London Letter: David Hockney a rare Brexiteer among British cultural giants

Most British writers today are Remainers. Which side would past literary giants take?

A giant David Hockney retrospective, which opened at Tate Britain on Thursday, is the fastest-selling exhibition in the gallery's history, with 20,000 advance tickets sold a week before it opened.

Hockney (79) has spent most of his adult life in California but he remains essentially English and specifically Yorkshire. He is unusual among artists in holding the affection of the masses as well as the respect of the elites, although he has never made an effort to court the affection of either.

Last week Hockney designed a special masthead for the Sun newspaper, and told the paper what he thought of last year's vote to leave the European Union. "Brexit didn't surprise me totally because I'd been living in provincial Britain," he said. "The power has spread to the people because that's what the iPhone has done."

Hockney's warm response to Brexit, which fell short of an endorsement, was almost unique in the art world, although Grayson Perry thought the referendum was fascinating, describing it as "a two-fingers vote from the millions fed up with being ignored by the establishment".


The arts in general reacted with horror to the Brexit vote, and Alan Bennett, Hockney's closest literary equivalent as an English national treasure, spoke for many when he wrote about it in his diary.

“I imagine this must be what Munich was like in 1938 – half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other half stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice,” he wrote.

Spirit of Brexit

If England’s living writers show little sympathy for the spirit of Brexit Britain, there may be richer pickings for Brexiteers amongst the dead.

The two paramount curmudgeons of late 20th-century English letters, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, would have voted Leave with bad-tempered relish. And Evelyn Waugh, who once complained that the Conservative Party had "never put the clock back a single second", would have been irresistibly drawn by the nostalgia of Brexit.

Other English Catholic writers are more problematic, although Graham Greene, an anti-imperialist who lived in France for the latter half of his life, would have been a firm Remainer. Hilaire Belloc was half-French, but his anti-Semitism made him suspicious of all transnational projects that were not dominated by the Catholic Church.

Belloc's opposition to what he called the "servile state", which managed capitalism through social welfare and an expansive role for the state, would probably have overcome any faith he might have had in the EU as a Catholic project for Europe.

GK Chesterton shared Belloc's preoccupation with the Jews. His Short History of England, published during the first World War, is imbued with English nationalism. Still, it locates English history firmly within the story of western Christendom and European politics, quoting with approval Rudyard Kipling's rhetorical question "what should they know of England who only England know?"

Jingoistic cause

Kipling’s own jingoism evaporated after the death of his son John, an 18-year-old officer in the Irish Guards, at the Battle of Loos in 1915. So he might have been a late convert to the Remain cause.

Thomas Hardy, whose attachment to England was so great that he invented an entire culture based around Wessex, was so conscious of the likelihood of human error and misfortune – what he called "the hap" – that he would have probably voted gloomily to remain.

The entire Bloomsbury set would have been strident Remainers, oozing scorn for the unlettered hordes who went the other way. And Anthony Powell, an essentially European writer about England, would have understood that Brexit was as much a vote against the London metropolitan life he chronicled as against the EU itself.

DH Lawrence's individualistic anarchism would have driven him towards Brexit. But the true, anticipatory voice of the Brexiteer, as the Anglo-Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri noted recently, was Philip Larkin.

“In lieu of happiness, he desired a sense of being settled immovably in the familiar, which for him meant being situated ‘on the way to nowhere’ – the very zone from which many of the leavers have now spoken,” Chaudhuri wrote.

Larkin's poems are filled with melancholy for an England about to be destroyed by commerce and a political culture that cares for nothing except money. In Going, Going, he captures the sense of loss shared by both Brexit camps – both the left behind and the Tory romantics – for a country they imagine was once theirs.

“And that will be England gone, The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, The guildhalls, the carved choirs. There’ll be books, it will linger on In galleries; but all that remains For us will be concrete and tyres.”