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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Brexit: a Book, a Film and a Shocking Event

It's back to Brexit for long-suffering parliamentarians. So back to Brexit for happy bloggers too.

Let me start with three quotations. Maybe you recognise them.

Their campaign began 20 years ago. The slow drip of hate, hate, hate. This is who we are now.

It’s about the soul of our country. I’m worried that we won’t be able to heal.... You can’t close the box once it’s been opened.

We all know there's a lot of anger in this country at the moment and to get what you want you've got to keep that anger burning. But people show their anger in different ways. Some of them grumble into their tea and huff and puff over the Daily Telegraph and vote for Brexit and that's fine. But some of them go out into the street one morning with a flak jacket full of knives and stab their local MP to death, and that's not so good is it? And the more the papers stoke up the anger by using words like "treason" and "mutiny" and "enemy of the people", the more likely it gets that something like that will happen again.

The first two are from James Graham's TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War which was broadcast on Channel Four last night. The third is from Jonathan Coe's latest novel Middle England, published last autumn. It's been interesting to watch the one and read the other in these first few days of what promises to be a febrile year.

In one way, the novel and the drama are trying to do the same thing: lift the lid on Brexit-Britain and uncover the dynamics of a referendum decision that now seems, thirty months later, to be more baffling than ever, more complex than most of us thought at the time. The TV play did this by focusing on the leadership of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings (aka Benedict Cumberbatch) in particular. The novel, by contrast, explores the lead-up to the referendum and its aftermath through the perspective of characters ("ordinary people"?) who are linked by kindred or affinity (some of whom you will recognise from Coe's earlier novels). So far, so synchronous.

Synchronous too, and appallingly (because this was real life, not the imagined world of fiction), Anna Soubry MP was verbally assaulted yesterday in front of the Houses of Parliament. Staunch Remainer as she is, she had given a TV interview about Brexit on College Green. Some protesters - not many, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in foul-mouthed ferocity - yelled abuse at her. Words quoted in the reports were Fascist! Nazi! There may have been more. Still on air, she asked, her voice audibly shaking, "What has happened to our country?" The book and the film go some way to answering that, as the quotes above suggest.

In her review of the film in today's Guardian Lucy Mangan colourfully pans the drama, not so much because it was simplistically black-and-white (angels versus demons), but because it didn't explore any of the main issues in depth. (And it was, to be honest, somewhat pedestrian, but maybe this was to avoid providing watching litigators with extra work.) The effect of this was to add to the chaos at precisely the time in our national life when we should look to the arts to shine a light on our confusion. But whatever its shortcomings, I have to say that the script earned two cheers for accurately spotlighting the bitter divisions that have been let loose in our country. It couldn't have wished for a better commentary than those grim events in Parliament Square on the very same day. It's completely right to fear for the soul of our country and to wonder if these wounds can be healed, in our lifetimes at any rate.

Jonathan Coe's book is a lot more satisfying. He too uncovers the "sound and fury" (alas, unlike Shakespeare's, not "signifying nothing"). But he does it through the slow burn of the long read that allows you time to reflect on the picture he's painting. This is not a campaigning novel but a serious exercise in plot, character and motive. Take Helena, She belongs to my own silver-haired generation who, if the demographic analyses are right, tipped the referendum into voting Leave. She is elegant, thoughtful, caring - but as you get to know her you discover a low-level hostility towards those who are different from her, an "othering" of people from different cultures and traditions. No spoilers - I won't reveal how this comes to a climax near the end, but it's shocking when it does. And you realise that she is your neighbour in the street where you live, the acquaintance who invites you in for coffee, the woman you kneel next to in church, a friend or relative, even, who takes you by surprise because you never thought that racism formed even the tiniest part of their character.

I loved the book. And I valued moments of the drama like those I quoted when it seemed to rise above the generally worthy and recognise something significant. Both avoided making facile connections such as: if David Cameron had not launched the referendum, Jo Cox would still be alive today. What's likely to be true is that he was foolish enough to give in to the self-destructive Rule Britannia anti-EU myth that has been perpetrated among right-wing Tories for a generation and that aided and abetted by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, has poisoned attitudes across much of the party not to say its voters. In other words, Uncivil War is right to recognise that this visceral hatred has been dripping for a couple of decades, as Margaret Thatcher and John Major knew well. The referendum was not the cause of it. But it was the occasion for it to find open expression where hatreds are now expressed not only at the smartphone keyboard but at knifepoint. Cameron cannot evade responsibility for not reading the signs of the times. For a politician that's a sin of the first order.

How do you close the box once it's been opened? In Hesiod's myth of Pandora, she foolishly opened her box (a big clay storage jar, actually) and released all the evils we know in the world - famine, disaster, poverty, sickness and death. She shut it just in time to hold in the last of its contents which was hope. Someone read my tweet about all this today and replied: All shall be well.... Even if it is not well, and it certainly doesn't feel well at present. Yes, I thought, that is theologically and spiritually accurate.

I don't know what shape hope can have for our nation at present. I can't any more sing that naively optimistic hymn God is working his purpose out in the light of events. God is not going to rescue us from our folly. We have already seen what glory, grace and truth look like in the face of the Child whose coming we have celebrated at Christmas. But precisely because of him and his love for our chaotic world, hoping against hope is what we must do, like faithful Abraham. And pray for the wisdom that will teach us how to think and act for the best in our time.

And we shall hope. If not for ourselves, then for our children's children who, we fervently pray, inherit a better world than the one we are bequeathing them.


  1. Thank you, Michael. Hope is what I am lacking at the moment, which is not a good position for a Christian to be in. I trust I will find it again (will learn to look for it in the right places?) but for now I struggle to see the way forward.

    People are being manipulated for purposes we dimly understand, and certainly not for the good of our wider society. "This is who we are now".

  2. I find the current back biting and infighting among the Parliamentarians to be totally devoid of any sense of purpose, apart from self promotion and jockeying for position and advantage. I don't see anyone really working for the greater good or to unify opinion, they and the nation are just too divided.

    The alarming prospect of leaving the EU without any sort of agreement seems to be giving some groups a unifying purpose, but no one can second guess what will happen, certainly, not those in parliament and the rest of the us are confused and equally in the dark.

    I don't have any solutions, but the proposal for a second referendum looks quite dodgy? What exactly would the questions asked and how long would it take? I just hope and pray that some modicum of common sense will prevail and that we will take the agreement on offer and negotiate the bits that seem to be so unacceptable. The people deserve that much, as the uncertainty is damaging our business and industry and dividing people, and allowing militants of all sorts to come out of the wood work and seek to use this to their political and personal advantage.

    The abuse of MP's outside Parliament is just one visible sign of discontent and the possibility of wider, civil unrest can't be discounted. Parliament and the Government are responsible for this, as their example alongside the media have stirred up divisions like nothing other than I can remember in my lifetime.