With Britain's departure from the European Union in limbo, its population split, its politicians deadlocked — and divisive U.S. President Donald Trump in Britain on Monday for a state visit — many of the 600 authors and 100,000 audience members were asking where things went wrong, and what can be done about it.
"I used to think 'the Brits are so calm when they talk about politics. They don't get angry,'" Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak told an audience in Hay, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of London. "I no longer think that way. Brexit literally broke the political narrative here and brought to the surface a much more toxic form of politics."
The festival, which ended Sunday, draws novelists, poets, scientists and politicians, and was famously dubbed the "Woodstock of the mind" by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. It's an annual indicator of what's on the mind of a large and largely liberal chunk of Britain. This year, the best-selling book in the onsite bookshop was "Heroic Failure," an evisceration of Brexit failures by Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole.
Britain's 2016 decision to quit the European Union created a deep fault-line between the 48% of voters who wanted remain in the European Union and the 52% who voted to leave. Three years on, Britain's politicians have failed to agree on exit terms, the country is still in the bloc, and voters on both sides are angry. The words "traitor" and "betrayal" are shouted and shared on social media in what often feels like a bad-tempered dialogue.
"We have half the country who think the other half are idiots," said British historian Peter Frankopan, whose book "The New Silk Roads" charts the growing power of Asia. "One of the challenges is how you blend those perspectives. How do you sit in the middle?"
The depth of the political chaos has come as a surprise, even to the experts. American historian Jared Diamond, whose latest book examines nations under pressure in his latest book "Upheaval - How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change," told his audience at Hay that he originally planned to include a chapter on Britain, a country long regarded as a stable leading democracy.
"It was going to be a happy-ending chapter," he said, about how Britain in the late 20th century overcame a crisis over its loss of empire "by finding a new identity in joining the European Union." The 2016 Brexit referendum made him reconsider that thesis. Diamond said that at the moment, he'd hesitate to write about Britain at all.
"Things are changing so fast with Brexit anything I wrote a week ago would be out of date," he said. As it stands, Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31, the delayed departure date set by the bloc amid political deadlock in London. Prime Minister Theresa May has given up trying to get her unpopular divorce deal approved by Parliament and will step down as Conservative Party leader on Friday.
Most of the more than a dozen contenders to replace her have vowed to take Britain out of the bloc, even without a deal. Pro-EU Britons — along with most economists — say that would plunge the country into recession. But many Brexit supporters believe the only alternative is being stuck in the EU indefinitely.
The deep division over Brexit looks to be transforming British politics. Last month's European Parliament elections saw voters desert the Conservatives and main opposition Labour — the two parties that tried and failed to find a compromise EU divorce deal — for the newly formed Brexit Party and the fervently pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
Several speakers searched for antidotes for the poison tainting Britain's body politic. David Lammy, a lawmaker with the left-of-center opposition Labour Party, lamented "this civil conflict in Britain that is making us navel-gaze at ourselves and not look outward into the world."
His solutions included people's assemblies to find a way forward on Brexit, and a written constitution — something Britain famously lacks — "to get serious about who we are." Shafak said people should ignore their Brexit fatigue and start listening to one another.
"I don't have to agree with Brexit, but I need to understand why people voted Brexit," she said.
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