Damage and disillusion
‘Among large sections of the middle class, the belief in British good fortune and British good sense has vanished. Politically, I cannot see where their anger goes’
An unnoticed feature of Brexit is that the people who must make it work are the same people who think it one of the worst mistakes Britain has made. This is obviously the case with the Prime Minister and Chancellor. But it does not stop there. The senior civil servants and diplomats who must somehow find a deal that is acceptable to Brussels and the Conservative Party, the junior public servants whose working lives are dominated by the crisis, businesses who must plan for the future and reassure their anxious European staff, university and NHS administrators working out where their lecturers and nurses will come from, are struggling with a crisis most of them never wanted.
Journalists who commentate rather than manage, most notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, drove Brexit. Pensioners, who have stopped work, voted for it by a margin of 2:1. They have left the task of delivering it to men and women who in large part voted to remain in the EU. They cannot just walk away from their duties as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Steve Baker and so many of the other men who brought us Brexit have done. They must stay and cope, and inevitably be blamed for the failure of an idea they knew was predestined to fail.
The Brexit vote is usually presented as a division between the people from somewhere and the people from nowhere, or the globalists and the left-behind. There’s a grain of truth in both caricatures. But they are as nothing when set against the division between those who can escape responsibility and those who cannot. And from where I sit in the liberal press, the responsible middle classes are becoming radicalised in the process. They once treated politicised artists like children, assuming, that is, they noticed them at all. To practical men and women, the arts, or at least artists who addressed politics, appeared bound by rules as tight as Aristotle’s classical unities. They would watch a play that showed the white British as irredeemable racists, and shrug and think, “We’re not that bad.” They would know they only had to see the chief executive of a corporation to guess that he would be revealed in the final scene to be the villain of the piece, or that the banker mentioned in passing would be a criminal. As for politics, everyone who knew about it realised artists not only had no idea how their country was governed, they felt no obligation to find out.
Two years ago, they would have scoffed at Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (Viking, £16.99), the latest in what I am sure will be a line of Brexit novels that will stretch on for decades. A journalist is interviewing an adviser to Cameron just before the referendum. “You know who hasn’t lost a single thing?” the aide cries. “Do you know who’s won everything he’s put his mind to? David Cameron. David’s a winner, Douglas. He’s a fighter.” Of course Cameron would win, and by 2017 the country would have moved on and forgotten the referendum.
On one level, everything about the scene is wrong. In private, political contacts don’t spout slogans. If they brief journalists, they do it for a reason. Equally, no real journalist would waste time talking to Coe’s creation when he gave no useful information. Two years ago, you could have enjoyed left-wing novels as you enjoyed political plays at the National Theatre or Royal Court. You would go along with the ritual while recognising they were as formulaic in their own way as a Mills & Boon romance and as a fixed as a professional wrestling bout.
Now what Coe and writers like him produce may not be accurate but it is true, or true enough to large numbers of people. Cameron will go down as one of the worst prime ministers in British history: an unforgivably shallow and dilettantish man. Leavers will remember him as the useful idiot who gave them a Brexit he did not believe in. To Remainers he is the monumental fool who became party leader by attacking the EU, never explained the benefits of membership and then called a referendum in which he expected that the sheer force of Etonian charm would persuade the public to agree with him.
The cultural tensions Brexit is producing are already profound. Britain was the only major country in Europe not to experience foreign occupation or some variant of fascist or communist rule in the 20th century. This lucky history has produced two illusions. The first is that nothing too bad will happen here and we will always “muddle through”. Admittedly, to share this comforting belief you had to be middle- or upper-class — a good income is the essential precondition for a complacent mind — and you had to have steered well clear of the violence in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. Nevertheless, the conviction that extremism and fanaticism were vices that were confined to foreign countries was remarkably persistent and appeared to many to be more than wishful thinking. Allied to it was a faith in the innate good sense of the common people, usually buttressed with quotes from George Orwell. I once heard a leading figure on The Times claim that the voters had chosen the right government at every general election since 1945. I can think of no other country in Europe where such self-satisfaction would be greeted with anything other than derision.
Among large sections of the middle class, the belief in British good fortune and good sense has vanished. Politically, I cannot see where their anger goes. The far Left that controls the Labour Party appears incapable of including it in a broad coalition. Culturally, however, millions are going into a kind of internal exile. When radical artists show politicians as fools, they think of Cameron and agree. When they show British society as irredeemably racist, they think of the anti-immigrant sentiment that drove the Leave vote. When they show politics as a con, they think of the scandals around the Leave campaigns and the failure of the Conservative and Labour parties and the BBC to take them seriously. The people who keep Britain moving have fallen out of love with their country. One day their disillusion will be seen as more damaging than any fall in GDP.