Watching the Emmys, where the major awards went to the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I was struck by contrasts between the reactions in the United States and Britain to the dystopian realities into which the two countries entered last year – the election of Donald Trump as US President and the UK’s xenophobic descent into darkness a few months before with the vote for Brexit.
The first contrast is the role of the media. At the Emmys there was relentless goading of Trump. Television talk show hosts such as John Oliver regularly ridicule the president. The Washington Post has inserted on its masthead the banner headline “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The New York Times explicitly sees itself as the Fourth Estate incarnate, calling power to account and exposing the lies and fabrications of the country’s leadership.
In the UK this is largely absent. The hapless May, the buffoon Johnson and the sinister Farage may together not threaten world peace as much as Trump, but they are each ridiculous in their own way, and one would have expected the long British tradition of political satire to have totally captured the three by now. There seems, however, to be a strange deference nowadays. As for most of the main newspapers, here too the UK falls short: the traditional Tory newspapers, including the Murdoch stable, all continue driving along the Brexit path with unquestioning enthusiasm.
Dystopian novels can be classified into two types: those by Atwood herself, as well as by Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham and Yevgeny Zamyatin; in these there is at least the possibility of escape. The end of the book is typically a retrospective as to how the dystopian state fell, or focuses on an individual or band of rebels on their way to challenge the establishment, with an implication that in the end, against the odds, things will come right. The other type of dystopian novel offers no such hope. For George Orwell, there is no escape: in Animal Farm all the animals in the end look-alike, and in 1984 the hero finally realizes that he too loves Big Brother.
The US is clearly the first form of dystopia. There is an atmosphere of defiance: there are flags calling out “Resist” from houses in quiet suburbs; there are little signs in windows and gardens saying “Welcome neighbor: we are happy you are here, wherever you have come from” in a number of languages, including Spanish and Arabic; and shops display signs saying “Hate has no place here”. More practically, perhaps, there is detailed research into how to get rid of Trump. It is by now well-known that there are two main ways to force Trump out of office: impeachment, or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, under which a combination of physicians, cabinet members and the Vice President could declare him unfit for office. Meanwhile, a Special Prosecutor is likely soon to bring indictments to members of Trump’s entourage.
In Britain, there are far fewer constraints to pulling the country away from the cliff edge. The House of Commons could one afternoon pass a vote of no confidence in the May government; a sensible government could take over, and by the next weekend we could be starting to get the Brexit nightmare behind us.
Why is this not occurring? Britain is a parliamentary democracy, and the majority of MPs do not want to Brexit—certainly not in the form that the immigration-obsessed Prime Minister seems to be heading for. We are thus in an Orwellian dystopia—there was a one-off vote, and there is now no escape: the UK is bound forever. But Brexit is a policy choice, made at a point in time, under flawed conditions (fake facts and the exclusion of parts of the UK citizenry from the vote), and reversible in real-time. The government has had almost 18 months to come up with a Brexit plan, but has abjectly failed. The government has fluffed the easiest pre-question, granting reciprocal rights to UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens here, and will not be able to find a solution to the issue of patrolling the 350 mile land border with the Republic of Ireland. Increasing disarray is in prospect.
In Orwellian double-think, it is those who are calling for a change of Prime Minister and a second referendum who are being vilified as anti-democrats. Those who reject calls for a second referendum claim they are following the “will of the people”. They threaten that if MPs stand in the way of Brexit, “the people” will not stand for it.
The further Orwellian double-think is to assert that the Brexit referendum victory, based on deeply nostalgic and xenophobic misinformation, was an opportunity for Britain to show it is “open to the world”. The evidence? That Britain aims to negotiate trade treaties with all potential trading partners—a feeble apologia, since most will be based on pre-existing or potential EU models.
The Brexiteers, who assert that there is no escape from Brexit, are evidently frightened that they would lose a second referendum—when people will have seen the government’s boastfulness hit international reality, and when more young people have joined the electorate, replacing the older ones who gave the Brexiteers their victory in the first referendum.
We are not necessarily in an Orwellian nightmare; there is still escape from the Brave New World. Brexit need not happen: but the longer one leaves it before turning the ship of state around, the more costly this whole episode will be shown to have been.