Today the UK will vote about its membership of the European Union. What does that have to do with Star Wars you might ask? Well, many of you might come and visit London in July for Celebration Europe and the referendum outcome is one thing that may influence the UK you are going to find then.
But it is not only that which makes the referendum and its outcome interesting for you. As you know the Star Wars movies are largely shot on sets in England, Ireland, Croatia, etc. The referendum outcome may also affect the logistics of that operation as the smoothness of transporting equipment, people and capital across these borders depends greatly on the border-arrangements and the free movement of goods and people. But none of these things are things I want to discuss in this post, rather I want to use this day to have a look at what Star Wars says about the issues at stake in this UK-EU Referendum.
United in Diversity
The striking difference between the Empire, as depicted in the Original Trilogy of Star Wars, and the Republic, seen in the Prequel Trilogy, is the utter lack of diversity in the Empire. This is not coincidental. The ‘time of Empire’ is not a time of creativity, free exchange, openness, Science and Arts. Rather it is an era of stagnation. The gorgeous design of Naboo spaceships is left to rot and replaced by a design that is either functional or made to radiate power and dominance. The Original Trilogy universe has a ‘used look’ exactly because the Empire cannot be bothered to sustain and maintain public services and facilities in outlying systems. Probably not even in lower levels of Coruscant which succumb entirely to decay during the Empire. The imperial rejection of diversity and openness is not merely an expression of its dominating and oppressive attitudes, it is also the seed of its ultimate downfall. The Republic on the other hands attempts to stand united in diversity. In the years following the Battle of Naboo that stand becomes ever more difficult and is increasingly under siege by separatism.
Across all of Europe, including in the UK, ‘diversity’ is under increasing pressure. This pressure is not so much aimed at diversity in gender terms but in ethnic, racial and socio-economic terms. The presence of flows of migrants and the absence of clear-cut borders has increasingly been met with fear and anger by citizens, even by citizens who themselves have immigrated less than a decade ago. One issue that keeps coming up during the referendum is whether or not the public services are able to cope with the additional people coming into the UK. Yet while the campaign that aims to leave the EU squarely declares the level of immigration being the problem, these same public services have had their resources cut in subsequent governments over the past 6 years.
Openness and diversity are increasingly viewed as a burden and the Leave campaign’s answer to that is to separate from the institution that is viewed as (en)forcing this openness and diversity upon the UK: The EU. The ‘united in diversity’ is actually the motto of the international organization we call the EU.
Take back control
The Republic often comes across as diverse but disordered. The galactic senate is called ‘corrupt’, ‘self-serving’, ‘squabling’ and disconnected from the real needs for the real galaxy. The lack of control in the Republic on the one hand leads to excesses such as exemplified in a dispute between a government (The Republic) and a corporate entity (Trade Federation) that ends on the battle field. The corporate world in the late Republic seems able to challenge the state on the very prime mandate it has, the monopoly on wielding armed force. Such events propel a sense of chaos through the galaxy and shine a light on the Senate that seems to reveal incompetence and corruption. Much of the protest against the Republic revolves around the influence corporate entities such as the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guilds and the Banking Clan exert. Much of the criticisms of the EU coming from the left, rather than the right, flag questions and risks associated with trade-deals such as TTIP and the influence on government policy it grants to corporations.
The need to take back control is what drives much of the historical events in the two decades after the Battle of Naboo. Increasing numbers of systems become, as their citizens, disenfranchised with the central government and the Senate on Coruscant and turn their backs on the Republic. In Star Wars: The Clone Wars we get some insight every now and then into the inner-workings of the Separatist Senate. Most of these people are genuinely upset with the way the Republic works and see no other way of reforming it then by leaving it. What they experience after their decision to separate is that the effect of the choice is exactly the opposite of regaining control. Rather they are swept into a war that rages across the galaxy where the dynamic of conflict does not pause until the very structure they thought unreformable has reformed itself into the oppressive institution as which they decried it when it was still salvageable. The Separatists however are NOT the villains of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.
Makes you uncomfortable
Those who are following the events unfolding in Europe, and in the US as a matter of fact, and recall what the Prequel Trilogy depicts must be watching this with an increasing sense of uncomfortableness. However these stories tell us something truly important. As I said before, the Separatists are not the villains of Star Wars, neither is the Republic the embodiment of Good. Both sides are depicted as making bad choices, seeking out allegiances with unreliable parties and ultimately being instrumental in the wholesale destruction of freedom and peace in the galaxy. The villains in the Star Wars saga are identifiable by a remarkably realistic characteristic: They promise actions that are the exact opposite of the intentions they have.
Today the UK will vote in a referendum to decide whether it will stand with the EU, or separate from it. And my gut feeling about this vote, in which I have no vote myself, tells me that citizens on all sides of the debate have the feeling that the leaders on the other side are making promises they do not intend to keep. In their anger, fear and confusion I do think they to run the risk of tearing down an institution that was the only thing protecting them from the nasty influence of those who plead to deceive. I guess this is what Yoda means when he says ‘the dark side clouds everything!’
Star Wars’political side is designed to make you feel uncomfortable. It is a deeply human story, but equally a deeply political story. It is not a narrative which tells you which side of the debate is the good side and which side is the bad side. Star Wars tells you that usually ‘there are heroes on both sides’, there is honour and valour, goodness and courage on both sides. But too late do the citizens of the Republic and the Separatist Federation recognise that it is the conflict itself that is destroying the very architecture that was designed to protect them. Even Yoda recognizes this to late, not until after he has seen that the Jedi are destroyed by a Jedi.
A little more faith
A little more faith in the Republic had probably prevented the worst. A little less faith in its representatives and a little more faith in its inhabitants. A little less faith in its leaders and a little more faith in its institutions and structures. Sure, the Senate was full of squabbling delegates. But as long as they were squabbling they were not shooting to kill. Sure some chancellors were part corrupt, but not as corrupt as the one who promised ‘an end to corruption’. In those last days of the Republic the greatest black hole was that in the stock of faith and trust of the citizens. Yet in the end it is that faith in the other that Padme Amidala passes on to her children, allowing them to set free Anakin to finally bring the balance he was destined to bring. The chosen-one who never wanted to be that chosen-one. The fire of confidence that was lost in the demise of the Republic was kept alive by the Skywalkers to be rekindled after the dark times. The real choice the referendum voters face is not In or Out. The real choice is whether they give up hope and give in to cynicism and walk away. That is a choice they need to make today, but irrespective of the result also tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead.