One of the dismaying aspects of Brexit is finding so much disagreeable nonsense coming from your own side. Take Lord Adonis, for example. As a remainer myself, I suppose I really should wish him well in his frantic endeavours on behalf of the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. But to the extent that he has strengthened the argument in favour of remain, it is by raising the prospect that such an outcome might give us a bit of peace from Lord Adonis. Fintan O’Toole, meanwhile, appears securely lodged in the pages of the best magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, from where he tells strange tales about England and Empire. Heads that were nodding already start nodding a bit faster on reading his prose. The SNP has been droning away from a cupboard in a separate room, such has been its effect on the course of events. And Jeremy Corbyn? He was great at Glastonbury. Across the country, fuses have been burned to little more than nubs by the mindlessness that passes for public leadership.
This impatience explains why I was ready to adopt a quarrelsome attitude to James Meek’s new book within moments of opening it, before the page numbers had even arrived on the scene. Dreams of Leaving and Remaining brings together four lengthy reports previously published in the London Review of Books. The title obviously alludes to Brexit, but the reports are about the country that gave rise to it as opposed to the procedural grind that has dominated the news for three years. They deal with the decline of the fishing industry, farming, pressures on the health service and the outsourcing of jobs. Smartly written codas at the end of each bring their findings to bear on the national calamity. This is a very good book with good qualities: it’s inquisitive, sympathetic, rigorous, level-headed. It’s a night sky with neither clouds nor fireworks. What, then, got me so agitated?
It was another example of remainer misjudgement, the sort of thing that looks like a little crack but might actually be a chasm. The book opens with a couple of quotes. It’s a common enough occurrence, although the purpose has never been clear to me. The first quote is from Carl Jung. The second is from Liam Fox. ‘The Spitfire is an iconic symbol of world-class aerospace engineering,’ he waffles like a Pathé voiceover, ‘and I’m delighted to see this unique piece of British history brought to a global audience.’ Meek’s mistake was not leaving the quote alone to happily damn itself like a drunk in the back pews. Instead, he offered some commentary: ‘Liam Fox…explaining in 2018 how his government would encourage foreigners to buy British goods by sponsoring a round-the-world trip by an obsolete machine designed to kill foreigners.’ The statement possesses a sort of ground-level truth, but it’s foolish at all the levels from there up to the sky that had once been familiar to Luftwaffe pilots raiding the UK from bases in occupied Europe. Fox has spent the last few years canoeing around the world striking trades deals with the Faroe Islands and Fiji, and I don’t mean to defend the man who best embodies the UK Government’s quivering combination of professional disgrace and incompetence. But ‘designed to kill foreigners’? The foreigners in question were armed with a fighting chance, even though they were playing away from home.
I was pacified quickly enough, as Meek demonstrated the value of long-form reports. They are excellent examples of organized storytelling supported by open-minded detachment. He deserves most credit for the chapter on the NHS, which combines the stories of care givers and receivers with an exploration of the vast managerial and organisational apparatus within which they try to do their best. No empire combines the life-giving and the soul-destroying like the NHS. Meek’s style is to calmly untangle a scene before striding through the clearance to punch someone on the nose: ‘the reward for those managers willing to sacrifice the time required to comprehend the full bureaucratic algebra of the new NHS may or may not be a better NHS, but is certainly a chance to define the scope of powerful new managerial jobs they alone will be qualified for.’ What emerges from this book, with the clarity of a knife, is that Brexit offers no solutions to the many real problems facing the UK: the loss of jobs to countries where goods and services can be provided cheaply for companies so large they defy national jurisdictions; deindustrialisation and urban decay; an ageing population exerting ever more strain on a health service with neither the resources or structures to provide the quality of care on which we will all, one day, rely. If anything, and the weight of evidence suggests this will be the case, Brexit will exacerbate these problems.
Meek criticizes communitarian liberals like himself for assuming ‘good’ localism – locally sourced food, concern about local architecture – can be separated from ‘bad’ localism – hostility to immigrants and innovation. He recalls speaking to a small chocolatier in Bristol. To his dismay, the ‘artisan patriarch’ started complaining about the number of foreign-born people having children at the local hospital. ‘I liked his localism, until suddenly I didn’t,’ Meek confesses. He writes candidly about experiencing the referendum as not just a terrible event but as the shattering of ‘the very framework within which events of any kind occur’. The collective experience is likened to the devastation wrought by the closure of a mine or factory. Maybe it was meant to feel like that. ‘For leavers the merit of voting to leave the EU wasn’t only in winning. It was in getting their opponents to feel like losers – to feel what they had felt, that deep unease at the shattering of their dreamscape.’ Meek’s Britain is a country full of people living in the nightmares of others.