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Questioning Brexit through Arts
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“Insular hobbits”? Englishness, Euroscepticism and the Brexit vote in Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018)

« Insular hobbits » ? Anglicité, Euroscepticisme et le vote du Brexit dans Middle England de Jonathan Coe (2018)
Guillaume Clément

Résumés

Dans Le Coeur de l’Angleterre (2018), le romancier Jonathan Coe revisite quelques événements du passé récent au Royaume Uni afin d’identifier certains des facteurs ayant pu mener au Brexit et de souligner les divisions politiques grandissantes au sein de la population. Ce roman satirique évoque, entre autres, plusieurs représentations contemporaines de la britannicité dans les médias et la culture populaire, comme la cérémonie d’ouverture des Jeux Olympiques de Londres en 2012, et le portrait quelque peu stéréotypé et anglocentrique qu’elle dressa de l’identité britannique. De tels clichés se rapprochent plus de la vision d’une britannicité mythique (parfois décrite par le terme Deep England) n’ayant guère de rapport avec la réalité actuelle du Royaume Uni. De plus, cette image figée et parfois passéiste de l’identité nationale a pu permettre d’alimenter le discours eurosceptique et d’influencer certains électeurs anglais conservateurs dans le cadre du référendum sur l’appartenance du Royaume Uni à l’Union Européenne en 2016.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!, London: Viking, 1994.
  • 2 Jonathan Coe, The Rotters’ Club, London: Viking, 2001.
  • 3 Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle, London: Viking, 2004.
  • 4 Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, London: Chapman & Hall, 1854.
  • 5 Julian Barnes, England, England, London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.
  • 6 Ali Smith, Autumn, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016 ‒ followed by Winter (2017), Spring (2019) and Sum (...)
  • 7 Anthony Cartwright, The Cut, London: Pereine Press, 2017.

1While Brexit can be studied from a variety of academic perspectives, starting with political science, sociology or economics, many shrewd observations might very well be drawn from the field of literature thanks to novelists who have sought to combine the reality of Brexit with their own fictional endeavours. Chief among these writers might be Jonathan Coe, the Birmingham-born author known for his satirical novels, especially since What A Carve Up!1 and its scathing take on the Thatcher years. Coe’s trademark blend of comedy and politics has become best illustrated by his recently completed trilogy of novels following the lives of a group of friends from a Birmingham school since their childhood in the recession-hit 1970s (The Rotters’ Club),2 through to the Blair years (The Closed Circle),3 and on to the Brexit referendum (Middle England). His approach throughout this trilogy reminds one of other famous novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854),4 which commented on the interactions between London and the rest of England. As a result, Coe has come to be known as a writer with a penchant for a specific brand of socio-political commentary which has long been part of English literature, recalling, for instance, Julian Barnes’s observations on the state of Englishness in his 1998 novel, England, England.5 However, Coe’s Middle England also appears in line with a very recent trend in British literature ‒ occasionally referred to as “Brexlit” or post-Brexit literature ‒ with a string of novelists who have appeared keen on weaving Brexit into their narratives, like Ali Smith’s ongoing quartet of ‘seasonal’ novels following Autumn (2016),6 or Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut (2017).7

2It seems Coe’s purpose when writing Middle England was to create a state-of-the-nation novel in the age of Brexit, more particularly to paint the picture of a deeply divided country whose polarised opinions were embodied by several characters involved in various strata of society and politics, and who face difficult personal or professional situations in the run-up to the EU membership referendum. Each plot line can thus be seen as a different way to account for the Brexit vote or to come to terms with it. In that respect, the choice of the novel’s title is deeply relevant as it draws the reader’s attention to the question of national identity, more particularly to that of Englishness, rather than Britishness.

  • 8 Jonathan Coe, Middle England, London: Penguin, 2018, 202.

3A key moment in the novel is the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony, a much-anticipated event which is seen through the eyes of several characters who are watching it on television and responding quite favourably to it, with varying degrees of patriotism. Later on, one of the novel’s secondary characters, an academic called Sohan, takes a professional interest in this ceremony and its representations of the concept of Englishness through the notion of “Deep England”, as a “pastoral idyll populated with doughty, insular hobbits, prone to complacence when left to their own devices but fierce when roused.”8

4While Coe’s humorous observation remains part of a work of fiction, the predominance of English culture within Britishness appears as a striking feature of recent years. It has duly translated into a political phenomenon, as made clearly visible by the striking differences in the 2016 referendum’s results between England and Scotland or Northern Ireland. An analysis of the commonly identified reasons for the pro-Brexit vote points towards traditional Eurosceptic tropes related to national sovereignty and a hostile view of the EU, but also indicates that some of the Leave campaign’s most compelling arguments relied on a very specific view of national identity.

