Brexit. It's as complicated as the Schleswig-Holstein question and as vicious as Game of Thrones. Boris Starling, author of The Bluffer's Guide to Brexit, talks us through some books that will leave you better read and even more mystified about what the future holds for Britain and Europe.
There’s the $64,000 question. If you ask Theresa May, ‘Brexit is Brexit.’ It’s the most seismic political event in this country since 1945. The only thing as seismic was going in, in 1973, but actually I think coming out is more seismic because plenty of countries have gone in—28, in fact. But only one country has ever come out, and that’s us.
The other thing that makes it so seismic is how it has split the country down the middle. There are positives and negatives. There’s the hostility, the name-calling and the tribalism which are the bad things, but there’s also the level of engagement. Suddenly, politics is interesting and sexy. Certainly one of the books I chose reflects this, that everyone was talking about it. For a long time no one ever talked about politics. It was a boring thing to be endured every general election. Suddenly it was everywhere.
And even more than politics nobody ever wanted to think or talk about the EU. That was the most boring thing of all.
Exactly. This also taps into one of the reasons I chose another of the books. The EU was seen as so boring and opaque and so on, that one of the main drivers behind anti-EU sentiment in this country was originally Boris Johnson, when he was the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. To say he would make things up…he would certainly stretch the truth.
“For a long time no one ever talked about politics. It was a boring thing to be endured every general election. Suddenly it was everywhere.”
He worked out very fast that doing straight reporting from Brussels was the most gigantic snorefest. So he started saying, ‘They’re going to make bananas straight’ or ‘They’re going to ban prawn-flavored crisps.’ And suddenly the articles became fun and knockabout and the correspondents of every other newspaper in Brussels—certainly every other broadsheet—were told by their editors to follow suit.
Boris Johnson is talked about a lot, as one of the architects of the Leave campaign. With him, it goes back 25 years. It doesn’t just go back to him being an MP or a leadership contender or being part of the Leave campaign. He was one of the main drivers of that sentiment.
So in your book (which is very funny) don’t you say Brexit is a bit like the Schleswig-Holstein question?
Yes, the Schleswig-Holstein question that I remember from ‘A’ level history, of which Lord Palmerston said: there are only three people who understand it, one is dead, the second has gone mad and I’m the third and I’ve forgotten it. That always made me laugh. I’m not sure whether the Schleswig-Holstein question is part of the EU now. Well, Schleswig-Holstein itself must be part of the EU, as it’s somewhere in Germany…
But this is what makes Brexit fascinating. There are so many different aspects to it and it is fundamentally insoluble. I don’t mean the issues can’t be solved, because they can be solved, but people will never know. All the people who go, ‘Oh it will be a disaster’ and all the people who go, ‘It’ll be fine.’ No one knows. Even in 20 years’ time, no one will know, because you can’t prove a counterfactual. If it’s all gone to hell in a handbasket there will be plenty of other reasons acting on it as well as Brexit. If it’s all been fine, there’ll be plenty of other reasons acting on that as well. You can’t take it out of the wider context.
Now presumably you voted one way or another in the referendum. As you were writing your book, The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit, were you trying to be as disinterested as possible?
Yes, absolutely. I didn’t tell David, the editor, which way I voted and I’m not going to tell you. I challenged him to work it out from the text and he said he couldn’t. I’ve tried to be equal opportunities in being as rude as possible about people on both sides of the equation.
My husband was giggling a lot as he was reading the book after me, which is a good sign.
A lot of Brexit is very funny. One of the things the British are world class at is taking the piss. It will be a sad day when things are too serious and gloomy and grey that you can’t somehow see the lighter side in it.
One of the things I struggle with, in terms of the split over Brexit and people being cross with people who voted the other way, is that we do all want the same things. We want a prosperous country and a good relationship with our neighbours. No one wants another war in Europe. So why is it so divisive when the goal is the same?
I think one of the reasons it is so divisive is that we’ve got, fundamentally, two countries here. I live in Dorset. It’s a very rural area that voted quite heavily to leave. But I also come to London a lot for work and I lived in London for years and years. London was very Remain. The split is not just young and old or rich and poor. Actually the biggest split was urban and rural: big cities voted pretty much overwhelmingly for Remain and rural areas voted very much for Leave.
“One of the things the British are world class at is taking the piss. It will be a sad day when things are too serious and gloomy and grey that you can’t somehow see the lighter side in it.”
