Ian McEwan on Brexit: ‘My solution is simple: a united Ireland’
The English author’s new book imagines a cockroach as the prime minister of the UK
Ian McEwan: ‘I think we should go the Irish route and let everyone think again.’ Photograph: David Levenson/Getty
Watching events at Westminster this week – when the UK supreme court found that Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully in suspending parliament and MPs accused the prime minister of putting their lives at risk with his incendiary rhetoric – many in Britain wondered what had happened to their body politic.
Johnson has refused to apologise for attempting to prorogue parliament, or for his language and tone in the House of Commons, when he said the best tribute to Remain-supporting, murdered MP Jo Cox would be to deliver Brexit.
In a novella published this week, author Ian McEwan uses satire to examine a period in British history that often seems beyond parody, portraying a political class that has been taken over by cockroaches.
The Cockroach opens with a twist on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis that sees a cockroach waking up in 10 Downing Street to discover that he has been transformed into prime minister Jim Sams. Sams leads a cabinet almost entirely made up of cockroaches who have invaded the upper ranks of British politics to push through an absurd economic theory called Reversalism.
“At the end of a working week, an employee hands over money to the company for all the hours she has toiled. But when she goes to the shops, she is generously compensated at retail rates for every item she carries away,” the theory goes.
McEwan, who wrote the 20,000-word book during the summer, told me this week that he was trying to describe in Reversalism an idea “as absurd and pointless” as Brexit.
“I make no pretence of wanting to be even-handed on this. I don’t think satire works even-handedly. I’m completely parti pris, and the spirit of the cockroach is for me the spirit of Brexit,” he says.
“When I was 16 I read Swift’s A Modest Proposal and it made a huge impact on me. In fact I wrote a long essay in praise of it on my own. I never gave it to any teacher, I was just so taken with it. What did it achieve? Nothing.
“[The book] will earn the scorn of Brexiters or they’ll ignore it completely or say how badly it’s written, their other way of doing things. And it might just relieve the gloom of the Remainers to some extent. But this is a case of novellas making nothing happen, to adapt Auden’s saw.”
Sams has elements of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, although McEwan insists that the book is not a roman a clef. He thought carefully before identifying the cockroach as the emblematic insect behind the spirit he believes drove Brexit.
“Kafka doesn’t really name his bug. But it’s the one insect which we seem to have universal disgust for. They are associated with poverty and bad living arrangements. So I wanted an insect that would really benefit from Brexit,” he says.
“There’s a special kind of lying, which I think of as severe lying. And when the government prorogued parliament for five weeks and Michael Gove and others went round saying ‘It has absolutely nothing to do with Brexit’ and they said it with a sort of sneer or a wink. And I think of it as Soviet lying. I’m lying. You know I’m lying. I know that you know I’m lying. And here’s the lying. And that’s exactly what I witnessed. And this is cockroach behaviour.”
The Booker prize-winning author of Amsterdam, Atonement and Saturday is an unabashed liberal internationalist who can see no virtue in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. McEwan believes the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit were lied to about the cost of EU membership but above all about sovereignty.
“What’s wrapped up in ‘Take back control’ is a suggestion to people that they will have more sovereignty and more control over their lives if we were to leave the EU. And what lies behind that lie is a denial of the fact that if we turn our back on all the trade deals we already have and we start a round of 20 years of getting them all back, every single one of these trade deals will be a compromise with our sovereignty,” he says.
McEwan acknowledges that there are historic inequities in the British state and that many of those who voted to leave the EU had real grievances about the state of public services and their own economic wellbeing. But he notes that politicians who favour Brexit no longer argue that it will make the UK better off, at least in the short term.
“It’s gone all mystical, all kind of milky-eyed mystical and religious. I cannot quite understand where they want to get to. I can understand the arguments that they want low corporation tax, low regulation, low environmental standards, sort of offshore Singapore and so on. But they didn’t say that. No, I think it’s that strange mystical sense that doesn’t actually have any real answers as to why any more,” he says.
Although McEwan wrote The Cockroach in a few weeks, he feels he has been researching it for three years through his obsessive preoccupation with the news surrounding Brexit. He talks easily about the minute details of the political turmoil at Westminster and about Johnson’s attempts to secure a new withdrawal agreement.
He thinks a deal is unlikely because he cannot see the DUP accepting any withdrawal agreement that includes a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
“Well my solution is very simple: a united Ireland. Then you can go on trading and flourishing and no one would notice the difference. The South is no longer run by priests, and all these kids take the train regularly down to Dublin and have a good time,” he says.
“And I’d collect on a 30-year-old bet with an Irish friend of mine, a neuroscientist, that there would be a united Ireland in our lifetime. He said absolutely not. I said shopping would solve it, consumerism. That the South would get richer than the North and the North would say we want to shop too. The priest-ridden theocracy that Ian Paisley the older used to rant about is gone.”
I point out that, just as Irish people chose independence a century ago knowing its likely economic cost, unionists value their British identity more than any possible economic benefits from unification. And I suggest that part of human nature allows people to make political decisions that they know will make them materially poorer but that they hope will bring a greater sense of autonomy.
“Well, I think it is a lovely part of human nature once it’s not expressed with violence or hostility to others, and in fact I can’t think of any entity on the planet which is so diverse as the EU.
“If you take a plane from Portugal and land in Sweden the differences are colossal. Even if you hop from Dover to Calais. It is an amazing thing that we are far more interesting than the United States, this homogenous McDonald’s place [where], wherever you drive, it all looks the same,” he says.
“I take your point that people could well vote against their economic interests to have that autonomy, but they can have that autonomy within the EU, and the Republic has flourished.”
McEwan says he feels disenfranchised because he distrusts Jeremy Corbyn, whom he regards as sitting at the centre of a “post-Leninist” coterie of Eurosceptics. And he is unhappy with the Liberal Democrats’ policy of cancelling Brexit by revoking article 50 without a second referendum.
“I think we should go the Irish route and let everyone think again. And if the vote is to leave again, we just have to shrug and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got it coming. We’ve all got it coming. And let’s hope it’s just dreary, not catastrophic,’ ” he says
“It’s hard to see how it will go away whether we end up remaining or leaving. I suppose if we leave, we will then have to spend many years not just getting back trade arrangements that we have in the EU but all the things that tie – the cultural institutions, security, science in particular. And maybe a centre party will grow up and will try and get it back in in 10 or 15 years, if the EU will have us.”
The Cockroach by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, out now