5Drawing from Sohan’s unfulfilled fictional research project in Middle England, this paper aims at highlighting how Brexit is a deeply English decision, not only as electoral statistics suggest, but also insofar as Englishness has often subsumed Britishness, and was in turn reduced to the myths of the “Deep England” concept, particularly in Eurosceptic rhetoric.

Brexit: a very English decision?

6On June 24th, 2016, most newspapers in Britain – and indeed around the world – featured a map of the United Kingdom which bore the unmistakable signs of a political divide along clear geographical lines. This map presented the results of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, which had been held on the previous day, and highlighted a stark contrast between the votes of people in England and Wales with a clear majority of Leave votes (respectively 53.4% and 52.5%) while a preponderance of Remain votes dominated the landscape in Northern Ireland (55.8%) and Scotland (62%).9 Such figures underline extremely different attitudes towards the question of European Union membership which have been quite extensively debated since. Nevertheless, a look at the results at the constituency level will help establish a clearer picture beyond the popular vote figures per nation.10

7The overwhelming majority of voting areas in England (247 out of 327) voted to leave the EU – mostly in rural areas and smaller towns – as opposed to a mere eighty where the Remain vote prevailed, most of which were concentrated in London, the South East and several large English cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, and Brighton, for instance). In Scotland, the results were completely at odds with those seen in England, since all 32 Scottish voting areas voted in favour of remaining in the EU. The situation was more complex and divided in Northern Ireland (7 Leave areas and 11 Remain areas) and in Wales (17 in favour of Leave and 5 in favour of Remain).

  • 11 Sofia Vasilopoulou, “UK Euroscepticism and the Brexit Referendum”, The Political Quarterly, Volume (...)
  • 12 Sascha O Becker, Thiemo Fetzer, Dennis Novy, “Who voted for Brexit? A comprehensive district-level (...)

8Further analysis reveals that the constituencies with the highest shares of the Leave vote were all situated in the East of England (Boston, South Holland, Thurrock, Castle Point and Great Yarmouth all have more than 70% Leave votes), while the top Remain constituencies (with the exception of Gibraltar, where 95% of voters opted for Remain) were all in London, for instance in Hackney and Lambeth, with as much as 75% Remain votes. Therefore, by ‘zooming in’ on the results map, one can establish several layers of division throughout the electoral landscape established by the referendum. The UK appears as a country divided along regional lines, with a clear majority of Remain votes in Scotland and the opposite in England, which also appears as a very fragmented nation itself, since both the most staunchly pro-Leave and pro-Remain areas can be found there. While it is not the object of this paper to delve deeply in the sociological reasons for these results, some scholars have offered their own interpretation of the Leave vote in some parts of the UK. Sofia Vasilopoulou posited that the Leave campaign sought to “focus on rational utilitarian arguments about the costs and benefits” of EU membership.11 A more sociological approach was adopted by Sascha Backer, Thiemo Fetzer and Dennis Novy, who suggested that “fundamental characteristics of the voting population were key drivers of the Vote Leave share, in particular their education profiles, their historical dependence on manufacturing employment as well as low income and high unemployment. At the much finer level of wards within cities [...] areas with deprivation in terms of education, income and employment were more likely to vote Leave.”12 Rather than thinking in broad terms of national trends within the vote, this “finer level” approach recommended by the authors provides a way to paint a more complex picture of the referendum vote in England.

“Middle England” as the middle ground of Brexit politics?

9While regional tendencies could be identified, namely in the pro-Leave areas of Eastern England and the pro-Remain districts of the South-East, some constituencies do not seem to fit in any particular mould, a case in point being the West Midlands. While early analysis pointed to a majority of Remain votes in most major cities, in Birmingham the vote was split almost evenly between the two sides, with 50.4% voting to leave the European Union, as opposed to 39.6% in Manchester or 41.8% in Liverpool – two cities of a comparable size.13 A quick glance at the results per voting region reveals that the share of the Leave vote in the West Midlands, encompassing Birmingham’s urban area and nearby rural counties, reached almost 60%.