I was up in London a couple of weeks before the referendum, having a meeting, and I remember saying to the person I was meeting, ‘You know there’s a big groundswell out of cities who are going to vote Leave.’ And they just wouldn’t have it. People have sat in their bubbles. And you can see the same thing in America with the presidential election: the rural areas overwhelmingly voted Republican and urban areas overwhelmingly voted Democrat.
And this ties into another of the books I’ve chosen, by Ivan Krastev. Theresa May also had a good quote on it, which is that you’re either a citizen of everywhere or a citizen of somewhere. For the people who move around the continent a lot for work—mainly white collar workers—the EU is a great opportunity. For the people who have lived primarily in one place, who are tied to their locality, it’s not. Those are the divisions that people find it hard to get over because you’re seeing the same thing from a 180-degree difference.
So most of our readers are in the US and other countries around the world, for whom Britain’s decision to exit the EU is almost completely inexplicable. How would you explain why the people around you in Dorset voted Brexit? What were they aiming for?
This is important: the number of people on either side of the argument who actually understand the EU and what it does is pretty minimal. I include Remainers in that quite as much as Leavers.
It was, fundamentally, I think, a vote for the status quo or against it. For a lot of people in rural areas, and especially down here and further west in Cornwall, the fishing industry has been genuinely affected by EU regulations, so you can quite see why people voted against.
I was talking to someone in the village who doesn’t like the fact that Yeovil, which is 20 minutes away, is full of Poles. He believes that Dorset and Somerset are English counties and should be predominantly English. It’s not racism, it’s more a desire to keep things the same, as they were.
“All the people who go, ‘Oh it will be a disaster’ and all the people who go, ‘It’ll be fine.’ No one knows. Even in 20 years’ time, no one will know, because you can’t prove a counterfactual.”
There’s also a lot of inherent animosity to a project that people don’t understand. I don’t mean they don’t understand the benefits, they just don’t understand the rationale behind it. My own belief, and this may be entirely wrong, is that most British people would have been happy with the EU as it was originally, the Common Market, which was a trading bloc. The moment you start to overlay politics on that, then it starts to become very different.
The EU itself came about as a direct response to the Second World War and German militarism, the idea that we Europeans can’t control Germany except as part of a larger bloc. The Germans believed in that and wholeheartedly signed up, so did the French. Of the original six countries in the EU in 1957, five of them had been invaded by Germany and the other one was Germany. The UK hadn’t. It sounds facile, but it’s not. We’ve always had that, ‘we are apart, we are different.’ That has informed attitudes towards the EU on an emotional level very, very deeply.
This is something we’ll talk about because I think the Tim Shipman book especially shows how good the Leave campaign were at marshalling that emotion and how woeful the Remain campaign were at marshalling any emotion at all.
On that note, let’s go through your books. First on the list is The Aachen Memorandum. This is a dystopian thriller, but with the EU rather than Big Brother as the baddie.
I should start by saying—and I’m not being controversial here because the author himself, Andrew Roberts, has said it—that as a thriller and as a novel this book is just awful. He said it was supposed to be dystopian, it was supposed to be a thriller and it was supposed to be comic and it is none of these things.
The reason I chose it was twofold. One is that it actually weirdly predicts quite a lot. In the book, there’s a referendum in 2015 for Britain to join the United States of Europe, a referendum which is passed, bizarrely, 52% to 48%. The book is set in 2045 and the spiffily named hero, Horatio Lestocq, discovers that the referendum was carried only because of large-scale electoral fraud. And then he goes about trying to prove this. It’s a counterfactual in the way Robert Harris did with Fatherland or Len Deighton did with SS-GB, where the Nazis had won the war.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Except this time the EU is the bad guy. Waterloo Station has been renamed Maastricht Terminus and Trafalgar Square Delors Square and so on. Those bits are funny, as is Lestocq, who is this overweight, asthmatic, very much the non-hero.
Also, Maggie Thatcher has been assassinated. All that stuff, about dark EU forces, tapped into fears people had. And that’s what satire does; it takes existing fears and amplifies them. Look at 1984. At the time, although very powerful and prescient, it also must have seemed ludicrous because only by being ludicrous can you get across the message. Now, of course, it seems like the greatest work of prophecy ever written. I make no claims like that for The Aachen Memorandum. It’s a curiosity, if nothing else. But I did like the fact that it was trying to take down the EU by all means, which predates, but was also very much a part of, the referendum campaign.
