in the future to find a capitalist dream where the young do the menial labour and the old run the country. Sounds familiar, right?

The similarities don’t end there. Brexit means Brexit, which in theory—if not in a game of chequers—means that free movement must end, except, of course, where it benefits us. For Bellamy, the solution to immigration was simple: if you migrate to Utopia, your home state must pay the costs. The dream of ending free movement and charging foreigners for a visa is the dream of Brexiteers looking to end the imaginary problem of health tourism.

Of course, Looking Backward had its critics, not least of all William Morris. Morris even wrote his own utopia in response to Bellamy, and this too is incorporated into the Brexit dream – an autarkic world where we have magically started to produce enough to efficiently provide for the entire nation, without the need to trade with our friends across borders.

What both of these utopias share in common is their Dystopian tinges. From the huge industrial army co-opted by the state to do its bidding in Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, to Morris’ inability to understand why haymaking isn’t a real holiday.

A lino carving of H.G. Wells The Land Of The Blind.
H.G. Wells might have had a thing or two to say about Brexit. (The Land Of The Blind)

These dystopian Utopias

It is this trait of classic utopias whose stench follows Brexit. Brexit has been sold as either a dream of a once great nation taking back control, or a nightmare of economic decline. In reality, though, it is much closer to these dystopian Utopias—neither of which successfully overcame capitalism as they had intended. The outcome of Brexit can be said to be the same; the Brexiteers don’t want to keep their promises to those forgotten by capitalism in northern communities, and yet they sold these people a Utopia and have successfully argued that the impending no deal is its greatest outcome.

The no deal utopia is, of course, one of a top down economy that bypasses human and workers rights in place of a strong capitalism, one in which the country unites to show its productive strength. For Bellamy too, the economy was structured top-down for the benefit of the productive strength with limited rights for the young who formed the industrial army.

And yet, much like those who founded Bellamy Clubs and built garden cities in response to looking backwards, no element of criticism or observation opens their eyes to the truth. This is simply because they are not blind: their eyes are wide open to the blinding utopian promises written on the side of a bus because their concerns about the world are real.

In H.G. Wells’ Country of the Blind, it turns out that the blind man was still the king and the one eyed man was seen as a raving looney screaming about a thing called ‘the sky’. In the country of Brexit, it would be hard to imagine anyone being blind to the implications of “no deal”.

Instead, in Brexit-land, the two-eyed gammon shines a blinding light at real concerns, whilst the rest of us are left as lunatics screaming about the end of our rights and our desire for holidays.

This article is part of Issue No.1 - Utopia. For more information or to contribute, contact


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