Brexit Lit by John Sutherland

John Sutherland

Brexit Lit


What happened to Britain on 24 June 2016 is routinely portrayed as the voice of the people making itself heard like a thunderclap. ‘Brexit’. It’s a word that has not previously existed in the political lexicon. Brexit is an idea without political apparatus, without a long history, without field-tested theory, without obvious creative writers to put living flesh on its bones.

Brexit has no Marx and Engels to guide it on its ineluctable path. Brexit has no Disraeli to formulate a doctrine equivalent to the One Nation Toryism that Dizzy promulgated in his Young England trilogy. Not one in a hundred attending the Tory Party conference this month will have read Sybil, but Disraeli’s novel will be spiritually there, reverberating like a silent heartbeat.

I voted Remain but I respect what the Daily Mail calls ‘The Will of the People’. So be it. What, though, are the books that could supply canonical foundation to Brexit? Recently I have been putting together what amounts to a reading list for a hypothetical year-long university module on Brexit-related literature.  

Much of it centres on the shadowy notion of ‘England’ revered by many Brexiteers. Its literary foundations are clearly visible in Sir Thomas Malory’s pseudo-chronicle Le Morte d’Arthur, the opening sections of which tell how Arthur forcibly united England into one country. It is the first great work of English literature to articulate the modern ideal of ‘England’. Malory was writing at the same time that Caxton began printing. In 1485 his book became England’s first bestseller.

In 2015 Nigel Farage nominated as his favourite work of fiction John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. ‘Thoroughly predictable,’ commented The Guardian, sourly. Buchan’s ever-popular ‘shilling shocker’ is a story about saving England from Europe in the shape of insatiably imperial Germany. It opens in May 1914, the last summer of Olde England. The book reached publication in 1915, as it began to dawn on the nation that the war was going to be a long haul. And, horrible thought, England might lose. The Hunnish jackboot would tramp on England’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land’.

That resonant phrase has become the Brexiteer’s sloganised literary allusion. Few of them, one suspects, register what Blake’s mystical poem ‘Jerusalem’ is about. A barefoot Middle Eastern immigrant called Jesus makes his way to England. ‘Did those feet’, asks Blake, tread England’s green and pleasant land? No, says biblical history. Yes, says religious legend. Why? Because our Lord loves England. Europe, one apprehends, he’s not so keen on.

Farage habitually trots out the green-and-pleasant-land mantra. He also likes to wear a tie depicting the Bayeux tapestry to recall, as he says, ‘the last time we were invaded and taken over’. Farage, it is clear, is a devotee of the Norman Yoke thesis, which has transmogrified in recent times into the Brussels Yoke thesis.

Shortly before conquering England at the Battle of Hastings, legend has it, William picked up two handfuls of sand and ate them. Equally legendary is the belief – popularised by Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings – that our last truly English monarch had the word ‘England’ tattooed over his heart. At least the habit of some Brexiteers for tattooing the name of their country on their bodies has a good literary pedigree.

The Norman Yoke thesis was popularised by Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Its hero, Wilfred, is a returning crusader who, riding under a banner featuring a big red cross, fights to throw off the hated Norman yoke. On ritual occasions Nigel Farage has been photographed wearing a vast hat with a similar red cross. No lance, alas.

William, in the Brexit history book, was not a conqueror but an illegal immigrant. That immigration equals invasion equals foreign domination is the core equational belief of Brexit. The Brexiteer’s literary library could usefully include the rich trove of invasion fantasy, beginning with the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon, in which Vikings roll up to collect their annual Danegeld. It is one of English literature’s two most venerable surviving texts. (As for Beowulf, the other, we can leave that aside: its hero is a Swedish immigrant and the poem was written down by Europhile – Romanist – monks.)

Before he took time out to serve as foreign secretary, Brexit’s own knight in shining armour, Boris Johnson, was writing a book on Shakespeare. As with many Brexiteers, sovereignty is one of Boris’s preoccupations. It’s an idea that comes straight out of Shakespeare’s history plays. Indeed, it is perhaps one that is more at home in Shakespeare’s time than our own, when sovereigns no more run the country than bonnet mascots run cars.

Every knowledgeable Brexiteer will be up with Shakespeare. Among Shakespeare’s many anthems to his country, this one, from King John, will be familiar to even the most unliterary: ‘This England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror … Nought shall make us rue,/If England to itself do rest but true.’ King John centres on the matter of English independence from Europe. It is not often performed, but it seems particularly appropriate to our times, opening with ambassadors from France making outrageous demands of the English king. Will England ‘rest but true’ as negotiations with Brussels reach their climax?

The most famous eulogy for England written by Shakespeare is, of course, John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Richard II, in which he invokes ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. That’s all very well. But the real John of Gaunt was a French-speaking Plantagenet, born in the city of Ghent. In other words, he was a Belgian. What right does he of all people have to rhapsodise about England? Perhaps Brexiteers need to look elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work for inspiration.

For my money, the finest pro-Brexit words to be found in Shakespeare’s plays are those spoken by Richard III, rousing his troops to repel a French army that has dared to breach England’s borders, against every Yorkist visa requirement:

Remember whom you are to cope withal,
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o’er-cloyèd country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.

With words like these bursting forth from their lungs, what Brexiteer will ever again feel the need to pull on a tall hat emblazoned with a vast red cross?

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