Mad Max Style

James Butler

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.


  • 26 August 2019 at 5:51am
    judgefloyd says:
    There's a book called 'If you believe the soldiers*' by Alexander Cordell which, if memory serves me correctly, involved a guy who was somewhere between Enoch Powell and Oswald Mosley using problems with Northern Ireland as a pretext to institute a military dictatorship.

    * The title comes from Lord Salisbury: 'If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe'

  • 26 August 2019 at 9:07pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Far from envisaging the ‘sunlit uplands’ many Brexiteers we’re simply disillusioned by the bureaucratic, corrupt, unaccountable and vindictive behemoth of the EU. Yes, leaving is scary and may well be, at least temporarily, economically deleterious.
    Talk of infringements to our human rights or trade union freedoms or environmental protections ignores the fact that the UK has been the driving force behind many of these initiatives for decades (if not centuries).
    Brexiteers simply want a different political model.
    Let’s hope we muddle through.

    • 27 August 2019 at 5:45pm
      Electric Tree says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Do we really expect a different (better) model from Mr de Pfeffel Johnson, Mr Rees-Mogg, Ms Patel and their colleagues?
      Have not recent British governments demonstrated their fair share of bureaucratic, corrupt, unaccountable and vindictive behaviour?
      I voted Remain not out of any fondness for the EU but out of fear for the extreme right wing attitudes of the politicians that espoused Leave, a fear that seems to have been well justified.

  • 27 August 2019 at 5:02pm
    Jim Bowman says:
    Out of this posting jumps this allegation:

    "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."

    Why jumps out? Because that is what's often said of Socialists, n'est-ce pas?

  • 27 August 2019 at 6:19pm
    rgst says:
    It's not a matter of belief it's the facts that we should be concentrating on.
    There seems to be a wider diversity of opinion on this than I would expect.
    Why would economic dislocation as a result of Brexit be temporary rather than permanent?
    And why would falling under the sway of the USA do anything for environmental , trade union or human rights?
    Too right Brexiteers want a different political and economic model.
    Thats the problem.
    Brexiteers have fooled themselves into believing that it has been the EU that has held the UK back for the last 40 years. How else can they explain the lack lustre performance under thatcherite policies over the period?
    But it isn't the EU, it has been neo-liberalism that is the big problem and more of the latter will fail even more so without the EU to cushion the blow.
    Don't take my word for it ,look at the facts.

  • 27 August 2019 at 9:02pm
    hullister says:

    It, not if.

    • 27 August 2019 at 9:10pm
      hullister says: @ hullister
      Should have put here: If you want a book with hard facts, rather than Victorian (or later) fantasy, read Sidney Pollard's "The Wasting of the British Economy". It might have been a product of 1981, but if puts its finger on most of the reasons that are still utterly relevant why we're disappearing down the drain so fast.

    • 28 August 2019 at 12:24pm
      Graucho says: @ hullister
      All those North Sea oil revenues pissed away turning us from an industrial nation to one making each other cups of coffee to earn a crust. One could weep. Save your economic statistics and indicators. The number of beggars and rough sleepers one encounters each day tell the real story.

    • 29 August 2019 at 12:50pm
      Seth Egham says: @ hullister
      Review of Pollard here:

  • 27 August 2019 at 10:08pm
    apothecary.ann says:
    I have to say that it is not only tiresome, but extremely disappointing, that the London Review of Books seems to be tediously pumping out the rhetoric that Brexiteers are all elderly and racist and that in some way the election of Trump in the USA represents a similar deplorable situation brought about by people who do not know what they are doing. Remainers frequently position themselves on the liberal side of the argument but this stance is anything but liberal. It it is just lazy, and, in its implicit assumption that the majority don't know how to think properly, arrogant in the extreme. Like Marmaduke Jinks I think we need a political shake-up, however painful it may be in the short or long term, before this country, can be truly democratic and liberal again. I remain optimistic.

    • 29 August 2019 at 3:17pm
      steve kay says: @ apothecary.ann
      Dear A.Anne

      Are the actions of Alexander deP Johnson, notably sending Rees Mogg to Balmoral with instructions to instruct Brenda to prorogue Parliament, the sort of democratic actions of which you are optimistic?

    • 29 August 2019 at 8:46pm
      David Sharp says: @ apothecary.ann
      Thank you for that comment, which sums up my own feelings precisely. The LRB, which I have long considered a beacon of intelligent left-wing thought, has clearly lost its way over Brexit.
      Almost all the articles I've read, and notably the monotonously predictable round-ups of key correspondents such as that published in the August 15 issue, have focused mainly on middle-class angst, whereas the key arguments surrounding Brexit involve the nitty-gritty of politics and economics, with close attention to unexciting documents such as the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.
      The LRB has published one or two excellent items on specific EU-related issues, such as that by James Meek on April 20, 2017 (, but most of its commentary on Brexit has been indistinguishable from that of The Guardian. Middle-class remainist, extreme centre.

      A great disappointment, and a missed opportunity.

  • 28 August 2019 at 10:46am
    XopherO says:
    I think xenophobia (and racism, its sibling) is missing from the argument. Every one of these ex-public schoolboys/girls has uttered some negative comment about 'foreigners', the French in particular. I have commented before about the fact hardly a day went by when we lived in England when a negative comment or innuendo about the French was not made to my French wife personally, or in the media. Unpleasant comments about other nationalities hurt as well by inference. It is quite clear that our political leaders are simply at a loss when faced with the sophistication of EU leaders and representatives - and that must get their goat. Johnson was reduced to hanging on to Macron's hand for far too long in a vain effort to exert some kind of superiority (a Trump trope he appears to have copied). I am looking forward to more examples of their ineptitude when the UK leaves. Good riddance - except my son and family still live there, unfortunately for them. So I have a vain hope that the Remainers will win in the end, now or after leaving, when the UK is reduced to going to the IMF. No, before then it will be the biggest tax haven in the world and an even bigger centre for money-laundering.

  • 29 August 2019 at 10:07am
    hullister says:
    As Pollard showed, the rot set in 20 years before North Sea oil came on to "rescue" Thatcher, if not the millions of unemployed. While the most of the rest of Europe invested, the Treasury was propping up the balance of payments and eating up the seed corn.

    • 29 August 2019 at 10:52am
      XopherO says: @ hullister
      Indeed, including a lack of investment in R&D outside the universities. British companies prefer to pay investors and keep the share price artificially high, rather than invest properly. The economic problem was always framed as workers demanding too much rather than a lack of investment in production and skills. It is a vicious circle which has led to one of the worst productivity records among developed nations, in terms of GDP/capita (not an entirely reliable measure but we are not talking small percentage points). It is also not true that the UK is one of the most innovative - a study a couple of years ago into the 100 most innovative companies in the world found 45 in the USA, 25 in Japan, 12 in France, 5 in Germany, and none in the UK. So with weak investment, poor skills, low productivity and a serious lack of skilled trade negotiators the UK jumps off the cliff into Brexit. The EU made it clear right from the start that the UK could not have its cake and eat it. Plus there is a looming world recession, serious trade wars with China, and whatever kind of Brexit will have a dampening effect itself on world trade. As Groucho says, one could weep (or just laugh) at the egotistical stupidity of the likes of Johnson, and the nastiness of those around him

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