As Article 50 is triggered, Britain is losing the plot
Author Chris Cleave imagines the Great Brexit novel: ‘If I’m honest about the genre of the Brexit narrative, I’d say that it feels like a ghost story’
Pro-EU slogans and banners rest on the perimeter fence of the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Britain triggers Article 50 today, launching the process whereby a legion of writers engage with their editors in the complex negotiations that will put a hundred Great British Brexit novels on the shelves in two years’ time. Those novels will be truly great, of course, now that Brussels can no longer dictate where we put every comma.
No one wants to read about the bleating of the remoaners. But what genre should a writer use to chronicle the inner lives of Brexit’s victors? As a British novelist, I’ve tried them all and I can I tell you why I canned my first six attempts.
Straight reportage is a popular starter but I’m afraid it’s off the menu because the Leavers’ actual words – like “red, white and blue Brexit” – make them sound adorable, but out of place in a book designed for adults. Also, it turns out that their promises change faster than a human can type. If Brexit were software, it would have started at version 8.6 and then been downgraded once a week. By the time we actually depart, we’ll be running Brexit 2.1 on Windows Millennium Edition. A helpful paperclip with a face will appear and say, “It looks like you’re trying to leave the European Union. ”
And you’ll say, “It’s as if, not like.” And the paperclip will say, “It looks like you’re a member of the metropolitan elite.”
Britain is radically disunited at the moment. It seems animated by loathing rather than logic. How should a writer write for, and about, a society like that?
The most up-to-date version of the Brexit guarantee, according to this week’s spin, is that it will deliver the same terms with Europe that we currently enjoy. Well, you spoil us, Ambassador. And if we’re lucky then the UK will hang together too, and we won’t set Ireland on fire. So today we celebrate demolishing our house, on the pledge that it will be rebuilt, by builders still unknown and unfunded, more-or-less as it was before. Exciting though that is, the premise is too weak for a novel, let alone a nation.
So you might try a stream-of-consciousness treatment instead. But the problem with the straight inner narrative of a Brexiter is that it reads as unreliable – at least to anyone who has been quietly writing down the previous promises as they are forgotten one-by-one. And Unreliable Narrator is also off the menu in this case, due to over seasoning. The protagonists in this saga seem so extravagantly unreliable that your editor would call you out for massively overegging the device.
Could you go for the next-best thing, by serving up the story as a study in cognitive dissonance? Certainly the current version of Brexit is plainly inconsistent with the Leavers’ self-image of a nation strong enough to go it alone. If we believe we are great negotiators then we should have the confidence to back ourselves. We should take the time to line up our new global partnerships before we cut loose from the old ones. And if we believe we are an exceptionally strong country then we should be asking ourselves how we can help our European neighbours to move forward with us, rather than ditching them on the most advantageous terms.
But the problem with this treatment is that it’s so boringly obvious. Readers are smart and they’d be yawning by page 10. Yeah, yeah, we get it: if you think your dog is sick, you damned well pick it up in your strong arms and you carry it to the vet. Only a total psycho would just put it out in the yard to die, not after 40 happy years together. Dissonance schmissonance, let’s close the book on these English schmucks and move on.
So you could try a treatment in which you gave voice to a sophisticate, a contrapuntal character – a pedant, perhaps, but with all the required redeeming features such as kindness to animals and attendance at parents’ evenings – such that we would maintain sympathy even as your protagonist gloried in Brexit.
But again, readers would be underwhelmed by it. Silence of the Lambs is a winner because Hannibal Lecter favours both opera and cannibalism, which work off each other to generate terrific chiaroscuro. But devouring human flesh is just a whole lot more visceral than the pusillanimous argument that “we voted against the EU, not against Europe”. Which is like saying that you voted to leave your neighbourhood watch scheme, not against your neighbourhood.
The fact is, if you stop keeping an eye on your neighbours’ property for them, and if you stop phoning once a day to check that the elderly man at number 19 hasn’t had a fall, then no one really minds whether you are for or against your street in principle. See? I just needed two paragraphs to explain why a popular Brexit argument is flawed. Thomas Harris did not need to expend one word explaining why it’s bad to eat a man’s face without using cutlery.
Perhaps you could write the thing as a study in male dominance behaviour. Certainly I get exhausted by Brexity men of a certain age gripping my arm while they tell me they are as pro-European as I am. They speak five European languages, they eat focaccia, they drive on the right twice a year. Great, you win! Because you’re quite right: this is some pissing contest to determine who’s the more cultured, rather than a desperate mistake that will impoverish a whole new tranche of Britons, destabilise the continent and open the eastern gates to Putin.
The problem with that particular literary treatment, as you’ve no doubt perceived, is that the writer is too close to the material. You find yourself putting your own personal anger into sentiments such as: Sir, it matters little if you have warm feelings in your heart when you vote to poison the lake. You have the luxury of being able to leave the water whenever it suits you. You are a scuba diver. I am a fish.
(Oh, and by the way: your drinking water comes from the lake. You won’t notice that part straight away, because it takes a while for the water to flow down to the place you draw it from.)
See? Stop it, Cleave, just stop.
