Brexit road trip - Carolyn Steel (Author, London)

Talking to Carolyn Steel about Brexit puts the ‘fun’ in fundamental discussions about democracy.

Talking to Carolyn Steel about Brexit puts the ‘fun’ in fundamental discussions about democracy.

Carolyn Steel is an architect (MA (Hons) Cantab RIBA) and a leading thinker on food and cities. Her 2008 book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives has won international acclaim, and her concept of ‘sitopia’ (food-place) is widely recognised in the emergent field of food urbanism.

Carolyn has been a visiting lecturer and design tutor at Cambridge University, London Metropolitan and Wageningen Universities, and was inaugural studio director of the London School of Economics Cities Programme. Her new book ‘Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World’ will be published by Chatto & Windus in March 2020.

I ran into Carolyn twice in one month during food conferences in Amsterdam and Oxford, and basically kept bringing up Brexit until she agreed to do an interview about it. I’m happy she did.

What has it been like living with the prospect of Brexit?

“It’s been surreal, horrifying, terrifying, upsetting. This country seems to have been taken over by the forces of darkness. I don’t know if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, but it feels as though Mordor is approaching. As a friend of mine said recently, ‘Jacob Rees Mogg is Sauron, Boris Johnson is Saruman. Where’s Aragorn? And what can we hobbits do?’ There is this tiny group of far-right people who’ve taken control of the country, and nobody has the power to oppose them. Yes, I know a lot of people voted for Brexit, but most of them were lied to. They were misinformed, they were told that leaving the EU would be the easiest thing in the world, that we’d have a deal done by yesterday. That’s simply not true.”

 “No-deal has now become the policy of the Tory government. People who want to stop no-deal are being framed as ‘collaborating’ with Europe – as if that were a bad thing! We are in the midst of an unfolding insanity. I’m obsessed with it. I probably spend three to four hours a day listening to Brexit related radio and reading Brexit articles, and winding myself up into a complete knot about it. And that will probably become six hours a day, because I’ve so much time now that I’ve finished this book, haha.”

How do you address Brexit in your upcoming book?

“I had to include it of course. I started writing this book four years before Brexit happened. I was already writing about neoliberalism, about the huge divisions in society, climate change, and the fact that capitalism wasn’t working. I was writing about all these things and then Brexit happened.”


“In my book I write about the UK and the US in one breath. We’re sort of on the same neoliberal trajectory since Reagan and Thatcher were saying the same things in the eighties: ‘the government is the problem, free market and free enterprise will solve it all’. The US and the UK have been on this similar course for forty years since then. Some people have got really, really rich, but far more people have become really, really poor and have been disfranchised.”

“Then we have the fact that we’re postindustrial societies, we no longer have these big manufacturing bases, so there aren’t real jobs for the vast majority of people to do. We’ve hit this point, and the upswell of rage about promises of prosperity on the one hand and reality on the other has manifested itself in these two votes for Trump and Brexit.” 

“Regarding the outcome of Brexit: my focus in the book is more on the idea that the capitalist project has run its course, and now we need a new economy, a new social contract, a new vision of a good life, and all those things have to be seen within the context of limited resources and a shrinking, overheating planet. That’s going to require an enormous effort, whatever the outcome of Brexit will be.”

Has it been difficult to stop writing this book with Brexit still not resolved?

“It has. I can’t finish this book. I mean, I’ve had to give it to my publishers. On the day that I had to hand it in, the most recent IPCC report about land and climate change was published. And I thought: ‘Damn, damn, damn, I have to put this in the book!’. It’s a really difficult thing to balance: being topical – which the book is – but also not already being out of date when it’s published in March next year.”

What do you anticipate happening in the next few months?

“I think we are going to leave on the 31st of October, simply because there is no legal means of stopping it. There will be an election, but only after we leave the EU. The remain-vote within parliament is split, [Labour Leader] Jeremy Corbyn has no support. Dominic Cummings, who ran the vote leave campaign, is now running No. 10, a totally unprincipled but strategically brilliant man in the heart of the government, pushing towards a no-deal Brexit. And I don’t see any democratic way of stopping that.” 

“So we’ll leave on the 31st of October, it will be utter chaos, there will be food shortages, medicine shortages, twenty-mile-long lorry queues at the ports, everything. Then there will be another general election and I think it’s likely that the Tories will win, because they will plan the vote for just after we leave and they’re already campaigning. And the team that Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with is very good at campaigning. Jeremy Corbyn will pose no real threat to them. So the Tories will win, they will have to negotiate new trade relations with the EU without any bargaining power. Then it will turn out that we can’t have a deal with the USA, because their leader of the House Nancy Pelosi has said that there is no way that congress will pass any deal with Britain that threatens the Good Friday Agreement. So we have to have an Irish back stop.”

“I think we’re likely to have six months to a year of chaos. Then probably another election, by which time Corbyn has hopefully been replaced and Labour gets a win. So even in the worst case scenario I have hope, because my hope is that when we actually leave the EU, people will see that they’ve been lied to, and will turn on the people who’ve lied to them. And then, maybe after five years of horror in the wilderness we will come crawling back to the EU asking them to let us back in. Good sense will rise to the surface again, we’re just going to a weird hysterical phase where the kids have taken over.”

“That’s the most likely scenario I see right now. The best case scenario that I see is: by some miracle the remainers get an extension and we’ll have a general election before we leave. Somebody sensible takes over from Jeremy Corbyn, let’s say Hilary Ben or Keir Starmer. Labour wins the general election, they do a deal with the EU where we stay inside the single market, stay inside the customs union and therefore have no need for the backstop. Hallelujah! It could happen, but it’s a chance in a thousand.”

The subtitle of your new book is ‘How food can save the world’. Do you believe food can save Great Britain?

“Yes I do. In the book I go into the question: ‘What would the world look like if we actually valued food?’. And the most obvious thing to say to that is that we’d farm very differently, we’d eat differently, and we’d live differently. We would want to re-localize the food system and farm with nature, not against it. It’s almost comical: just as I was finishing the book, almost every week these reports were being published saying these things. The EAT-Lancet report Food in the Anthropocene, the RSA land report, the IPCC report Climate Change and Land. And all of these were saying we need to move to more agro-ecological farming methods.”

“We have to rethink the landscape, we have to rethink what everybody will be doing all day, in the zero carbon economy. And once we’ve built enough wind turbines and insulated enough houses the most logical thing to do seems to be producing food, because that is the thing we all have to consume every day. I’m personally sympathetic to the ideas of the anarchists, who argued for more local agency and more common ownership of land. Where the idea of capitalism is based on the division of labour, so everybody ends up doing one thing, in the anarchist’s vision everybody ends up doing lots of things. A good society to me is one where lots of people do lots of useful things. And a lot of that would be centered around food.”

In case you’re hungry to hear more from Carolyn Steel, which you should be, go watch this video. And then go buy her previous book Hungry City. And then go pre-order her upcoming book.

Maarten Kuiper