When it comes to spy stories, I usually prefer films over novels, and when I occasionally make an exception, I dip into the worlds of John Le Carré. This time not because it was a spy story, but because it was a Brexit story. Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in 2019, capturing that heady time period after the European Referendum of 2016 but before the withdrawal agreement was signed and enacted upon at the end of 2020.
In this spy caper, one of the main British characters declares, ‘It is my considered opinion, that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.’ Familiar? Yes, it sounds as if paraphrased from the actual comments of many remainers, famous and not-so-famous, the banter in local pubs and in the many rallies and marches at the time.
So, too are these gems from the mouths of British characters in Le Carré’s novel: ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.’ And, ‘I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. Things that were wrong with Europe could be changed from inside Europe.’
One of the Russian-born characters embodies the view from outside the UK when he says, ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?’ ‘Tell me.’ ‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.”
For me, this spy story was more interesting for its background than for its foreground. It presented a nostalgia of sorts. Not a rose-tinted view of the recent past, which was stressful in its 24/7 argumentative mode while trying to stop the march off the cliff. This nostalgia rests in a time when like-minded people were talking about how this referendum happened and the immediate impact of the results. These were stories told and opinions laid bare that are now well cemented into the past.
What are the stories we are living in now? Some one hundred days ago the transition period ended and Britain officially left the EU. The European Movement has produced a report organised around the personal narratives of ten people whose lives have been affected by Brexit. To no surprise, the mini stories come from a farmer, a small business owner, a fisherman, a professional musician, a teacher, a refugee and an EU citizen trying to gain their ‘settled status’ in the UK, along with a few stories that are less personal, but still poignant – a professor speaking about the recent violence in Northern Ireland and a climate activist and a human rights campaigner both mapping out the current struggles Britain faces going it alone.
I’ve been reading and watching similar stories in the British media, but not as leading stories – these are sometimes stuffed in the middle, reduced to a ‘human interest’ or regional status. Since the beginning of the year – the start of the official Brexit – the pandemic, the riots at the US Capitol, the start of the Biden years and other stories have butted the Brexit fallout from public discourse. This moratorium on Brexit talk has been helped in the UK by politicians of all stripes not willing to enter into this contentious topic again.
I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for another popular writer of fiction, spy novelist or other, to write the truths of this time.