The Nine Levels of Brexit Hell
Donald Tusk promised ‘a special place in hell.’ Let Foreign Policy be your guide through Brexit’s Inferno.
European Council President Donald Tusk claimed this week that there was a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely.”
In Dante Alighieri’s epic 14th-century poem Inferno, there were in fact nine special places in hell, each a circle of torment located within the bowels of the earth.
It is unclear whether Tusk had Dante in mind when he made his comments, but if he did, perhaps those nine circles of hell would look something like this.
First Circle (Limbo): Repentant Voters
Dante’s first circle of hell was an inferior form of heaven populated by those pagans who, while virtuous, had not had the chance to accept Christ. In Tusk’s Inferno, it is here that we would perhaps find those repentant voters who have changed their mind since the 2016 referendum result.
They flocked to the polls in good faith yet are stuck with a lingering sense of regret. They believed the things that were promised to them; they thought they were doing the right thing for their country. And now they must live with the consequences, and they feel nervous about that. They are, in effect, in limbo until March 29, when the deadline of Article 50 hits and the U.K. exits the European Union, deal or no deal. Whether they will sink deeper into the Brexit underworld of confusion and indecision is unclear at this point.
Second Circle (Lust): Boris Johnson
If anyone in the Brexit debate was overcome by lust it was the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Not in terms of fleshly pleasures—though his private life is quite another story—but in allowing ambition and self-interest to sway his reason.
Just a few years ago, during his stint as London’s mayor, Johnson liked to pose as a pro-immigration liberal. Then during the referendum campaign, he summoned up the prospect of Turkey joining the EU to frighten voters into voting Leave by conjuring the specter of swarthy migrants at the border. Johnson called repeatedly for Britain to stay inside the single market until he needed the support of the hard-Brexiteers in the Conservative Party for his own ambitions, at which point he quit Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet on the basis that she was going to—that’s right—keep Britain inside the single market.
All apparently out of a burning desire—nay, lust—to be the prime minister.
Third and Fourth Circles (Gluttony and Greed): Eurosceptic MEPs
Several members of the European Parliament rode high on the hog in Brussels while making a career out of disdaining it. In 2015, it was reported that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the hardcore Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) had a worse attendance record in the European Parliament than their counterparts in any other party in Europe. Moreover, in 2018, the UKIP MEP and prominent Leave campaigner Nigel Farage had part of his monthly MEP salary docked after European Parliament auditors found he had misspent public funds. UKIP had previously gotten into trouble with European Parliamentary authorities after the UKIP-dominated Alliance for Direct Democracy, a European grouping of MEPs, was found to have directed funds aimed at winning Farage a parliamentary seat in the U.K.
The avaricious are punished in Dante’s fourth circle by being forced to push around enormous weights—“they strained their chests, against enormous weights, and with mad howls”—and joust with one another. UKIP has been going through its own bitter scrimmage of late, and the party is riven by infighting and “virtually dead as an election fighting organization,” according to the Conservative pollster Robert Hayward.
Fifth Circle (Wrath): Remain Truthers
Transported to the river Styx, the inhabitants of the fifth circle in Dante’s poem are stranded in the muddy water in a state of resentful, wailing suspense. In our version, it is here we find those who sullenly refuse to accept the referendum result at all and those who attribute the Leave victory to Russian interference or overspending.
A noisy set of Remain Truthers expostulate in the dark waters of social media, wildly cursing institutions such as the BBC for their alleged bias. In common with Dante and Virgil, anyone not of this conspiratorial bent usually passes by this gurgling mess unsettled but unpersuaded.
Sixth Circle (Heresy): Lexiteers
To be left-wing and pro-Brexit is still something of a heresy, even if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, together with some of his closest advisors, have long taken this view. Lexit is influential at the very top of the Labour Party but, among the membership, it is deeply unpopular: 88 percent of Labour members would back Remain were another vote to be held, while 72 percent support holding another referendum.
Heretics in Dante’s sixth circle were consigned to flaming tombs. Here, Dante and Virgil find several historical figures, including Pope Anastasius II—who, like Corbyn, some say—is included among the heretics by mistake.
Seventh Circle (Violence): Brexit Armchair Warriors
There have been veiled threats of disorder made by a minority of people since the referendum of 2016.
On the one hand are those with genuine concerns about unrest caused by the illegitimacy of overturning the 2016 referendum result. Thus Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed that reversing Brexit could lead to “real social instability.”
On the other hand, there are the hot-air merchants. Farage said that he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if Brexit was not delivered. The ubiquity of this rhetoric in some quarters even got Sky News asking viewers if there was about to be a “civil war” in Britain.
Alas, we cannot transform the really dangerous bloviators into trees and bushes as in Dante’s seventh circle.
Eighth Circle (Fraud): Duplicitous Campaigners
Few Leave supporters still stand by the claim that an extra 350 million pounds, about $450 million, a week was going to be pumped into Britain’s National Health Service if Britain quit the EU. In reality, Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget was always closer to 234 million pounds a week, about $300 million. The head of the U.K. Statistics Authority even wrote to Boris Johnson over his use of the Leave campaign figure, describing it as a “clear misuse of official statistics.”
Dante’s eighth circle has a proper name: Malebolge, which means evil ditches. Perhaps in this case a ditch will be reserved for those who misled the public in 2016 with eye-watering promises that bore little relation to reality. But perhaps here too are those who put out dire—and as yet unfulfilled—warnings of immediate economic catastrophe should Britain vote to leave the EU.
Ninth Circle (Treachery): Remain Hard-liners
Those ardent Remainers still hoping to overturn the referendum result might be looked on sympathetically by EU figures such as Donald Tusk, but many hardcore Leavers see this as nothing less than treachery.
This lot are thus confined to Dante’s ninth circle of hell, where wrongdoers are frozen in an icy lake. The worse the sin, the deeper they are buried in the ice of a permanent political freeze. Here we find Tony Blair, the Liberal Democrats, and a good proportion of the People’s Vote crowd.
Dante was able to escape the Inferno for the relatively mild fires of Purgatory. As Britain heads toward March 29 with no sign of a deal or political resolution, that looks like it might be overly optimistic.