April 12, 2021

Brexit has now passed the landmark 100 days and is done, at least politically. An exit deal and a pandemic have sunk its salience for voters, and neither Boris Johnson nor Keir Starmer see any merit in reminding them about it. But that doesn’t mean the publishers have stopped; far from it. Brexit is an Important issue which means that Important thinkers must write Important books about it.

So while Brexit may be done, only the dead have seen the end of Brexit books, which include Britain Alone by Philip Stephens, This Sovereign Isle by Robert Tombs and Gavin Esler’s How Britain Ends . None of them is terrible but all are sadly limited, and those limits say something interesting about Brexit and how its huge weight presses down on people who think about it too much, leaving some to buckle.

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Stephens’s book is both the most accomplished and least interesting. As a long-standing columnist (and previously political editor) at the Financial Times, Stephens has extensive access to some of the key participants in Britain’s exit from the EU, and the subsequent search for an idea of what it should mean for UK foreign policy. He uses that access to good effect, painting a coherent picture of the thinking and feelings of those actors: the amateurism and arrogance of David Cameron is nicely captured, as is the bemusement of German officials who can’t quite believe that a British PM seriously believes he can charm Angela Merkel into overturning decades of German European policy for him.

Of the three books at hand, I suspect only Stephens’s will register with future historians of Brexit, because it encapsulates so neatly the views and voices of the foreign policy elites whose world was shattered by the 2016 referendum result. But for those of us alive and interested in Brexit today, the book is almost useless, since it’s all been said before. No one who regularly reads the FT or Economist will learn anything new from Stephens’s account of the FCO’s despair and European diplomats’ horror at the victory of the Brexiteers.

They certainly won’t learn anything about how that victory came about. Stephens makes no visible effort to understand the reasons the Brexiteers wanted to leave, or why 17.4 million voters backed them. Sometimes, he cannot hide his contempt. When Cameron’s somewhat accidental rejection of an EU eurozone bailout treaty in 2011 is received by Conservative MPs and voters as a triumph, this response is dismissed as “pathetic” without any attempt at analysis.  Likewise, Leavers are “elderly voters looking to reclaim the past” and the “left behind”; Remainers are “affluent and well-educated” and ensure that at least the “great cities” vote against Brexit.

A better book would wonder why, say, 1.5 million Londoners (40%) voted Leave, or why a similar proportion of voters aged 25-34 did so. But all Stephens can offer is that Boris Johnson is a good liar and Vote Leave successfully exploited voters’s grievances. Given that this book is published almost five years after the vote, during which time a lot of good research has been done into the motivations of Leavers and the Brexit campaign, it’s more than a little disappointing to see a leading political journalist show so little interest in the fundamentals of the biggest political event of his lifetime.

Here, Robert Tombs’s book beats Stephens handsomely, even though it’s half the length and based almost entirely on secondary sources. Tombs, emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge, is a rare thing, a Brexit-voting academic. By his account, he was largely pushed to this position by irritation at fellow guests at Cambridge dinners and their unthinking support for EU membership. If that sounds shallow, the results are actually quite positive.

Because Tombs is not implacably committed to his “side”, he is sometimes able to catch glimpses of it in proper perspective. He notes that Leavers’s economic claims about the effects of Brexit were often as “extravagantly” overstated as those of Remain’s “Project Fear.” He doesn’t buy the narrative that the Brexit vote was some sort of grumbling revolt by a marginalised majority; he can see the many things that most Leavers and Remainers had in common, at least before the vote, and predicts, persuasively, that cultural divides between the two will not be long-lasting.

Nor does he attempt to argue that Brexit was somehow an inevitable result of Britain’s historical relationship with “Europe”, even if he does sometimes lapse into trite exceptionalism. (Apparently Britain is unique in Europe in its ties to the world beyond the continent and its bigger sense of “abroad” than others. This might surprise the former colonial trading powers such as the French, Dutch and Portuguese.)

Such triteness is surprising from a serious scholar, but This Sovereign Isle isn’t so much scholarship as the cheery musings of a man with time and scope to read a bit about something that interests him. The breezy tone is often welcome, though. Tombs confides that he is happily married to a committed Remainer, which might explain why he makes a decent attempt to understand the motivations of Remain voters, and does not assume they acted out of bad faith or stupidity, or because they’d been lied to.

Sadly, Tombs falls off the wagon of sober analysis when it comes to the years after the referendum. With unconvincing haste, he constructs a novel interpretation of the sovereign power of the referendum result that means no one and no institution has any role in determining how Brexit should be “done”. Pretty much everyone who attempted to have a say on that question, or who argued that Parliament might express a view, is dismissed as a wicked schemer plotting to thwart the will of the people. While that might well be true of at least some of the People’s Vote crew, Tombs is reaching too far when he tries to frame the Supreme Court and Parliament as illegitimate institutions with no standing in the vast process of Brexit.

