Politics at the Hay-on-Wye Festival 2019

Adam Somerset reviews Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire and reflects on a discussion about the book at this year’s Hay Festival

The Hay Festival is over. Politics featured heavily at this 32nd spring event. It is normally a bucolic place, where good humour runs high. Wales Arts Review was present to record a new and unusual flavour in 2019, the occasion was a discussion on the constitution between Professor Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew d’Ancona:  


‘Rarely have I heard such hostility levelled between audience members in a talk at Hay”, wrote Emma Schofield “visible anger, heckling, squabbles breaking out across the venue and a palpable atmosphere of discontent on both sides of the debate characterised what became a slightly uncomfortable demonstration of exactly why it is so difficult to find a path forward from this political quagmire.’


I was present a few days earlier, 27 May, to hear a geographer and an educationalist. The audience was more like-minded and they went down well. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, both at Oxford University, are authors of Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire. Their book opens a new dimension to the Everest of commentary that has flooded public discourse since that guillotine night of June 23 2016.


The two speakers have a point. There have been more claims on history for legitimation in the last six months than in the last half-century. In South London the posters for Remain were illustrated with a pugnacious-looking Winston Churchill and the strap-line “Brits don’t quit.” Ann Widdecombe declaimed to a packed hall in Newport on April 30 “if we had been governed by this lot then we would have thrown in the towel after Dunkirk.”


The Dorling-Tomlinson book has a theme; 2016 onward has been the last spasm of imperial memory. The sociology of the divide has been little aired. With occasional exceptions, Michael Gove a notable instance, one side is overwhelmingly powered by the former pupils of public schools. This extends to the leader’s office in the Labour Party, most commentators characterising Seumas Milne as a lifelong arch-outer.


But this is not the narrative that has been popularised. Even loyal BBC reporters sigh at yet another visit to Mansfield or Spalding or Doncaster at the expense of the southern shires of England. The direction of narrative was established early. John Lanchester, a strong writer, was in the London Review of Books in July 2016. The vote, he said, was driven those feeling an ‘irreversible lifelong defeat’, victory the expression of women and men in coalfield towns and faded seaside resorts.


Victory in politics is coalition. The east spoke, but Dorling and Tomlinson correct the picture. The old determined the outcome and it is simple demography. They live in the south and their numbers are in the millions.


In truth their joint book has not been reviewed particularly well. ‘Their one-track moralism is great fun. But too much of it is hackneyed and unnecessary. Their rage at our anachronistic institutions and the “homogenised and corrupt elite” they perpetuate is justified but seldom controlled. They soon run out of actual evil and start tilting at windmills. One chapter consists almost entirely of Wikipedian descriptions of every member of Theresa May’s first cabinet and their misdemeanours.’


It is true that Alun Cairns should not have described Italians as ‘greasy wops’ on a local radio show but it was 11 years ago. In conclusion ‘this is a book that trades not in careful, thoughtful analysis, but in caricature and demonisation … The facts do not seem to matter to Dorling and Tomlinson, because they are so determined to think the worst of Brexit voters. They are even prepared to weaponise an issue as important as racism in order to misrepresent the attitudes and views of the vast majority of British citizens. At times, this misrepresentation descends into farce.’


But an event at Hay is not a book but an interaction, from a stage, between speakers and audience. The live event has elements that reveal. Dorling’s graphics of geography and sociology are dense and informative. By chance his own primary school was located one to the east of that attended by Theresa May.  


A voice from the audience belongs to a former BBC employee. She points to the proud tradition of balance that has been maintained. I am broadly in agreement. But the questing voices, like Tim Harford dealing with Patrick Minford, have been hidden away on Radio 4. Dorling does not like the media’s coverage. Nor does the audience as a whole judging from the rumble of sound. In the press tent later I meet a BBC correspondent from Hereford. The editorial climate, she says, has never been so testing.


I throw in my own question to the authors as to their view of the future of the other Union, the one that is ours. The separation of Scotland they take for granted and so too the eventual joining of the two Irelands. And here the media has been slack in its questioning. ‘Take control of our borders’ worked. But A cannot be not -A, runs a first lesson in logic. The border in Ireland cannot be closed. Cameras that attempt to photograph vehicles will be destroyed. The military will never return.


Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion, was at the International Politics Department in Aberystwyth on 16th May to speak, with eloquence, about the view from the backbenches. His education is in history. For three hundred years, he reminds his audience, foreign policy has grappled with two primary issues. The first is the governance of Ireland and the second Britain’s role within the powers of continental Europe. It has taken a rare genius, or sheer bad luck of historical circumstance, to merge the two.  


History is eternal recurrence. Churchill. Secretary of State for the Colonies, addressed the House of Commons in 1922 with ‘It says a great deal for the power which Ireland has, both nationalist and orange, to lay their hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics, and to hold, dominate, and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country.’ 97 years later Sir David Cannadine appeared on Radio 4’s Analysis on 26th February. ‘The particular issue over which it may well be that Brexit will founder’, he said, ‘is that the Irish Question is back, so that it is in its way the perfect storm, and unravelling the perfect storm, if that is what you can do to perfect storms, is clearly going to be exceptionally difficult.’


The candidates for the highest office from next week onward ought, and need, to be asked the questions that matter.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer

Adam Somerset is a Welsh critic. “Brits Don't Quit” features in Adam Somerset's book, a journey through the year 2016, “Between the Boundaries” (Parthian Books).

Also within Politics and Policy