Middle England by Jonathan Coe – Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold

This novel is an account of the years immediately before and after the UK’s 2016 European Referendum, seen through the eyes of a disparate group of old and young, academic and non-academic, politically engaged and would-rather-listen-to-music people, all centred on Benjamin Trotter, a struggling writer living a quiet life in the English Midlands.

I’ve read a number of nonfiction books which have struggled to explain the phenomenon of populism sweeping through western society since 2016, leading to the election of Trump and the result of the referendum. It is with the subject of Brexit, however, that we really see the value of a novel in exploring human experience. The nonfiction books tried to explain what happened in rational historic or economic terms. But the fact is, the decisions made by voters in the referendum, whether to leave or remain, were not primarily rational. Few people really understood the legal and economic technicalities of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Even the simple benefit of lorries rolling on and off ferries without any border delays was not widely understood. Neither was the disruptive consequence of border checks being reimposed, the fact that a two minute delay to each lorry’s progress at Dover would lead to a 17 mile traffic queue on the M20 – according to Port of Dover Authority. (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/…). In November 2018 just after the period covered by Middle England, Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb admitted that “he did not quite understand” the UK’s reliance on the Dover Calais trade route. If a government minister charged with understanding these things could not grasp something so basic, what chance did the general population have? The reality is they had no chance and had to take an emotional decision, whether that meant voting to find some kind of lost identity, or revolting against the crude xenophobia of the poster revealed by Nigel Farage in May 2016, of a queue of migrants, mostly male and mostly black, apparently waiting to enter Britain. After days of confusing research on EU trade policy, it is this poster that persuades Benjamin Trotter to vote remain. 

So with rationality taking a back seat, a novel is a good place to explore the toxic brew of emotion, prejudice, diffuse frustration, misinformation and nostalgic illusion which really led to the final referendum result. If fictions were so influential, the fiction of a novel is a fitting place to consider them.

The story has a clever structure. A journalist’s regular meetings with the deputy communications director for Number 10 provide a satirical account of political events at the centre of government. We then see the impact of those events on the wider cast of characters. The portrayal of these characters is politically even-handed. At one extreme we have the odious Helena, who looks like a sweet old lady but is actually something of a Nazi. At the other extreme we have young, left wing agitator Coriander, who has a predilection for physical violence – camouflaged by an idealistic cause – and wages merciless campaigns of political correctness via social media, which serves as a digital lynch mob. On the spectrum between Helena and Coriander, we have people trying their best to understand and cope with a developing crisis.

Middle England is an excellent novel, well written and compelling as a story, and a reminder that the best novels are less a diversion, more a fascinating tool for understanding people.

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