So, may I come to the serious point of my piece? My family is Anglo-French and my work is done in a dozen European countries. I didn’t plan it that way. Moving to Europe was easy because I didn’t need anyone’s permission. Moving back to the UK was easy for the same reason. You’d want the same opportunities for your own kids, I’d have thought.
Being European is not a British political position for me, and so all I can do is to quietly get on with it. If I can do one positive thing as a writer over the next few years it will be to support the great number of other writers, artists, scientists, journalists, academics, families and business people who are keeping the lines of communication open between the UK and Ireland, and between the UK and mainland Europe. These channels will be useful again, one day.
Whatever genres they do end up choosing for their narratives of Brexit, I hope writers will continue to push for the careful use of language in our societal and political life. It is through the abandonment of accountable and unambiguous language that the Brexit victory was possible. Take the chimera of “sovereignty”, for example. This was the decisive promise of the Brexit campaigners, who used an empty word to prey on a hollow fear of foreigners. Under the camouflage of sovereignty they conflated immigration with terror.
This linguistic subterfuge, in turn, eroded Britain’s once solid sense of proportion. In Britain and Europe, for example, driving under the influence of alcohol kills ten thousand people every year. That’s 160,000 brutal, violent, criminal killings so far this century, versus fewer than a thousand deaths from terrorism. Proportionately, we should demand action against the drunk white people who live on our street. It doesn’t matter if they use WhatsApp encryption or not. We actually know their names.
And yet the winning promise (before that, too, was downgraded) was total immigration control. The Brexiters insisted that the threats to our wellbeing and prosperity lay outside our borders.
One would suppose, therefore, that the Brexiters cherish the people and institutions within our borders – but this has turned out not to be the case. The very rich, the very poor, intellectuals, racial minorities, EU citizens, academics, business people, Scots, scientists, the judiciary, members of parliament, women and progressives: all these groups have suffered vicious popular opprobrium since the Brexit vote.
After the recent tragic terrorist murders in London, there has even been an outbreak of hatred against Londoners, from regional commentators who are also the mouthpieces of the hard Brexiters. For the first time in my lifetime, a terrorist attack on the capital revealed the nation’s divisions rather than its unity. (Meanwhile, in a moving act of solidarity, Germany lit up the Brandenburg Gate with the Union Jack.)
Britain, I don’t think anyone would disagree, is radically disunited at the moment. It seems animated by loathing rather than logic. In seriousness, then, how should a writer write for, and about, a society like that?
My first answer is to be part of the democratic process, by accepting the democratic result. I make the usual distinction between the leaders of Brexit and the people who voted Leave. I don’t think the people who voted Leave are bad people. I don’t think they’re stupid, uneducated, uncultured, bigoted, racist or any less entitled to the vote than I am. I think they come from any number of different places, economic situations and reasoning processes. In fact the only thing I think all 17 million of them have in common is that they’re wrong on this single issue. I also accept the fact that the 16 million on my side of the issue include an enormous number of people who are wrong about everything else, or who are frankly insufferable. I’m sure that includes me. It is folly to use an electoral result to infer the existence of bad people. I accept this.
I also regretfully accept the changes in British society that made the referendum result possible. I accept that Britain is not about the careful and accountable use of language anymore. I accept that Britain is not about persuasion and consensus anymore. I accept that Britain is now a place where a wafer-thin electoral majority translates into absolute and unchallenged power, wielded without concessions to the defeated minority. I accept that my country simply doesn’t include me anymore.
Humility, memory and internal consistency are values in realist writing, just as they are in a realist society. In the long term these qualities might come to be recognised once again
But it’s not me I feel sorry for. If I’m honest about the genre of the Brexit narrative, I’d say that it feels like a ghost story. In which the English language is a spectre of itself. That’s how I’m writing it, anyway.
I don’t go on protest marches against the referendum result – and it’s not because I’m lazy or uninterested. I think the Brexiters too often define themselves in opposition to voices that they characterise as being “liberal” or “out of touch”. So by fully accepting the result, I enable the Brexiters to stop feeling challenged and to start delivering the radical improvements they have promised.
My role is to continue to write about Britain, in its past as well as its present, in order to convey a sense of the weight of what is being lost. I think this is the job of a realist writer in this new society, in which the Brexiters and the Trumpians have the whip hand. They seek to distort the facts, to change the historical record, and to cast doubt on the truthfulness of any counter-narrative. As a small, powerless person, I can’t compete with their limitless wealth and wall-to-wall media coverage. But what a writer can do is to be a nation’s memory. A writer can try to record truth, which is at least self-consistent, and beauty, which is always self-evident.
Humility, memory and internal consistency are values in realist writing, just as they are in a realist society. In the long term these qualities might come to be recognised once again, by the majority, as the viable alternative to the fear, chaos, changeability and belligerence being offered by our new rulers. If I didn’t believe in the majority’s ability - at some point in the future - to remember the attractions of realism, then you would find me on a rope. But while I still maintain that strong belief, you will find me instead on a keyboard.
Chris Cleave’s novels include Incendiary, The Other Hand and Everyone Brave is Forgiven