Also, the gorgeous woman who ends up in his bed at the beginning has shaved armpits, another not-so-subtle message about what an Englishman might find scary about the EU.
It’s real Sir Bufton Tufton. Andrew Roberts is a very distinguished and well-known historian and has written about Churchill and Napoleon. This book feels like a combination of a Daily Mail editorial meeting and a night in the pub. And books have been written in worse circumstances than that.
It’s no coincidence that he was writing it in 1995, which was also just about the peak time of Boris Johnson-style articles: EU superstate, the Death Star, Brussels gone barmy. It taps into that narrative. They reflect the narrative but then they reinforce it as well.
He’s also very worried that the EU will impose political correctness. What kind of worldview is this coming from?
This is the case in any generation, for the conservative with a small ‘c.’ It’s the view that the world is changing in ways that are not good. Political correctness is a very good example, because, at its heart, political correctness is a good thing. The idea that you should not be nasty about other people purely because of their race and sexuality is a good thing. The problem starts not with political correctness but with the two words that always follow it, which is ‘gone mad.’
You can see this a lot during the referendum campaign. There was almost no reasoned debate about the biggest politically correct aspect of it all, which was immigration. On the one hand you had the Remain campaign refusing to countenance that immigration might be a problem. On the other hand, you have Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster which was, to my mind, at least more than borderline racist. That’s what happens when people will not engage meaningfully. People go to extremes of either simplifying or ignoring.
“I do feel sorry for Theresa May. She has been handed the biggest shitstorm imaginable. You have to pick your way through this minefield, all the time being aware, like the England football manager, that 60 million people think they can do your job better than you can.”
That’s what a lot of Brexit was about, I think, people feeling they were being ignored. And having lived in the country for a while, that is quite a rural thing. When the Countryside Alliance marched in London there were 400,000 people in Hyde Park. The police famously said they can come back anytime as they left Hyde Park cleaner than they found it. Country folk always clean up after themselves. Yet I remember watching it on TV and Gerald Kaufman saying basically that those 400,000 people don’t count. He wouldn’t say that about 400,000 of any other grouping you’d care to name. Governments by their nature are urban and metropolitan and a lot of people feel ignored by them. And this, to me, is one of the ironies. People think of Brussels as too distant whereas, in fact, for lots of people Westminster is too distant as well.
Okay, so next up is a graphic novel, V for Vendetta, from 1981. How does that fit into Brexit?
It’s perhaps more famous as a movie. The movie came out in 2005 with the famous Guy Fawkes mask. The Anonymous hackers’ group used the mask and people buy them to go on demonstrations. The irony is that the copyright is owned by Time Warner, so every time you buy one, you’re giving more money to the corporate behemoths you’re protesting against.
V for Vendetta is a graphic novel set in a future, fascist Britain. It mirrors 1984 in some ways. The fascists are called Norsefire. In the film, they come to power after a virus or some cataclysmic event beloved of movies; in the novel they’ve been elected in by the people’s apathy.
The reason I found V for Vendetta interesting was again twofold. Firstly, it features citizens being dragged off to concentration camps and so on. And that, to me, tapped into the fears of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia which manifested themselves after the referendum.
People reporting hate crimes against foreigners were up. Whether the actual crimes themselves were up, no one knows. Maybe people felt emboldened in reporting them. You don’t know. But it’s the idea that you turn in on yourself as a nation.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
The second point is that the novel ends with the Guy Fawkes character blowing up Parliament, just as his predecessor tried to. That struck me as a very, very interesting angle. A lot of Brexit and a lot of the Leave campaign was about ‘take back control’ or ‘take back our sovereignty.’ But sovereignty, in this country, is vested in Parliament.
There was the whole debate about whether or not Parliament should vote on enacting Article 50. And the judges said, ‘Yes they have to.’ And the Daily Mail ran a column calling the judges enemies of the people, which is incredibly inflammatory. But this is how it works. We have always, for centuries, vested our sovereignty in parliament. You vote in your MP and they go and represent you. So Parliament, in lots of people’s minds, is both the repository of sovereignty and the enemy as well.
That’s the weird doublethink that interests me about V for Vendetta. He blows up parliament and in the film it’s beautiful. There are fireworks and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It’s logically totally ludicrous, but it’s an amazingly powerful scene.
