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Daphne du Maurier’s Brexit fantasy Rule Britannia, written in 1972, is startlingly resonant today

Credit: Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images

Credit: Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images

April 15, 2019   4 mins

For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.

The pundits didn’t predict it. Before the 2016 referendum, leaving the EU seemed unimaginable to vast swathes of the mainstream media. But 44 years earlier, one writer saw it coming. Daphne du Maurier is famous for Rebecca and The Birds; but her last, lesser-known novel deserves its fair share of recognition, for its eerie prescience if nothing else. It predicted both the UK’s entry into the European Union and its undignified exit.

Rule Britannia is a satire set in a future where the British people have voted to leave the European Economic Community. When the novel was published – in 1972 – the UK was on the brink of joining the EU’s precursor, but it wasn’t until the following year that the nation’s membership was approved. By the time the EEC became the EU in 1993, the UK was a loyal part of the union.

In the world of Rule Britannia, the UK’s EEC membership is short-lived. Due to “no failure on our part”, says Du Maurier’s fictional Prime Minister, the UK’s relationship with Europe breaks down and the public votes to withdraw. After a referendum, general election and the hasty formation of a Coalition government, Britain goes bankrupt and turns to the US for help. A new union – the USUK (read: You Suck) – is proposed, but becomes sinister when American troops occupy Great Britain overnight.

Du Maurier’s attempt to understand the Britain her grandchildren would inherit makes for startling reading today. The success of the American invasion she describes depends on the instabilities in British identity that she sensed in seventies – and which have since come to a head. Du Maurier recognises the seeds of the dispossession that propelled the Leave campaign to victory in 2016.

Set in Cornwall, a region that voted 56.5% in favour of LeaveRule Britannia rails against the “up-country” politics decided upon by a Westminster elite. The protagonists of the novel feel disempowered and are divided over the government’s new union with America. The novel draws on contemporary fears that entry into the EEC would create a semi-permanent rift in British society between pro and anti Europeans.

Du Maurier predicts that such a societal split would be crippling. In Rule Britannia, the US marines initially succeed because of internal divides in the local community. Emma protests, “it can’t happen here, that’s what people in England have always said […] because they were all together on their own ground”. But the narrative predicts that, if the UK’s unified front were to break down, the nation would become an impotent pawn in the games of larger powers.

With American warships occupying the English Channel and US marines building barricades along the Cornish coast, Rule Britannia imagines the UK as an occupied territory. No longer the plucky little country that won WWII, but simply a “small offshore island” with no power to fight off invaders, Du Maurier’s UK becomes a country that dreams of rebellion.

A guerrilla Cornish resistance rises up: Rule Britannia’s narrator, Emma, observes the different ways that members of the county’s community behave in the face of invasion, from the quiet rebellion of the farmers to the opportunism of the publicans. Everyone does their bit to ward off the American overloads.

It’s no coincidence that in the 12 years leading up to Rule Britannia’s publication, the British Empire was visibly falling apart: 26 former colonies had gained independence and the UK’s image on the global stage was that of an overthrown tyrant. Seeing their country’s identity challenged, the British public began to embrace narratives that positioned the UK as culturally under threat from abroad. Rule Britannia plays into these concerns: in the novel, the British become the oppressed rather than the oppressor, fighting to reclaim their identity.

These narratives are still potent. When Nigel Farage called for 23rd June to be celebrated as the UK’s independence day, he was met with cheers. Though the UK was never colonised, he implied that the Leave campaign could be seen as freedom fighters rebelling against the political autonomy of the EU. He positions the UK as viscerally under threat, receiving no benefits from EU membership and actively victimised by the union.

Du Maurier seems sceptical of this stance, letting her characters succeed in their bid for independence, while suggesting that long-term prosperity as dubious. At the close of the Rule Britannia, the Americans pull out of the UK, but the country is left in a precarious position: on the brink of “bankruptcy” and at the mercy of another US “take over, and martial law”.

Despite emphasising the importance of local autonomy, Du Maurier recognises that for the UK to thrive in the modern world, this might not be enough. Still, like any good novelist, she doesn’t draw conclusions; she simply gives a voice to the Cornish protagonists of her novel. They define their own concept of independence and decide what price they are willing to pay for it.

Despite being written almost half a century ago, the satire of Rule Britannia feels spookily resonant today. Large parts of the country feel their concerns are not represented in parliament; many believe that British autonomy over economic and political policy can only be achieved by leaving Europe.

But Du Maurier’s most important prediction was not, in fact, that of the EU referendum. It was her recognition that for Britain to renegotiate its place in the world, it must first look within its borders. She knew that a divided nation is a vulnerable nation.

Sneha is a freelance journalist and editor, who writes about fiction, postcolonialism and popular culture.

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