We often look to journalists, and sometimes academics, to make sense of contemporary political events but a different and potentially richer set of insights come from novelists. Reviewing Jonathan Coe’s book, Middle England.
First published in October 2018 | Updated in February 2020.
[Spoiler alert! Bits of the story are about to be revealed in this review.]
Brexit has already spawned a number of novels the most recent of which, Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, provides a compelling and enthralling study of the politics of Brexit.
That is perhaps to mischaracterise it, in that it is not simply a novel about Brexit – although that is mainly how I am going to discuss it here. For one thing, it sits as the third of a series of books featuring a similar cast of characters which began with The Rotters’ Club and continued with The Closed Circle. For those who have read its predecessors, Middle England is in part about the unfolding development of those characters and their relationships. In particular, whilst Paul, Malvina and Cicely are dispatched to faraway places, Lois and her daughter Sophie come into central view. And – according to the author’s note at the back – it was conceived of, in part, as a way of drawing out previously undeveloped themes in Lois’s relationship with her brother, Benjamin.
Even so, like much of Coe’s work this is a political novel in which politics forms not just the contextual background to the personal but in which the two are inextricably interlinked. Just as The Closed Circle can be read as a ‘state of the nation’ novel about the New Labour era so Middle England, which is perhaps even broader in scope, speaks of and to Brexit Britain – or, more accurately, as the title suggests, England.
Thus, although the action opens in 2010, it’s impossible to erase our knowledge of where this story is going, politically speaking, and that what’s being offered is an account of why it’s going to go that way. The core of that account is of a nation which is already bitterly divided and already primed, should the occasion arise, for that bitterness to break the river banks (rivers are a recurring metaphor, presaged by a positioning quotation at the start of the first part of the book).
The ingredients of this bitterness – the financial crisis, austerity, the tensions between monoculturalists and multiculturalists, deindustrialization, generational division, London and regional division, and so on – all appear in the interactions between various characters. And a preview of where they could lead is provided by fairly lengthy depictions of the 2011 riots. But there is another England – or, this time, Britain – possible, too: one revealed by the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics which is able to speak to all of the characters, however diverse they are in other ways.
Regarded as a socio-economic account of the causes of Brexit this isn’t startling, although it is certainly illuminating. What I found especially engrossing, though, was something which, whilst important, is complex, diffuse and hard to get a grip on and which Coe’s novel dissects much more incisively than any social science text I’ve read. It is the way that within all that bitterness a recurring thread is of a moralistic ‘political correctness’ in which an anonymous but all-powerful ‘they’ interfere in the lives, deeds and words of ‘ordinary people’.
This seems to me to be a very potent, under-discussed and too easily discounted undercurrent in the political culture that led to the Brexit vote and which characterises its aftermath. It is apparent in the polling evidence showing systematic correlations between voting Leave and hostility to every facet of social liberalism. In Middle England, this theme first appears when Sophie has to attend a speed awareness course (having been caught by a speed camera) at which she meets one of the instructors, Ian, whom she subsequently marries. Amongst those attending, there is a palpable air of “righteous indignation” at being “picked on” so that the room “smelled of victimhood” (p.38).
This sense of victimhood – so central to Brexit – recurs frequently in the book, often in relation to immigration, the BBC, same-sex relationships, and on one occasion fox hunting. What is so important about it is that it helps to explain how voting Leave came to be associated with being ‘anti-elitist’, but with a notion of the elite sufficiently flexible to encompass ‘liberal do-gooders’ as well as big business, and to take in David Cameron along the way. Somehow, it is perceived that this same ‘they’ are the ones urging people to vote remain, and now people – imagined as ‘the people’ – have a chance to answer back with the pent-up anger of years.
It’s a theme which Coe explores with great subtlety, primarily through the vehicle of the relationship between Ian and Sophie. He becomes the standard bearer for anti-PC complaint, and imagines himself to have been passed over for promotion because political correctness supposedly gave priority to a female, Asian candidate. Yet as an instructor on the speeding course Ian, himself, is an instrument for the supposedly politically correct victimization of ordinary people. Sophie, meanwhile, is the epitome of the academic liberal metropolitan elite and yet falls foul of what does, indeed, seem to be a deeply unfair and highly damaging accusation of transphobia from a Corbynite student.
The differences between them come to a head in one of the most powerful scenes in the book when, shortly before the referendum, Ian rails against the “air of moral superiority” of “you lot”, predicts that Leave will win, and tells Sophie, with “a satisfied smile” and “a jab of his finger” that it will be because of “people like you” (p.284, emphasis in original). They subsequently separate, after attempting counselling during which the therapist observes that maybe “the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all” (p.328). That, perhaps, is Coe’s ultimate verdict about Brexit as well and, if so, I think he is right: the vote, and the EU, became blank screens on to which an inchoate set of resentments, complaints and angers could be projected.
There are many other highly insightful observations about Brexit in the book – and many that aren’t about Brexit, too, such as the issues around coping with ageing parents, something about which there is surprisingly little public discussion considering how ubiquitous an experience this has become. The Brexit insights include acute comments about shady disaster capitalist think tanks, the lacerating impact of social media and, though this was one thing which I didn’t think worked too well, a rather heavy-handed satirical portrait of Nigel, a Downing Street communications wonk. A particularly poignant moment is when Sophie’s grandfather, in what turns out to be his final act before dying, sends his postal vote to Leave. He knows that is not what she wants but he genuinely believes that he is doing her a favour for which she will one day be grateful.
In the end, Coe seems to offer two versions of how people, especially Remainers, might respond to Brexit. One version, illustrated by Lois and Benjamin, is to decamp to France whilst there’s still time. Benjamin finally realises – and it’s an important realisation in the context of his entire character – that the Britain he grew up in during the 1970s is now irrevocably gone, and had been in the process of disappearing ever since the Thatcher election of 1979. So, in an old French mill – now named The Rotters’ Club in homage to the past – he proclaims “Fuck Brexit!” (p.415, emphasis in original).
The second version, perhaps more optimistic than the book as a whole would warrant, is provided by Sophie, now back together with Ian again despite their Brexit differences, and expecting a baby, due – of course – on 29 March 2019. Having visited Benjamin, her uncle, in France, Sophie drives off, “her eyes … fixed on the road ahead” and one hand resting on her “swollen belly … Sophie and Ian’s tentative gesture of faith in their equivocal, unknowable future …” (p.421).
So whereas for most of the book we know where the story is going, politically, at the end we do not. If Coe returns in the future to these characters – and I sincerely hope he will – it will be fascinating to see how Sophie’s gesture of faith plays out. Of course, by then, we’ll already have a pretty good idea since, like it or not, this is a story in which we are all characters.🔷
Middle England by Jonathan Coe. (Penguin Books, 2018. 421pp)