Should the MPs have a vote on the final deal? To mind, of course they should. That’s their job. Noel Gallagher puts it a lot more trenchantly than I do, which is one of my favourite quotes and I fought very hard to keep it in the book.
It’s that weird distrust. You send your MPs off and who do they really represent? Do they represent you, the constituents? Do they represent their party? Or do they represent themselves? There’s no real, right answer. It’s not specified anywhere in British law that I know of, who an MP should represent.
So to recap, your first choice, The Aachen Memorandum, is the dystopian future if the EU had won, and this book is the dystopian future under a Brexit scenario?
In V for Vendetta, the people have won. I guess the nearest analogy would be that parliament vote to stay in the EU and the building is stormed by hordes of angry leavers—which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be an awful lot more farfetched than half the things we’ve seen in the last few years. And they’ll all be wearing Guy Fawkes masks as well.
Let’s go on to the Tim Shipman book, All Out War.
All Out War is brilliant. It’s one of the best political books I’ve ever read. It’s 200,000 words and he wrote it in something like ten weeks. Just to produce that amount of words that quickly and for it to be so good is really phenomenal. There’s the old cliche about journalism being the first draft of history. This really is.
What’s really good about All Out War is firstly, that he clearly has amazing access to all sides. His contacts book must be pretty much the best in British politics. Also, you can tell that he is a Sunday Times journalist, because as a Sunday journalist, you can take your time and actually find out what’s really going on, you’re not forever reacting to what’s happened that day.
He is very even handed and he’s very comprehensive. He makes you feel that you’re there. You’re in the negotiations with them, you feel that frenzy of a campaign, the thrill of putting one over on the opposition; of reacting to things very, very fast. He makes it exciting.
He also makes the characters very human. With the exception of Jeremy Corbyn—who comes out vacillating, a very lukewarm Remainer whose sentiments are probably the other way deep down—everyone else in the book comes across as better than their public image. Cameron does; Johnson does; Gove does.
“It’s this domino effect of Brexit. A simple binary Yes/No choice has so many ramifications in so many areas. And often areas people didn’t really think of.”
You also get a sense of the pressure they were under. It’s very easy to armchair quarterback after the event and say, ‘they should’ve done this and this and this.’ It’s a slightly facile analogy, but like soldiers you’re having to make very quick decisions with imperfect information.
It makes you understand the personalities and the struggle. It’s not just about the referendum but also that amazing bit afterwards where the Tory leadership campaign became a Game of Thrones spinoff. Michael Gove knifed Boris Johnson in the back and then everyone knifed Michael Gove and then Andrea Leadsom said something about Theresa May and suddenly Theresa May is the last woman standing. He’s very good on that and you get invested in it.
It’s about the ins and outs of the politics of Brexit, isn’t it? He calls it “an unashamedly elitist history”.
It is. It deliberately doesn’t go into why Scotland or Northern Ireland voted this way or why Newcastle voted this way and Sunderland the other way. That’s not his brief. It is an elitist view. Often those things can be very, very dry and boring and wonky and it’s not at all. It’s absolutely riveting because he writes it like a thriller, which actually it was a lot of the time. He’s a great storyteller.
Was there any anything that really surprised you, where you went,‘Wow. I had no idea about that!’
Perhaps the role of Dominic Cummings, who was head of Vote Leave. He’s someone only political wonks would really have known before, but he’s fascinating. He’s very divisive, a real slash-and-burn figure; an incredibly effective agitator and dictator. He reminded me slightly of a Lenin or a. Trotsky. Here was someone just mashing it up. The 350 million quid on the bus. Cummings’s point—and he’s entirely right—was that it doesn’t matter what the figure is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, what matters is that it’s up there. It matters that people are thinking about it. Cummings was perhaps the only person who understood what made ordinary people tick. That I found really fascinating, that here was this guy who was arguably as much to do with Leave winning as anything, who was, in his own warped, narrow way, a total genius.
I think he was the one who came up with the ‘take back control’ slogan?
Leave were very, very good at pushing emotional buttons because people do vote emotionally. No one’s got the time to sit down and look through political manifestos, unless they’ve really got nothing else to do. People do vote with their hearts. He understood this.