10Birmingham’s status as a relative exception amongst English cities could be explained by looking at the very factors identified by Backer et al. in their study in terms of education, unemployment and income, but it should also be said that, generally speaking, the Conservative party seems to have been favourably seen in the region in recent years, as evidenced by Andy Street’s victory in the first West Midlands Metro mayoral elections in 2017, while the mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region (Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham) are Labour members. The region of the West Midlands therefore provides an interesting place to study the factors leading to the Brexit vote, since it is an area of sociological and political diversity.

  • 14 “I’ve lived in London for 30 years but I feel you can’t write a novel about contemporary England an (...)
  • 15 Quoted in Barney Pite, “Provincialism and Middle England - An interview with Jonathan Coe”, Cherwel (...)

11It is therefore not a coincidence for a novelist and shrewd political commentator like Jonathan Coe to choose the Midlands as the backdrop for his state-of-the-nation novel set in the age of Brexit. Of course, Coe is a Brummie himself and had already set several of his previous novels in or around Birmingham, not least the trilogy he had begun with The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. While some of the action in his novel does take place in other locations like London or even France, one could expect a novel about the emergence of the Brexit vote to have been set in a more predominantly pro-Leave region like the East of England, but that was not the case. Since Coe’s rationale was to present the features of a deeply divided nation, the West Midlands offered an appropriate setting not only to show both sides of the argument but also to paint a more complex picture of contemporary Britain beyond London. This point was highlighted by Coe himself in various interviews,14 more particularly about the need for balance between scenes set in London and in Birmingham: “That tug between the first and second city is felt very strongly in the book and gives it a lot of its tension. It’s a huge subject, and the referendum has shown that. The referendum was a provincial vote.”15

  • 16 David Cannadine, Class in Britain, London: Penguin, 1998, viii
  • 17 Stuart Maconie, Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England, London: Ebury Press, 2009 (...)
  • 18 George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English genius. London: Penguin, 1998.

12Readers are therefore invited to appreciate the novel’s title as a pun on multiple levels. “Middle England” can of course be construed as a synonym for the Midlands, which are, in geographical terms, in the “middle” of the country, halfway between north and south. In addition, Birmingham voters in the referendum seemed equally split between the Leave and Remain votes, hereby signalling another “middle” ground between ideological poles. Above all, the phrase “Middle England” is rooted in the political sociology of the United Kingdom, as a reference to middle-class English voters who tend to express an attachment to a traditional view of English identity and conservative politics. According to David Cannadine, “Middle England” does not necessarily refer to any tangible geographical, sociological reality, but may be a largely rhetorical construct coined by Margaret Thatcher to mirror Ronald Reagan’s concept of “Middle America.”16 Journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie concurred with this view of Middle England as an elusive, shifting concept: “Depending on how you say it, it can mean entirely different things. Said with a snort and a roll of the eyes [...] it means stifling conservatism, the Daily Mail and bringing back the birch. Said with a swell of pride and a raised glass of warm flat beer in a saloon bar in the Shires, though, it means tradition, dependability, decency, the pleasing swish not of birch on buttock but of willow on leather. All this and, of course [...] those famous spinsters cycling to evensong.”17 This latter part of the quote refers to a speech given by John Major in 1993 before the Conservative Group for Europe, during which he famously quoted part of George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn18 to give a very traditional (and English) definition of Britain in the 1990s (“the country of old maids cycling to Holy Communion, long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs”), hereby confirming very strong links between Middle England voters and the Conservative party.

13As a result, while factors linked to voters’ geographical and sociological origins undeniably played a part in electoral choices in the 2016 referendum, a level which has been perhaps neglected in some analyses is the role of Englishness and the vision of national identity among voters, as Coe suggests in his novel.

Englishness, Britishness and Brexit

  • 19 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (1707-1837), New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, 6.
  • 20 “Population estimates for the UK: mid-2018”, Office for National Statistics, June 2019, <https://ww (...)

14A logical continuation of the argument according to which Brexit might be a very English – rather than British – decision consists in taking the reasoning further on the path of identity politics and to say that some of the reasons for the Leave vote originated in key features of Englishness. The question of national identity in the United Kingdom has been quite problematic ever since the Acts of Union of the 18th century, with the creation of a British identity as a theoretical patchwork of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish identities. Linda Colley’s history of the “forging” of the United Kingdom as a nation emphasizes that “Great Britain did not emerge by way of a ‘blending’ of the different regional or older national cultures contained within its boundaries [...]. Instead, Britishness was superimposed over an array of internal differences.”19 But since England makes up for more than 84% of the population of the UK,20 “English” and “British” are often used as near-synonyms to the detriment of the Celtic nations. Since the fragmentation of the Brexit vote in the UK has highlighted the existence of very different political philosophies across the British Isles, the question of the power struggles between Englishness and other forms of national identity in the United Kingdom requires further exploration as it might have been one of the factors leading to Britain’s exit from the European Union.

