Saturday, June 25, 2016

To Live in (Un)interesting Times

I wrote a blog post last week which tried to articulate a positive vision for Europe - it had seemed to me that on both side of the debate that were different flavours of Euroscepticism. At the end of the day, when both Cameron and Corbyn spoke about Europe it wasn't with a verve or a vision, but as the least worst option. Perhaps this was a necessary corollary to their personal narratives to make Britain great again, or perhaps this was where they were - 75% in, 25% out as Corbyn unhelpfully said. With friends like that, the Remain campaign hardly needed enemies. Though Cameron - through his resignation speech - had finally grown to the point where he realised how wrong the Brexit argument was and how little he could do to be the leader of that negotiation, before that point his dislike for Europe - his impatience with Europe - had been all too clear. I said before the last election that I wish Ed Milliband had come out 18 months in advance as an advocate for no-referendum, as a pro-Europe Labour party, alongside an anti-austerity agenda. Together those things may not have changed the narrative in 2015, but they would have possibly changed the narrative now. It's clear now, the day after the results came in with a 52% vote for Brexit, how entrenched support for giving Europe (and elites) a bloody nose was. With only around 70% of voters voting Lab/Con at the last general election we perhaps knew that there were a substantial block who were no longer tribal voters - did we know that they would coalesce around this issue?

In truth a plebiscite is a more direct democracy than our compromised one - Yes/No, In/Out. The 4% gap between the 2 sides is sizeable, but not so entrenched that it couldn't have been the other way round. Something over a million more votes is substantial however. We are large country. That 72% of the electorate came out to vote is a sign of engagement, whatever happened to that missing 28%. Cameron asked the country to answer a question he wasn't certain what the answer would be. Funnily enough, his reforms, which even the government's own leaflet didn't feel worth mentioning in any great detail, seem more substantial now than they did back then - now they are in the shredder of failed promises. A Britain opting out of ever-closer union? An acceptance of Europe being a multiple currency block? A linkage between in work payments and contributions? These seem the sensible compromises of a working Europe, not of a broken one. Europe - if it has some sense - would look at the best of these and see which of its other members would like the smorgasbord on offer.

Europe's lack of sense is what will be put to the test in the coming months. They are right to say negotiation should begin immediately. Truth is, it can, but the 2-year clock might not start ticking at once. The 27 remainers - meeting (illegally?) without Britain in the room - should offer us an extension at once - as long as Article 50 is invoked at once. The negotiating team shouldn't be dependent on the leadership - both Labour and the Tories have casually replaced leaders mid-term and government has gone on as usual. Remember the Belgians were without a government for months - this is only about one person. Between now and October Cameron should sit with Europe and get the best terms of reference that he can - about scope and timetable, rather than content. The added irony of course, is that with a Talleyrand, negotiations tend to make you lose out. Our best negotiators will inevitably be pro-Europeans. Nick Clegg, where are you now?

That's the formal aspects of this. When countries split - Yugoslavia, USSR, Czechoslavakia - we somehow manage this - so surely the splitting of a voluntary union should be less problematic?

As ever its the geopolitics of this which is more fascinating. Devastated as I was by the result - having lived so much of my life under terrible Tory governments, its not the first political disappointment of my life, I doubt it will be the last - though if handled badly it could be the most damaging. I had worked as a poll clerk for 15 hours on Thursday so went to bed with optimism - there was a high turnout, lots of young people - but that's because Manchester is a young, vibrant European city - and along with Trafford and Stockport voted to remain. The other 7 boroughs all voted out.

So there will be consequence in the North as well as elsewhere. Wherefore the "Northern Powerhouse" - Osbourne's invention - when our Chancellor is unlikely to be there come October? Devolution is already on its legislative track - but was predicated - I'm sure - at least partly on the continuing investment in the NW of European funds. Starved of that, (after 2020 certainly, but possibly earlier) how will the city mayors assert themselves? The Labour contest for Manchester mayoral candidate will now happen invisibly as the Tories elect a new Prime Minister; meanwhile the 7/10 boroughs voting for "exit" means that feasibly a pro-Brexit politician - Tory or independent - could possibly make the running in an area thought to be a Labour stronghold. Scary thoughts.
Also, maybe the NW has taken Europe a little for granted - surely the logic of Devolution means that even if there is national indifference to the continent Manchester may choose to have a stronger relationship, even outside of the EU, with its continental partners? This too will take political will as well as innovation. The city owns the airport - and our connectivity - easier to get to Dublin or Amsterdam than London - is something that is key to our economic prospects. The risks of separating the north into its component parts - big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds - and ignoring the rest is now also laid bare. Blackpool was the highest "out" vote in Lancashire. I've said for a long time we need to be enabling our region to work together - rather than letting our coastal towns fall into rack and ruin. Europe, for all its faults, recognised the risks of winners and losers - its why you can go into the most unexpected places in the continent and finding gleaming new airports, roads and business centres. The logic of neo-liberal economics would have these places empty and lifeless - but the population's there become left behind, and as we've seen, disenfranchised. Our British failure is concentration on London at the expense of everywhere else - something that Boris as PM will hardly improve upon.