The other thing I found interesting and I put this in The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit was the language on the ballot paper. Originally the question was ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And it was the Leave campaign who objected, saying that that wording implicitly favoured the status quo. So they went for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’. I remember thinking at the time that ‘Remain’ is a terrible word. It sounds like remainder, what’s left over. Stay is much better. Stay is strong and steadfast. People talk about how these small things could have made a 2 or 3 per cent difference. Well, a 2 or 3 per cent difference would have swung it the other way. That idea, that you fight for absolutely everything, was really, really instructive. You don’t let anything go.
Next up is After Europe by Ivan Krastev. This is a bit of an apocalyptic vision, isn’t it?
Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian academic. The clue, I guess, is in the title. His point is that immigration is the biggest threat to the EU. And this taps into something that I’ve long felt, which is that two years ago, we were being asked whether to stay in or leave an organization which is constantly in flux. No one knows whether, 20 years from now, we will have been the first of many and will look like the ones who predicted the future or whether we’ll be left on the outside of an increasingly prosperous club, kicking our heels and wishing we hadn’t done it. No one knows, because no one knows which way the EU will go.
Krastev’s other point, which I found really interesting, was the gap between western and eastern Europe. Obviously the broader the EU becomes, the harder it becomes to keep everyone’s interests aligned. When it was purely a western European club, everyone was more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the carrot of EU membership was held out to all those countries that had been part of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union. And a lot of them came in in 2004.
“I think one of the reasons it is so divisive is that we’ve got, fundamentally, two countries here.”
Krastev argues that in western Europe, people tend to trust their own politicians more than Brussels politicians. In eastern Europe, it’s the other way around. They’re so used to their own politicians being crooked, that they believe that the EU has got greater standards of governance, of transparency of regulation and so on. And therefore they respect the EU more. That, in turn, further erodes trust in their own governments and also means that more people go from east to west than vice versa.
Krastev’s big thing is that by 2050 Bulgaria’s population will be down by a third and that third will be entirely the kind of people that a country needs. You’re losing all your youngest, best, brightest, most dynamic people and you’ll be left with older, more tired, less educated people and you will not have a country that can run itself properly. It is slightly doom-laden, but it’s an interesting look at how it could all evolve, which is important.
The flipside I guess is that if you look at China, one of the reasons it worked after 1977 when Deng Xiaoping started the economic reforms was that there was such a diaspora worldwide of Chinese people, especially in other countries in Asia. They had business skills and money they could bring back and that became one of the main drivers of China’s economic expansion. They weren’t actually starting from scratch.
I guess Krastev’s fear is that what will happen to the likes of Bulgaria and Romania is that they will have all the downsides of being in the EU and none of the upsides. It’s a fairly gloomy look at the whole thing, quite a Bulgarian look, if I may say so.
Yes. Again, he’s big on this idea of citizens of somewhere and citizens of everywhere. You can see where the fault lines are already. Greece is a big fault line, Italy is an increasing fault line. It’s not the United States of America, which took relatively unsophisticated states and put them together. They now have a very successful, functioning country, where states have their own autonomy but everyone buys into the idea of the United States of America. The United States of Europe is not and is never going to be that. You cannot force some of the most advanced countries in the world to knuckle under a single political system. You just can’t.
A few years ago I wrote a thing for a client about the world in 2050 and mischievously—and without any kind of evidence—suggested that Europe would split North-South, with the French in the middle trying frantically to decide whether they were northern or southern. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the French to a degree, the Greeks, look at life in a very different way from the British, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Belgians, the Dutch.
A lot of it is simply climate. But there’s a reason why we go on holiday there a lot more than vice versa, it’s because it’s a lovely place to go on holiday. But there’s also a reason why they come and work in London.
Just to recap, in terms of this book and Brexit: if Europe does fall apart, the UK will seem very prescient to have left when it did.
Yes, we would have been the first rats off the sinking ship and will look very wise after the event.
So lastly on your list we have Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response.
This is by Tony Connelly who has been RTE, the Irish TV channel’s, man in Brussels for a decade and a half now. Unlike Krastev’s book, it’s quite dry, but the reason I chose it is that Brexit and Ireland is one of the biggest and least understood issues. It’s more understood now, but, at the time of the referendum, it was hardly mentioned by anybody in the campaign.
I used to do political risk analysis and I was in Northern Ireland a couple of months before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. I spent a week in Belfast and talked to people on all sides. It was the most extraordinary place. I remember driving down the Falls Road and back up the Shankill and thinking, ‘This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ There were these big murals and British troops and yet technically it’s our country. When I was there, a Swedish tourist was mugged in Belfast. There were people ringing him up and offering him a bed for the night and saying that it was such a shame that it had happened. Three miles away, they’re kneecapping each other but God forbid that an outsider should be involved.
