Speaking at the London Book Fair just hours before the U.K. House of Commons voted on Tuesday night on the newest Brexit proposal, writer Ian McEwan described leaving the E.U. as “a national tragedy.”
“I would like the Prime Minister to revoke Article 50, a one-line email would do, although we know that's not going to happen. There's a possibility of a second referendum, but an extension is only going to be a couple of months. I think the Tories are going to look for a new leader, and the Labour party is in a state. So I'm feeling quite pessimistic, but I'll be marching on the 23rd for a second referendum.”
McEwan's comments came hours before Prime Minister Theresa May was heavily defeated in the House of Commons. Commenting after the vote went against her, she raised the prospect of a second referendum.
Earlier in the day LBF had seen a session examining the processes that led up to the original decision to leave the E.U. in June 2016, entitled “Contested Identities; Writing, Writers and the Brexit Enigma,” which featured journalist-turned-novelist James Meek and Caryl Phillips, Author of The Day.
“If you are old, you actually are from another country, in fact from an empire,” said Meek, who said he viewed Brexit partly as an inter-generational issue, and a shadow of a much more profound conflict between immigrants of the past and immigrants of the future, between the old and the young.
Meek also blamed much of the groundwork for Brexit on Margaret Thatcher.
“We are now living in a different country, a country that Margaret Thatcher created. Somehow, global free markets were going to replace the Empire, and Brexit is the same, the idea that we can swap the E.U. for some magical other place.”
Phillips agreed that the folk memory of the Empire was a significant factor driving Brexit. He pointed out that the British Empire in 1945 ruled 760 million people; by 1991 that figure was 168 million. “But there has not been a subsequent fall-off in the British people's sense of that Empire. They still think they have those 760 million. That's what has fed Brexit. But Empire is the ugly word that no one in Parliament will say today.”
Struggling to find any upside to Brexit, Meek said there is “at least the hope" that the U.K. "will break out of the very restricted, white, fortified, post-Imperial space that is the E.U. and deal with the rest of the world on a more equal basis," and that "the shock of the reality of being outside fortress Europe will rid us of our post-Imperial delusions.”
Phillips was asked if he had a message for the 52% who voted to leave: his message was they should “grow up”. Would a great pro-Brexit novel ever be written? “Someone will write a great Brexit novel,” he said, “but it won't be me!"