Cameron going was inevitable - the P.R. man, adept at tactics, bad at strategy, with a weakness on detail and a willingness to wing it - and if all political lives end in failure his is hardly a tragic one, as it was so self-inflicted. Osbourne - helped along by his fear budget - will no doubt go with him. They would not be mourned if it wasn't for the likely replacements, proven incompetents like Gove or Boris. That said, its a long time since the favourite won a Tory leadership election. Like Cameron, an outside bet could appear to stabilise the ship.

What will come next will inevitably be a general election - leadership without legitimacy scuppered Gordon Brown, and always hampered John Major despite his resounding victory. But when? I think the country is tired of political flummery - Scotland has had 4 major votes in 18 months. We want to live in uninteresting times in the UK. I suspect a new leader will want to complete the negotiation and then go to the polls - so my money would be on 2018?

Europe won't be happy - but at 17% of their economy and with a 10% of their budget lopped off with us leaving - I suspect they will not be as vindicative as might currently appear to be the case. After all the UK has always been an awkward partner - though the counterbalance has been generally liked across the bloc of nations. I suspect that this will mean "ever closer union" for Eurozone countries - leaving Denmark and Sweden more vulnerable, and possibly hastening Poland joining the Eurozone. Its hard to see that a multiple currency Europe is anywhere near as viable now with the pound existing outside of it.

For Brexiters the reality might sink in: there's no silver bullet to immigration or the economy. It will take a better politician than Johnson or Gove or IDS to make the case for a new Britain outside of Europe. A new Labour politician could well emerge - untouched by the past - and work with this dogs dinner.

In the mean time, life goes on. There appears to be no street parties on the streets of Walsall and Swindon, and it seems that those with nothing invested in Europe felt no loss in saying goodbye to it. 48% - 16 million people disagreed. Had it been a "remain" I had fears of right wing militias forming and civic unrest. For the "remain" party its not about blaming anyone (though Cameron deserves blame - he's no longer there to be blamed), but about making an ever more vital case for how we can be inclusive Europeans whilst outside of the conveniences of the worlds biggest trading block. Amazon, Uber and the like have no difficulty operating in Europe for instance. My biggest worry is less about how we untangle with a Europe which is still a Channel Tunnel or a one hour flight away, than what dreadful deals we put in place afterwards. Our zero hours contracts, low income and corporation taxes, and sweetheart deals with financial institutions aren't what we need to rebuild the social contract from Sunderland to Swindon.

We live in interesting times....

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

Eight novels in, the work of Magnus Mills can be divided broadly into two camps: those novels set in a recognisable contemporary world, where his male protagonists are involved in some kind of mundane (and often pointless) labour, and those which are in some kind of fantasy world. In some ways "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" brings together both of these.

Our nameless narrator begins with the incident when he is called over to the camp at the southern end of the field because they have made an abundance of milk pudding. He is the only one of the individuals who are dotted around the rest of the field who goes along. It gives him an insight into the newcomers. He then takes us back to his own arrival in the field. He was, it seems, the second to arrive, but the first has set himself up in isolation in the far north. Also, there is evidence - on the imprint in the grass - that someone has been there before, probably Thomas, a mysterious man with flowing robes who comes and goes with an imperious air. The field itself is just up from a river and this is the tributary that brings visitors from the north and the south. Isabella, the one woman who arrives in the field, had expected it already to be teeming with people, rather than the few isolated tents that she finds. These initial settlers are all loners in their own way. Each has their own tent, and its not entirely clear how people live - there are scant supplies mentioned - milk pudding, home made biscuits - but this is a typical Millsian trait, to exclude certain things that a more realist novel would deem necessary.

The "invasion" of the south of the field by a group organised on more militaristic lines causes suspicion - though there is some sense of them putting out feelers to the earlier settlers, though its only the narrator who accepts. When they decide to build a rampart between them and the rest of the field, suspicions seem confirmed, but our narrator takes them at their word - that it is for drainage to stop the southern part of the field drowning when the rains come down - and enthusiastically volunteers himself as master of works (in echo of the labour-focus of books like "The Restraint of Beasts") to get the work done. Though a fable, the book has its fair share of digressions. Newcomers come and go as if each chapter finds Mills trying to come up with another layer of absurdity. What is going on here? Are they waiting for something? The field is clearly a desirable place, particularly in summer, but that initial "invasion" complete with a copper bath which they want Isabella to bathe in (she prefers going naked in the river), comes to an end and overnight they disappear. The copper bath gets dragged to the far end of the field by an offshoot of that group who don't return, and it becomes something of a religious artefact to them.

