The result of the referendum on Brexit in 2016 sent shockwaves through not only the UK, but Europe and beyond. Looking back now, the “why” is a little clearer—the anger, the fact that many voted emotionally, and the complacency of the ruling elite.
In Middle England, Jonathan Coe captures a country in flux. The novel charts the lives of a group of people, a cast of characters that includes Benjamin Trotter, a writer who has retreated from the world to a remote house in the country; his niece Sophie, an independent young woman; Ian, Sophie’s husband, as suspicious of the “others” as Sophie is open to them; Helena, Ian’s mother, who quotes Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech to an appalled Sophie; and Doug, a journalist and old friend of Benjamin’s.
Initially I found it hard to remember all the characters. But as they are fleshed out, they come into focus. Through a range of characters who differ in political views, age and ethnicities, Coe is able to give us a multi-faceted view of England between 2010 to 2018. The events play out against a backdrop of current events: Gordon Brown’s comment about “that bigoted woman” that lost him the election, the David Cameron-Nick Clegg coalition government, the huge success of the 2012 Olympics (even I watched the opening ceremony, which I almost never do), and, of course, the referendum and its aftermath.
The conversations that Doug has with Nick Ives, Cameron’s Deputy Director of Communication, are indicative of the senseless spin coming out of Downing Street at the time. “Two years ago the world experienced a terrible financial crisis and nobody knows how to deal with it”, says Nigel. “Nobody knows the way forward. I call it radical indecision—the new spirit of our time. And Nick and Dave embody it perfectly.” Nigel means this as a compliment.
It is this insouciance and complacency that lead to the disastrous result of the referendum. When Nigel announces that the government is going to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union, Doug asks Nigel if the government has a plan B in case Leave wins. Nigel dismisses the idea and accuses Doug of negative thinking. Dave is going to win, no question. “We’re about to embark on an amazing exercise in direct democracy.” Well, we all know how that worked out.
Brexit becomes a lightning rod for the people like Helena, who sees Cameron as part of an elite that is out of touch with her values. She explains to a visiting Chinese businessman: “The people of Middle England…voted for David Cameron because they had no real choice. The alternative was unthinkable. But if the time ever comes when we are given the opportunity to let him know what we really think of him, then believe me—we will take it.”
Brexit polarized the country, revealing cracks within families and between couples. Sophie complains that Ian, who voted Leave, wasn’t as open as she thought he was, that his “model for relationships comes down to antagonism and competition, not cooperation”. Ian thinks that Sophie lives in a bubble and resents her “attitude of moral superiority”. As their marriage counsellor observes, neither of them even mention politics.
But all is not lost. The book ends on a note of reconciliation. People find a way of living together—at least, some of them do. I have focused on Middle England’s take on Brexit, but there is much more to the book: how political correctedness, taken to the extreme, can damage people (again, in the incident in the book, it is emotion rather than rationality that dominates); the threat of violence against MPs, especially the women; and most of all, the long-lasting relationships that can save our lives and sanity.
I like novels that weave historical or political realities into fiction because they make them more real. I love Coe’s way of doing this and of seeing things from different points of view. There has been some criticism of his “unnecessary” descriptions of events or people that have been in the news, but this assumes that every reader will be familiar with what has happened in Britain in the last 10 years. Or will remember 30 years from now—because this book is going to be around.
Middle England is part of a trilogy that includes The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, but it can be read as a stand-alone book, as I did. I recommend it, not only for the insights but also for the writing—it is engaging and thoroughly enjoyable.