2 October 2019

Ian McEwan and the radicalisation of Remain

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Three years on from the Brexit referendum, there’s little sign of the passions stirred up by a fiery campaign being put to rest. Many participants in the Brexit debate have found their politics more entrenched and more extreme, and their private and public thoughts more prone to conspiracy theory and bile.

One striking example was an article written last week by Phillip Hammond for The Times. Hammond was once a Conservative chancellor , and is now neither the chancellor, nor a Conservative.

Offhand, Hammond referred to support for the prime minister among ‘speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit’. In doing so, he both echoed and anticipated conspiracy theories common among the most emphatic opponents of leaving the EU.

A post at the website Byline Times suggested that Brexit itself was an exercise in “disaster capitalism” which either by design or happenstance – design most heavily implied – made undesirable capitalists a lot of money. Citing Hammond’s piece, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, tweeted that he would write to the head of the civil service to ask him a few questions.

A post on the Financial Times’ Alphaville blog explained why the Byline Times allegation did not hold water. Variously, its numbers did not make sense, and it assumed a unity of purpose and intention among hedge funds which would be strange and unlikely. Journalists and researchers condemned the original report as unsubstantiated demagoguery. The Byline Times piece and its central point saw massive, largely uncritical circulation nonetheless.

It is now common to hear Brexit itself referred to not only as a vote won by dishonest politics, but as an out-and-out ‘scam’, a tool for the financial elite to make even more money at the expense of everyone else.

A long Guardian essay by Daniel Cohen offers a partial explanation for the popularity of these theories and the appeal of airing them in such a histrionic manner. In 2016, a section of people who were strangers to political organisation, who thought of themselves as sensible and their politics as ‘nice’ and normal, now saw their world destroyed in the blink of an eye when they lost a totemic vote.

The distressed Remainers’ world was no longer nice; instead, it was frightening. Their certainties and even their conception of the country were under threat. They took to social media with anger, and to the streets with new passion, as a result.

This interpretation smooths over part of the attraction for some of taking to politics so seriously: the novel social world of fellow feeling that politics can provide, coupled with the delight of a new rogues’ gallery to revile.

But for some Remainers, politics and activism appear to compensate for a sense of loss: a loss of innocence, perhaps. This is seen as strongly in literary types as it is in pro-EU politicians and those who simply never believed the country could vote to leave.

When the novelist Jeanette Winterson appeared on Newsnight the day the Supreme Court declared the government’s prorogation of parliament unlawful, she rattled off a series of arguments which would not have been unfamiliar to anyone who recognises the acronym ‘FBPE’ (follow back, pro-EU) from Twitter.

Winterson even plaintively told her fellow guests that “the result [of the referendum] was advisory” – a common FBPE line. The actions of the past three years can be forgotten, Winterson seemed to say, as though highlighting a paragraph of text and pressing backspace.

Perhaps even more emblematic of the literary classes’ difficulty in comprehending Brexit is Ian McEwan’s newly-published novella, The Cockroach.

It’s an entertaining homage to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Rather than man metamorphosing into an insect, McEwan’s protagonist, a cockroach, transforms into a man. That man happens to be prime minister. The cockroach is soon running the country on a newly determined course in its own interest and in the interest, communicated through pheromones, of its species.

The cockroach pursues ‘Reversalism’, a crude Brexit analogue. ‘Reversal’ holds that people must pay to be able to work, but will receive money when they spend and purchase. In the novel, the cockroach attempts to crush the opposition of conventional politicians and sundry experts, in the process manipulating the press with sham patriotism and allying with an unscrupulous president of the United States.

That politicians, the newspapers and the people seem to fall in behind this scheme is written, by McEwan, to be greatly to their discredit. Those who favour Reversal are painted as having brought the human species closer to the chaos and anarchy the cockroaches desire. Supporters of the policy are effectively complicit in their own destruction.

As abstract as Reversalism is, what it stands in for is obvious. McEwan’s novella demonstrates the same educated incomprehension common among lesser novelists who lament the result of our own 2016 referendum a little more overtly.

But as the cockroach employs devious schemes to secure power and push through its insane policy, McEwan’s skilful and amusing touches make the reader want him to succeed.

The irony is that rather than this story of Reversalism being a blistering take-down of Brexit, McEwan’s cockroach is actually an appealingly wilful creature – and makes an unintended virtue of doing anything to honour the result of a referendum which was meant to go the other way.

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James Snell is a freelance writer