Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, 2019
In a week in which the UK’s new Boris Johnson (Conservative) government has faced unprecedented and well-deserved trials at the hands of Britain’s parliament, these seem to be topsy-turvy times.
Personally, I can only hope for my children’s sake that Johnson’s specious tactics to enforce Brexit will lead to his downfall. The realignment this week of Italian politics with a new governmental coalition between the 5-Star movement and the Democratic Party may be a harbinger of things to come in Britain. By small steps, populism and nationalism are being reined in. As I write this, my chance meeting with my old lawyer on Corfu, now Greece’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicos Dendias, has lingered in my mind. Greece’s new Mitsotakis government, this genial politician cheerily told me, was Europe’s first post-populist government. He added: after all the ill-conceived shenanigans, it was time to pursue a sound way forward.
As I tuned into the coverage of the UK parliament, Dendias’s optimism came back to me many times. Concurrently I voraciously consumed Jonathan Coe’s magisterial (and gripping) new novel, Middle England, about the impact of Brexit on generations of middle class English from the Midlands. Coe cleverly interweaves the lives of my generation with its privileges gained from pre-1979, with the uncomfortable challenges faced by our children’s generation in the age of austerity and political correctitude.
Coe grasps the deep divisions in British society as well as the dispiriting impact of austerity since 2010. He grasps, too, England’s rich traditions and how these are being fraudulently hijacked by the prejudices of the Brexiteers. Most of all, he grasps the colossal human transformations we have witnessed – illustrated in the novel by the loss of a car industry at Longbridge to the making of a progressive Britain that owes a good deal to the hard work and creative contribution made by immigrants.
This human story even includes a walk-on part for Boris Johnson. There’s no question he might do well to read Coe’s book to understand something that comes through clearly and Johnson never mentions. It is our children’s (and student’s) generation who will have to deal with Brexit if it happens. They don’t deserve this any more than my generation deserved the opportunities we unexpectedly had. Now Johnson’s younger brother has resigned his ministerial post in Johnson’s administration, one can only wonder what the rest of his family think – especially, in the light of Coe’s novel, his children.
Like Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who studied at the LSE, I remain baffled and angry about Brexit, and yet, Middle England reinforces my refusal to give up the hope that this populist malaise in Britain will pass, as it is beginning to pass in the Mediterranean.