The next invasion is more organised and both Thomas and Isabella return in an ornate tent as "king and queen". Slowly we begin to see Mills' motivation. He's building up - from the barest of parts - a new civilisation here on this lush field. Like his masterpiece "Three to See the King" the pioneers become part of a much wider population, and in his obscure way, Mills gives us the building blocks of a new city, like a literary SIMCity. Besides the rampart, and now the king and queen, a raving preacher comes and warns them of disaster. So is religion introduced to the field, - though the worshippers of the copper bath are oblivious, their own sect keeping themselves to themselves - at least until the very end, when this nascent society looks for a scapegoat for all that is going wrong with the weather and the field. In comic strokes Mills slowly builds up a society so that it becomes as polluted and riven as our own; and our narrator is both an innocent onlooker and an unwitting participant - only realising what his interventions have led to when it is too late.

It's not his best book, in that it seems almost wilfully obscure in parts, and not all of the incidents work effectively, but that's probably not a big deal, as they give pleasure as you're reading it, and as they build up on each other, we find that even insignificant events have impact further down the line. It seems in some ways a quiet rumination on power, on religion, even on creation myths. For is the field not so different than the Rome of Romulus and Remus? Is the preacher who arrives not an Abraham or a John the Baptist - even a Jesus figure? - and is the coming of structure and society not reminiscent of New York or other American cities as they become honeypots for a shifting population? There's an Englishness about it - both from its title (an actual historical artefact) - to this sense of a bewildered population being constantly invaded by alien races who may be benign, but may just as well be terrifying. As ever in Mills, you can read these into the story, or treat him as an English Flann O'Brien, gifted at telling a tale, and with an unceasing knack for uncovering absurdity in even the least promising of scenarios.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

There can be no poetry after Brexit

I am English, Midlands-born; to paraphrase Bellow. This is my land, and I find deep and unexpected connections in an ancient, mythical Mercia. I'm a poet of place, not distance, yet that tranquil English soil, sooted with the industrial revolution, which forged me, is a mythic one. I've spent more of my life now in the North, and more of it in urban cities than the suburban frontier spaces of the green belt from which I came. It seems that distance is always mythic, as is place. Yet England's soil, and England's green is something that I have a deep affection for - I have no known Celtic forbears (though my red hair, pale skin, blue eyes just indicates I've not been able to go back far enough.) I speak one language, have lived in one land.

And yet, my imaginative landscape is one that soars beyond the present. It is Jude the Obscure, looking down on the city below and imagining a better life for himself. It is the twin brothers in "On the Black Hill" imagining what it would be like to fly over the lands which they know so intimately. It is Dick Diver training in Switzerland, and being seduced by the glamour of first Nicole, then the starlet Rosemary Hoyt; it is the fake dreaming of Italiophile Ladislaw in "Middlemarch". For literature is boundaryless, boundary-free and it is the imagination that propels it so that even a parochially grounded world can become the whole world. You don't need a globalised literature - with characters flying indiscriminately between Lahore and London and L.A. - to see the beautiful horizon in the best writing.

It is not therefore that literature cannot exist in a post-Brexit England, its just that we have a literary firmament that doesn't require any lower ambitions than it has already. The stultifying class system remains at the backbone of too much English fiction; our manicured lawns and country houses at the heart of our romanticised nature poetry. I think Europe was an ideal for me even before I had been on the continent  - its there in the electronic-tinged music of "New Gold Dream" and "Heroes." If America gives us the vista of the road movie, and the deep rootsiness of "The Night they drove Old Dixie Down" and "After the Goldrush", Europe is at once an ancien regime, and a reflecting kaliedoscope of possible futures; modernism, to America's post-modernism.

After next Thursday, if the pin on the powder keg has been pulled and a majority of voters have exploded the grenade of splendid isolation all over ourselves, it is not so much that the reality of our Europe goes away - it is still there - but the possibility of what we in England, in Britain can be to drag ourselves from a sense of fifties puritan and 19th century nationalism that will become the dominant foreground.

There can be no poetry after Brexit, for the possibilities that exist in the best of ourselves will be gone - and faced with a drawbridge pulled up - and the mental closing of doors. We will be only good enough then for an antediluvian culture of diminished nostalgia.... our literary imagination will be like the lights going out all over the town.