“The number of people on either side of the argument who actually understand the EU and what it does is pretty minimal. I include Remainers in that quite as much as Leavers.”
The Good Friday Agreement has always been, to me, one of the most extraordinary achievements of modern times, a huge achievement of Tony Blair’s government at the time and John Major’s before. It was an incredibly hard-fought agreement between sides that you’d have thought would never find common ground in a million years. Anything that jeopardises that is a huge no-no for people on both sides of the Irish border.
And it is hard to see how they are going to solve that because it’s a logic puzzle. The EU has to have an external hard border at a point where the EU butts up against non-EU states. And yet Northern Ireland is British, part of the Common Travel Area, and the Republic of Ireland is a republic and part of the EU. They are logistically more or less the same place now. There’s no hard border. There has to be a hard border, but they don’t want one.
That’s a circle that cannot really be squared. Connolly’s book is very, very good on how this will affect people. He looks at how many people and sectors rely on the fact there is no border. It’s all very well to say, ‘Well only 30,000 people use it a day’. That’s a lot of people and a lot of businesses.
So Brexit is not just a simple question of banging up more controls at Dover. Anything that risks going back to the Troubles is something that, to my mind, is to be hugely, hugely resisted. The Irish government have got their own issues to sort out on this, to be part of the EU and yet remain in this very symbiotic relationship with Britain that they have long had and hopefully will always have.
It’s a recent, very evenhanded and very detailed look at the issues. Of course it’s hamstrung by the fact that this is very much an ongoing thing. It is not looking at the past in the way that for example Tim Shipman book is looking at something that has happened. His conclusions may well be out of date through no fault of his own.
From the book, it seems like Ireland was much better prepared for Brexit than Britain was. In the run-up to the referendum, I only saw one article even mentioning Northern Ireland, which was a New York Times op-ed by Neal Ascherson, “From Great Britain to Little England.” He was talking about Scotland and Ireland and that was the first time I thought about the Irish border.
John Major, to his credit, did mention it as well. The other thing of course is that Northern Ireland like Scotland voted to stay in. And yet England and Wales voted to leave. But right from the start it was, ‘You all go or you all stay.’
So this impacts not just on Northern Ireland but on Scotland. The SNP can now go back to their electorate and say, ‘When you rejected independence in 2014 that was when we were all part of the EU. Now we are not part of the EU. Do you want to be part of the EU? If you do, then we can vote for independence from the UK and reapply to the EU.’
It’s this domino effect of Brexit. A simple binary Yes/No choice has so many ramifications in so many areas. And often areas people didn’t really think of.
Including this very critical issue, namely peace in Northern Ireland. So is the circle square-able?
If it’s squareable, it’ll be by a fudge. But then again, most of life is a compromise and most of politics is a compromise. I have always felt—and I think I was fairly alone in this—that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition from 2010 to 2015 was a good thing. Consensus politics is a good thing. Our system very much mitigates against it, with our first-past-the-post system. I think it’s ludicrous—and you don’t have to agree with UKIP’s policies here—that in 2015 they had 4 million votes and one seat in parliament.
That’s one of the problems that Brexit threw up, that the consensus for so long had been fundamentally a liberal elite consensus that people felt marginalized. Had other parties had some kind of seat at the table, they could have said, ‘Well you know what my constituents in X Y Z, think this.’ If you have a coalition government that can bring different viewpoints to the table.
Our system is set up for one party to win. Other countries, like Germany, are much more used to coalition and much more used to horse-trading and bargaining. That can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing because it forces people to water down proposals to find common ground. And I think we’re seeing this now. Whatever Brexit we get is going to piss most people off. It just is.
I do feel sorry for Theresa May. She has been handed the biggest shitstorm imaginable. You have to pick your way through this minefield, all the time being aware, like the England football manager, that 60 million people think they can do your job better than you can.
So you’ve written The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit. In case someone asks me at a dinner party and I need a quick answer, is Brexit a good thing or a bad thing?
I would say, like Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution, that it’s too early to tell. Actually he misunderstood the question, it was about the Paris riots four years before, but, that said, it is too early to tell. I have good friends on both sides of the divide, I’ve written a book about it and I honestly have no idea. And I think if more people admitted they had no idea, we’d all be better off.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com