  • 21 “How the UK voted on Brexit and why -- a refresher”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 4 February 2019, <https:/ (...)
  • 22 Adapted from the framework created by Luis Moreno in his comparative study of dual national identit (...)

15This argument could be backed by examining the shares of the Remain and Leave votes amongst different categories of the population divided according to their perception of their own national identity. A recent poll21 achieved such results by adapting the “Moreno question”22 to British voters, that is to say by asking them whether they felt more English or British, and by then asking them how they voted in the Brexit referendum, which the following table indicates:

National identity

Remain %

Leave %

English but not British

21

79

More English than British

34

66

Equally English and British

49

51

More British than English

63

37

British but not English

60

40

16This poll reveals that nearly 80% of people who identified as “English but not British” voted to leave the European Union, as opposed to only 40% of those who identified as “British, but not English.” Overall, the study confirms that voters who feel predominantly English sided overwhelmingly with the Leave campaign, and that the exact opposite can be observed among voters who feel more British. In other words, Brexit could be described as an English response to English socio-political problems most fully perceived and experienced by English people, but the link between Brexit and the politics of identity goes beyond the question of nationalism and arguably extends as far as gender and masculinity, at the very least in the scope of Middle England’s narrative.

English masculinity and Brexit: a case study in fiction – and facts

17The events covered by Middle England, both fictional and real, span the course of eight years, between 2010 and 2018. Most of the early chapters in the novel help present characters and hint at the seeds of Euroscepticism sown throughout various parts of English society. The choice of the year 2010 seems relevant since it clearly corresponds to the end of an era – the year when Gordon Brown’s Labour party lost in the general election after 13 years of Labour rule, and was replaced by a coalition government between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Going as far back as 2010 thus allows Coe to include in the novel’s contextual elements the early days of the austerity policies, but also the 2011 riots which affect some of the book’s characters, and of course the London 2012 Olympics – all of which could therefore be considered to have played a part in the events leading to Brexit in accordance with their potential impact on society.

  • 23 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 2018, 52.
  • 24 Nick Growse, “The Reluctant Patriarch: The Emergence of Lads and Lad Mags in the 1990s”, InMedia, (...)

18For instance, one of the main characters, Sophie, meets a man named Ian and spends the night at his apartment. As a young academic herself, Sophie naturally examines Ian’s bookshelf the next morning, only to find that he owns only a dozen books (mostly sportsmen’s biographies) and copies of Stuff, a magazine primarily featuring reviews of the latest high-tech digital devices and, for some reason, pictures of scantily clad women.23 Later in the book, Sophie marries Ian but they suffer a falling-out over the question of Brexit, the former voting Remain and the latter voting Leave. Through this early depiction of a character like Ian, Coe draws a connection between the Leave vote and the stereotypical brand of English masculinity embodied by Ian: an offshoot of lad culture which pervaded the early 2000s, with the casualisation of so-called lads’ magazines24 like Loaded, FHM, Nuts, Zoo and Stuff.

  • 25 The last episode hosted by Clarkson in 2015 drew more than 5 million viewers and the show is listed (...)
  • 26 Clarkson and Top Gear co-host James May appeared on a campaign video for the “Stronger In” campaign (...)
  • 27 Jeremy Clarkson, The World According to Clarkson, London: Penguin, 2004. As of 2020, the “World acc (...)
  • 28 Jeremy Clarkson, “Health and Safety and the Death of Television”, The Sunday Times, 11 April 2004, (...)
  • 29 Phil Churchward, Top Gear, Series 17, Episode 1, BBC Two, 26 June 2011.

