Séamas O'Reilly looks at the links between England's leading post-war novelist and Brexit.
‘You never find an Englishman among the under-dogs’ remarks Sir Ambrose Abercrombie in The Loved One, ‘except in England, of course’.
Published in 1948, The Loved One is a satirical skewering of British manners and the American film industry, which seems projected from a familiar plane of the British psyche; despairing, embarrassed and freighted with delusions of its own grandeur, the post-war Brit reacts to his new predicament by mythologising former glories, and harking back to a rapidly departing past with an uneasy admixture of ironic nostalgia and barking self-pity. Some diseases of the soul are terminal. Others linger. Looking out on to an England still in fear of Tomorrow, looking back always to an ever-appreciating stock of Yesterdays, it’s hard not to look at the current government and infer that Abercrombie’s diagnosis belongs to the second class of things.
It’s clear now that the government’s Brexit strategy is not Shakespearean in tragedy, nor Greek, but a mottled rehashing of the careless over-reach depicted in Waugh’s less subtle works. Not of course, that this is a particularly novel assessment. His satires of England’s ruling class – and we will here omit those other nations which might remain within the Union at your time of reading – have informed several generations of writers, political figures, and members of those same social orders to whom he was so narratively attracted. Michael Gove is such a fan that in 2015, he included Waugh in a list of four writers (the others being Orwell, Eliot and Austen) which, in a hopeful move, he urged civil servants emulate when writing departmental correspondence. Speaking in Australia in 2017, Boris Johnson claimed one of the reasons for Brexit was that Britain wanted to ‘as Evelyn Waugh might have said, protect its might’ a phrasing that even the Evelyn Waugh Society finds hard to pin down to a specific quote from the author. Last January, a letter in the Financial Times cited a passage in Waugh’s 1928 debut Decline And Fall, as an adroit metaphor for the nation’s current state. Quoting Mr Prendergast, a sadsack teacher who feels forced to continue wearing a wig, long after his students detect it as a ludicrous fake, the passage reads:
‘I knew from the start that it was a mistake but once they had seen it, it was too late to go back. They make all sorts of jokes about it.’
‘Brexit is our wig’ came the droll assessment of its submitter, Mr Geoff Scargill. ‘After months of talks and posturing about independence we can see that we are thin on top. Everyone abroad knows it and is making jokes about us. But it is too late to go back’.
There’s a neatness to this assessment that’s attractive. The urge to look upon the modern Conservative movement as Waugh might have done, to view them as mortified, gormless buffoons, is strong; so strong in fact I will not here resist it. There is a staggering incompetence on display, at every level of cabinet, and the wider party, and the European Research Group in particular, that bizarre parasitic organism within its withered parliamentary host. Some clichés are well-worn for a reason. The injunction that states you should resist attributing to malice that which might be sufficiently explained by stupidity is one such canard. When we see prominent ministers misunderstanding not just the mechanics of trade, and the finer points of EU regulations, but what trade deals are and why they exist, it’s not particularly credible to read them as the scent away from more evil manoeuvrings. It’s a similar story when the Tory commentariat spend their skiing holidays referring, en masse, to frictionless borders in Switzerland, Norway or France – all treatied, regulated and trade-dealed within an inch of their span – as good bellwethers for the success of a hypothetical No-Deal border with Ireland, since WTO rules will deprive the latter of even the lubrication necessary to allow grazing cattle to pass without sight of rifle scope.
But there is also something seductive about lampooning the farce of Brexit on its most visible plane. Who hasn’t looked at Theresa May and detected someone who has surely never tickled a baby without filling out the requisite forms? Who has caught sight of Michael Gove’s puckered maw and not discerned some kinship with a grim salaryman sex doll, retrieved from a van fire? Who can resist judging Boris Johnson on the surface-level affect he has so dutifully contrived for our delectation; the thistle-thatched lexicant, fumbling his way through a rumble-tumble chain of greasy prevarications. This practice, what might be termed the Have I Got News For You-ification of political discourse, is a balm in troubled times but, like Prendergast’s Wig, it misses the point of the thing.
‘I expect they’d laugh at something else if it wasn’t that’
counsels Decline & Fall’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather, in the very the next line to that section quoted by Mr Scargill.