The best and worst of the three books is Esler’s. Best because it at least asks some big questions about Brexit and Britain’s future that haven’t had enough attention even among the billions of words spilled since the referendum. Worst because it shares the same lack of perspective as the other two, but adds shoddy research and a fixation on trivial ephemera.

How Britain Ends is subtitled “English Nationalism and the Rebirth of the Four Nations”. Esler’s thesis is that the Brexit vote was essentially an expression of emergent Englishness as a political force. He thinks this is a bad thing, and one that will in due course force the Scots to flee the Union, Northern Ireland to accept Irish unification and the Welsh to… actually I’m not sure, and neither is Esler, who doesn’t devote much time to the Principality.

He certainly doesn’t try to explain how his central thesis (Brexit as English thuggery) fits with a Welsh majority for Brexit. Nor does he have any words for the 1 million Scots who voted to Leave, but then 38% of that country subscribing to a project of English jingoism is hard to square with Esler’s portrait of Scotland as pro-European nation where simply everyone is horrified by the prospect of leaving.

Well, everyone Esler talks to, anyway. Far, far too many of the assertions in this book are based on conversations Esler has had with “a friend” of one sort or another, all of whom coincidentally share his conviction that Brexit is bad, the Union is doomed and Englishness is nasty and harmful. As for those who think Englishness isn’t all bad, they’re clearly weirdos and racists. We know this because Esler remembers a row with a London taxi driver who insists that the English are an ethnically exclusive group to which foreigners cannot be admitted. I used to work on a newspaper foreign desk, and know that any decent correspondent would die of shame rather than resort to the cliché of quoting a taxi-driver in copy. Esler, once a celebrated foreign reporter, is apparently beyond such embarrassment, proudly telling us how he had the last word in his dialogue with his driver.

This isn’t even the most embarrassing moment in the book. That’s probably a pointless story of Esler visiting a bar in Washington DC and hearing US Marines singing a Bruce Springsteen song without knowing — as Esler does — what the lyrics really meant. The idiots.

That taxi journey is about as close as Esler gets to trying to understand the people and the ideas that are supposedly the centrepiece of his book. Many of his observations about Englishness and the English are cribbed from Kate Fox’s Watching the English (published in 2004) and Jeremy Paxman’s The English (1998). Still, at least those are actual books. The most maddening thing about How Britain Ends is Esler’s constant references to Twitter. Barely a page goes by without him basing some claim or observation about the fate of nations on a few characters sprayed onto a screen by someone noisy but unimportant.

This isn’t just the stylistic grumbling of an old-fashioned reviewer. Esler’s regard for tweets as a primary source of evidence shows how social media can be the ruin of good journalists and journalism. If he’d spent less time staring at Twitter and more time trying to talk to people about the Englishness to which he imputes so much, he’d have written a much better book.

There are other flaws too, some sloppy (Norman Lamont, born in Shetland and educated in Edinburgh, is not “English”) and some disingenuous. Esler claims that “an attempt was made” to have Church of England church bells ring to celebrate Brexit, something he offers as proof that the UK is run by ignorant English Leavers uncaring of propriety or the other UK nations. He doesn’t say that the “attempt” amounted to one tweet by the Brexit self-publicist Arron Banks, and as such was taken seriously by no one except #FBPE types on Twitter.

All this is deeply frustrating, because Esler’s book is founded on some good ideas and useful inquiries. The relationship between Englishness and Britishness in a UK outside the EU really should be carefully considered, and better reflected in constitutional arrangements, as Esler suggests. He’s very good on Ireland too, and absolutely right to note the Conservative Party’s shocking indifference to the fate of Northern Ireland in the Brexit process and beyond. He’s also right to link that abandonment of Unionism to the growing lack of interest in (and understanding of) other parts of the UK among voters in each of its member-countries. Few English voters care much about keeping Northern Ireland in the UK; Scotland’s political discourse feels more and more distant from “British” debates in London.

If Stephens’s book is the only one of these three that is likely to be read in ten years’s time, Esler’s is the one that focuses most closely on the issues that will still be relevant then, and quite likely more relevant than they are now. Sadly, he too cannot achieve enough distance or perspective to offer truly useful thoughts on those issues.

The common theme of these books is that Brexit is simply too big a thing for an author today to put into that broader historical perspective. So authors who try, even very smart and accomplished authors such as these, end up falling back on their own prior convictions, using Brexit analysis as an exercise in confirmation bias. As befits a proper historian, Tombs comes closest of the three to admitting the limitations of writing the history of something that is still in motion. “Brexit is undoubtedly a gamble on the democratic nation state, its viability and its future,” he concedes. And while he thinks that gamble will pay off, he doesn’t claim total certainty. Stephens and Esler, by contrast, are more sure that Britain will slide into decline and nationalist division.

Brexit is done, but what does Brexit mean? Better to take some more time on that and get it right than rush to judgement.