19The early 2000s were also marked by the very successful reboot of a BBC motoring programme called Top Gear, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, who came to be connected – though unwittingly perhaps – to this type of English masculinity. Top Gear rose to prominence in the United Kingdom and became one of the BBC’s top exports25 thanks to its reviews of high-end supercars, humorous challenges, mild male chauvinism, and, occasionally, slight political commentary. Though Clarkson declared himself as a Remainer prior to the referendum,26 he had been closely connected to conservative politics (as a friend of David Cameron’s), making his views known in columns in The Sun and The Sunday Times, and disseminated thanks to his best-selling collections of articles published as paperbacks27 – to the point that it would not be surprising to find them on Ian’s sparse bookshelf. A polarising figure like Clarkson should certainly not be underestimated as having popularised a certain brand of masculinity, Britishness and conservatism which could have influenced voters. For instance, Jeremy Clarkson often lamented the constraints imposed by the Health and Safety Executive28 but the broadcaster’s politics extended to the question of patriotism and national identity as well. Among many examples, an episode of Top Gear broadcast on BBC Two in 201129 concluded with a tribute to the Jaguar E-Type, filmed near the White Cliffs of Dover with paratroopers displaying Union Jacks on their parachutes and a military marching band playing the song “Jerusalem”, whilst Clarkson proudly delivered a monologue comparing the E-Type to other national icons. While such a collection of clichés were undoubtedly put together for comedic effect in a programme sold internationally, it is difficult not to consider that Clarkson was toying with the same symbols of Britishness that had been associated with conservative, and even Eurosceptic, discourse.

The 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony: a celebration of Englishness?

  • 30 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 131.
  • 31 The entire ceremony is available on the Olympic Committee’s official YouTube Channel: “The Complete (...)

20One of the key passages in Middle England takes place when all the main characters are depicted watching the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on television. In the scope of the novel’s narrative, the position of this chapter, at the very end of the first part (entitled “Merrie England”), leads the reader to believe that this particular event may have played a crucial part in the build-up towards the EU membership referendum. In the aim of emphasizing the sense of community, patriotism, and shared experience, Coe structured this particular chapter in a polyphonic way, with each character sharing their reaction to the events unfolding on television. A key sentence seems to define the viewpoint shared by many viewers (both fictional and in real life) in the days leading to the ceremony: “Like Sophie, Doug had approached the opening ceremony in a mood of scepticism. Like her, he watched it with a mounting sense of admiration that was soon bordering on awe”.30 Four years after the spectacular opening ceremony in Beijing, and in the context of widespread criticism levelled at the spiralling cost of the Games, part of the British public could indeed have been expected to anticipate the event in disbelief. Nevertheless, audiences quickly became engrossed with the astonishing display put together by film director Danny Boyle, who was already known for his contribution to British film history, with the critical and commercial success of Trainspotting (1996) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Boyle directed the four-hour ceremony,31 which was divided into several sections meant to reflect Britain’s history, originating in a rural idyll (“Green and Pleasant Land”, a title taken from the song “Jerusalem”, which is often considered to be England’s unofficial anthem), then ushering in the industrial revolution (“Pandemonium”). Later on, different sections paid tribute to the creation of the National Health Service and to the country’s popular culture (children’s literature, cinema, television and music).

21While the ceremony officially bore the title of “Isles of Wonder”, to a sceptical eye it might be more accurate to rename it “England of Wonder”, especially when considering the relative dominance of icons of Englishness throughout the event. For instance, most musicians who played live in the stadium (Frank Turner, Arctic Monkeys, Paul McCartney and Tinie Tempah) were English, with four notable exceptions: Dame Evelyn Glennie (a world-famous Scottish percussionist), Scottish singer Emeli Sandé, Northern Irish rock trio Two Door Cinema Club and Welsh electronic duo Underworld, who did compose a large part of the event’s instrumental soundtrack. However, the section devoted to British popular culture (“Frankie and June say...thanks Tim”) was almost entirely soundtracked by English acts: The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Queen, The Sex Pistols, New Order, Eurythmics, The Prodigy, Blur, Muse or Amy Winehouse, to name a few.

22In the course of the event’s preparation, it appears that some careful steps had been taken so as to make sure that all four nations of the United Kingdom would be represented: first, a large concert had been organised in Hyde Park a few hours before the ceremony’s official start, with four high-profile rock music acts coming from each British nation: Duran Duran (England), Stereophonics (Wales), Paolo Nutini (Scotland), and Snow Patrol (Northern Ireland). Similarly, the ceremony’s preamble featured a choral interlude during which children’s choirs from the four nations sang their country’s informal anthems from various locations across the UK: “Jerusalem” for England, “Danny Boy” for Northern Ireland, “Bread of Heaven” for Wales, and “Flower of Scotland”. Nonetheless, it should be noted that such strong moments conveying a sense of national unity in diversity featured almost exclusively in the early part of the ceremony and quickly gave way to a noticeably more Anglocentric atmosphere.

  • 32 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 130-131.
  • 33 Idem, 132.