Yes, no doubt they would. I dare say it’s a good thing to localise their ridicule as far as possible’
Here we begin to see the problem with lambasting a ruling class, any ruling class, as incompetent rascals stumbling in good faith. A wig can be a fig leaf for an embarrassed, bald old coot, but it can also be a lightning rod, designed to aggregate ridicule into a single, digestible form. Nowhere is this process, and the paucity of our response to it, more present than in the singularly meme-worthy Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg may as well have been summoned into being through a black mass held over Waugh’s collected works. From his ludicrous name and chipped-pewter diction, to his seat in North East Somerset, where Waugh himself took station in his later years, the comparisons present themselves so readily as to weary even the most uninspired hack. Like Waugh, Rees-Mogg’s history of Britain is one shorn of messy bits, of messy people. Waugh’s is a Britain that fought the French and Germans and had an awfully rum way of talking about the lower orders here and there, but seemed curiously amnesiac regarding, say, the Industrial Revolution, slave trade, or Irish Famine. As in his own life, Waugh’s fiction presents the lower orders as something best avoided for narrative purposes, a fact which becomes painfully obvious in those instances when he tries regardless, leaving some bastardised form of scullery pantomime in the place where working-class speech might otherwise have been.
Waugh’s novels, abound with strange, unfeeling toffs, whose foibles are picked apart and emphasised, while never landing a killer blow. Rees-Mogg sails above and beyond even the hoariest old caricature in Waugh’s catalogue. This is a man who considers Boer War concentration camps to have been a necessary benevolence, who opposes abortion and yet profits from it through his vast, unaccountable overseas investment funds, and who finds the swelling ranks of food banks currently feeding millions of England’s poor a ‘rather uplifting’ sort of a thing.
Waugh’s satirical abuse of England’s aristocracy was couched always within a greater overweening fondness for its achievements, and a reluctance to examine its evils. His more scabrous mentions of his contemporaries seem always less motivated by their deeds than by personal animus, notable for the many hatchet jobs he performed on peers, classmates and former colleagues he caricatured in his works, most notably his public disdain for ‘that radio personality’ Winston Churchill, who he described as a ‘master of sham-Augustan prose’. His love of Empire and its works was, however, undimmed. England was, you see, an unlikely nation to rule the world, but by Jove they bally well did it, even if there were some awfully rum coves among her number. Rees-Mogg’s case is similar, but without even the meagre count of rotten apples Waugh allows, a nation of plucky under-dogs, luxuriating in a past of prestige without regret, her problems ascribable to moral decay from within, or the influence of foreign tormentors, be they European, Irish, or huddled little children, shivering in dinghies on a gunboat-peppered sea. Rees-Mogg’s rhetoric sells Brexit as a lurch back to a sepia-tinted hinterland of tweedy, double-barrelled paradise. By selling the Union flag without the stains upon it, he can, as the Tamils put it, have the moustache and drink the soup as well.
This brand of imperial apologia is an easy sell, both to people who believe it, and those who, like him, care little either way, but recognise its utility as a vehicle for carrying out the sort of truly evil deeds Waugh’s brand of satire is singularly maladroit to address; dismantling public services, rescinding environmental protections and withering to the bone industrial regulations that create a society for the other 99% of life’s protagonists. In response, we call him a haunted pencil, and write endlessly florid takedowns of the live-in nanny we know of precisely because he’s mentioned her himself at every available opportunity. The lesson is that nothing of meaning can be done to counter these evils, beyond a few jokey remarks and self-satisfied ad hominem attacks. Like in Waugh’s work, a fundamental complacency toward the vulnerable becomes, in practice, indistinguishable from nihilism. Those who suffer most from his policies just need to know that he has a funny name, face and voice. His racial scaremongering, environmental catastrophism and sincere desire to uncouple millions from the protections of the welfare state, all become shrouded in a protective layer of pantomime ridiculousness that casts him not as the reptile he is, but just one more rogue in Waugh’s gallery of colourful bastards.
Social reformer William Beveridge once told Waugh he took pleasure in life from ‘trying to leave the world a better place than I found it’.
‘I get mine spreading alarm and despondency’ replied Waugh, ‘and I get more satisfaction than you do’.
The risk of The Tories’ Prendergast Wig is that it is the same class of despondent alarm, using the performative absurdities of its architects, to draw only the sort of laughter which begets bitter complacency. To reflect on May’s rigid monomania, or Johnson’s wordiness, or Mogg’s self-conscious affectations, is to let their dead-eyed ruse pass without censure, so they can project us into a desolate future on the promise of a fictional past.
Sir Ambrose’s sardonic appraisal of his homeland is correct. England should never be considered an underdog. But Rees-Mogg and his nihilistic cadre of levellers are also right to say she is a victim, but not to the Europeans, or the 21st Century. England is a victim to nothing but the poisonous scratching of their preying claws, but she is a victim nonetheless.
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