If you’re in Hyde Park this summer, I strongly recommend you pop in to see the Grayson Perry exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. It’s called The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever, with the accent on popular as this is an investigation of what divides and unites Britain in these populist times.
It’s delightful, thought-provoking and free – though Perry has created a whopping, ceramic piggy bank at the entrance with 18 named slots for you to make a donation. I chose the one marked ‘us and them’.
And that’s because the centrepiece of the exhibition – or mantelpiece as he puts it – is a matching pair of Brexit Vases where the artist has asked Leavers and Remainers each to suggest the images, words, brands and icons that represent what they most care about in the Brexit debate. The surprise is how similar the two vases look. From a distance all you really notice is that the Leaver vase is slightly (about 4%) larger than the Remainer one.
But it’s not so surprising if you study Story.
With exception of comic books, the antagonism in stories is rarely between enemies fighting a two-dimensional battle between Good and Evil. More usually the opposition is between people who want pretty much the same thing but have different ways of achieving it. Ask Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and they’ll both tell you they want the best for the universe. They just disagree about whether the Light or Dark Side are the best way to get there. The goal is the same, the policy is different. And the result is war.
You see the same the same in families. Most family members would agree that a happy family is the mission. But disagreements about what that means and how to achieve it can result in endless ruined Christmases, feuds, estrangements and worse.
It’s what I call ‘furious agreement’. And Perry’s nearly identical pots remind us that is what is running right through the troubles heart of Brexit.
Leavers and Remainers I have spoken to agree they want the best our country. They agree the future is about developing international trade and fostering warm relations with trading partners. Is globalisation a good idea? Both say yes, provided it’s tempered with a sense of national identity. So, substantial agreement. The differences are about the final 2% of the issue; nuance really. Remainers see ties with Europe as a priority and are willing to sacrifice some of our national independence to stay a member of the clan. Leavers say a relationship with Europe is fine provided it’s on our terms and we’re free to ‘date other people’.
The trouble is, marginal differences like these can fuel the most awful and long-lasting conflicts. Sunnis and Shias – substantially the same, but murderously different in the detail. Ditto Catholics and Protestants. Orthodox and Liberal Jews. Tutsi and Hutu. Crips and Bloods. Capulet and Montague.
It’s ironic that tomorrow we begin ‘divorce’ proceedings with our European allies. If only those talks could be focussed on the 98% we all – Leavers, Remainers AND our European colleagues – want and not the 2% that is dragging us apart.
Full disclosure, I didn’t find the two vases equally attractive. While I recognise Marmite, The Union Jack and Farage are legitimately British I just don’t connect with these “Leave” icons the way I do with the Remain pot’s NHS, John Lewis and (yes I admit it) avocado imagery. If you are a committed Leaver I’d love to have a chat and see whether you can help me meet you in the middle. It’s time we wove our stories together.