Mad Max Style
Eighteen months, one government and two Brexit secretaries ago, David Davis promised that a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t gut agricultural standards or workers’ rights: we were not entering ‘an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, a Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction’. Last Sunday, details were leaked from Operation Yellowhammer, outlining the Civil Service’s ‘base scenario’ for a No Deal Brexit: port and border chaos is expected, along with food and fuel shortages and disruption to medical supplies; there is a ‘plan to evacuate the queen’ in case of civil unrest. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has promised the immediate end of free movement on the first day of a No Deal Brexit, threatening the status of EU nationals resident in Britain and British nationals abroad, but tickling the bellies of the Tory base. Lobbying from the backbenches, Iain Duncan Smith praised thinktank proposals to raise the state pension age to 75 as ‘removing barriers’ to work.
Twentieth-century dystopian fiction had dark materials to work with: fascism and Stalinism above all, though the dominant ideology in Huxley’s bleak reading of consumerism’s idiot pleasures is Fordism. Premonitions of environmental disaster from a few decades ago have already been exceeded by real headlines about our accelerating planetary death spiral. Compared to these, Brexit is history’s farcical repetition, not its original tragedy.
Other fables describe the gradual ratcheting of latent dystopia into the political mainstream. The BBC’s recent drama Years and Years moves along those rails; Sinclair Lewis’s exploration of demagoguery in the US, It Can’t Happen Here, has also found new life as an acrid foretaste of our modern convulsions.
Brexiters are often said to be motivated by utopian enthusiasm, in the word’s doubly pejorative sense: their dream is impossible, and yet (or and so) they have a near-religious belief in its potential to deliver a new society. Andrea Leadsom’s ‘sunlit uplands’ are its mood music; the phrase was pilfered, unsurprisingly, from Churchill, the chief deity of the Brexit pantheon. But if Brexit is a form of utopianism, it is a curiously empty one: Brexiters talk endlessly of ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ in the abstract, but their constitutional and political vision is one of stasis. It retains the UK’s warped electoral system, peopled by the same politicians, its accretions of sinecure and residue of aristocracy, all orbiting the same crown; even their economic vision – hinting at derogation from safety standards and worker protection, and chasing diluted versions of existing trade deals – is cut to eminently orthodox lines, just with fewer foreigners.
The passion of Brexit’s devotees isn’t so much hope for a new world as nostalgia for an (imagined) old one: they aren’t dreaming of utopia but pining for Arcadia. YouGov’s finding that more than half of Leave voters would welcome the return of the death penalty alongside blue passports is a reminder that the politics of nostalgia are not merely quixotic. Utopia and dystopia can nestle alongside each other in the same polity; the imagined citizens of Thomas More’s Utopia, with its militant homogeneity and paranoiac mutual surveillance, would have known this. The view from the Irish border or the anxious pharmacy queue is different from the view from the stockbroker belt.
Fantasies of decline and subjugation – and resistance and escape – aren’t new in the literary imagination of Britain’s imperial heartland. Late 19th-century dystopias such as George Tomkyns Chesney’s 1871 Battle of Dorking or John Parnell’s Cromwell the Third (1886) imagined a Britain denuded of its empire and conquered by a foreign power. They provided the template for the fringe literature of proto-Brexiteers, in which the European Union is the final triumph of a Teutonic lust for conquest: the 1995 potboiler by the Thatcherite historian Andrew Roberts, The Aachen Memorandum, is only the most prominent product of this cottage industry.
Remainers, too, are nostalgic for a lost European Arcadia. It’s easy to sympathise with their lament for lost freedoms, but harder to square their picture of the EU’s docile benevolence with the reality of Brussels politics – more dirty old town than New Jerusalem – or the steel with which it squashed Greece, or the vast Mediterranean graveyard and archipelago of migrant camps. If there is a role for utopianism in Europe, it is of a critical sort, and its list of desiderata is long: against the petty chauvinisms of nation states, certainly, but also against the EU’s pallid imitation democracy and border guards; against the delusions of autarky, but eyeing the gates of the ECB’s Winter Palace, too.
The last word, though, can go to the impeccably reactionary author of The Battle of Dorking, whose closing elegy might admonish his successors today. ‘Our people could not be got to see how artificial our prosperity was,’ the narrator muses, in his dying days in a conquered kingdom:
To hear men talk in those days, you would have thought that Providence had ordained that our Government should always borrow at 3 per cent, and that trade came to us because we lived in a foggy little island … We thought we were living in a commercial millennium, which must last for a thousand years at least.