23In Coe’s novel, the relative predominance of English symbols does not seem to bother any character much. Elderly characters like Helena and Colin do find the ceremony to be “confusing” but appreciate the references to British history and identity. Helena is pleased by the performances of “Jerusalem” and the other three national anthems by children’s choirs, as well as the idyllic descriptions of rural life, which featured jolly farmers and cricket players surrounding a maypole.32 Meanwhile, Colin, a former worker of the now-defunct automobile factories in Longbridge, Birmingham, enjoys the depiction of British history but not the reference to HMS Windrush, the ship which had brought one of the first groups of immigrants from the British colonies in the West Indies to the UK in 1948,33 which he considers as an example of excessive political correctness. Interestingly, later on in the novel, Helena and Colin are associated with conservative political views and with the Leave vote.

24While the aforementioned feelings need to be taken with a pinch of salt as they above all serve Coe’s narrative, the fictional points of view voiced by each character help understand the role the ceremony played in contributing to the emergence of a sense of patriotism, without necessarily clarifying the difference between Englishness and Britishness. In short, the question of national identity in the UK remains complex, and while it is arguably not the role of an Olympic ceremony to settle such questions, the fact that such international sporting events are closely connected to patriotism may have led, in turn, to an emphasis on a version of Englishness which might have paved the way for Euroscepticism, as seen in some of Coe’s characters’ evolution.

25Although symbols of Englishness did play a predominant role in the ceremony, it would be far-fetched to describe them as overwhelming or disrespectful of Britain’s diversity, considering the presence of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish performers throughout the event. After all, England does make up for more than 84% of the UK’s population, and Englishness, as a key component of Britishness, does deserve celebration in the context of the Olympic Games. It would, therefore, seem more than unfair to accuse Danny Boyle of hegemonic Englishness, but there is no doubt that the representations of Britishness that were put forward in the ceremony appear, in hindsight, as quite Anglocentric and rooted in a mythical view of the nation’s history by paying tribute to stereotypes like the industrial revolution, cricket and 1960s pop culture. Conversely, a large part of the subculture which developed around Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear programme referenced Britain’s glorious past, from the automotive industry of the English Midlands (sometimes to ridicule it, too) to the Spitfire – thereby creating an identity based on myths more than on reality.

“Deep England”: Englishness and Euroscepticism

26Such views on Britishness appear closely connected to the concept of “Deep England” which is referenced in Middle England by Sohan, an academic who decides to turn his research interests towards the questions of Englishness and Britishness after watching the London 2012 opening ceremony:

  • 34 Idem, 202.

The 2012 Olympic opening ceremony had a profound and specific effect on Sohan. It had diverted the course of his research, which after that event became centred upon literary, filmic and musical representations of Englishness. In particular [...] he became fascinated by the concept of “Deep England”, a phrase which he began to encounter more and more often in newspaper articles and academic journals. What was it, exactly? Was it a psychogeographical phenomenon, to do with village greens, the thatched roof of the local pub, the red telephone box and the subtle thwack of cricket ball against bat? Or to understand it fully, did you have to immerse yourself in the writings of Chesterton and Priestley [...]? Was its musical distillation to be found in the work of Elgar, Vaughan Williams or George Butterworth? The paintings of Constable? Or had it been most powerfully expressed, in fact, in allegorical form by J.R.R. Tolkien when he created the Shire and populated its pastoral idyll with doughty, insular hobbits, prone to somnolence and complacence when left to their own devices but fierce when roused?34

  • 35 Idem, 213-214.
  • 36 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937.
  • 37 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954; Th (...)

27While Sohan confesses his inability to precisely locate the source of this “Deep England”, another character (his friend Sophie) later claims to have found its best embodiment at a golf and country club in rural Warwickshire – once again in the Midlands – where she has a particularly on-brand argument with her elderly conservative mother-in-law about the “tyranny” of political correctness in contemporary Britain.35 The definition of “Deep England” outlined by Sohan, however, relies primarily on cultural elements – architecture, sports and the arts – and is then humorously encapsulated in the figure of the hobbit, a fictional race created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous works of fantasy fiction, The Hobbit36 and The Lord of the Rings.37 Interestingly, although Tolkien’s trilogy was not explicitly alluded to in the 2012 Olympic ceremony, the early part of the show, entitled “Green and pleasant land” did feature a verdant landscape of rolling hills and jolly farmers who had much in common with the hobbits depicted in Tolkien’s books, and more recently turned into film in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and of The Hobbit (2012-2014). But while actual Deep Englanders are not fictional characters and live in today’s Middle England rather than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the phrase “insular hobbits” who would be “complacent when left to their own devices but fierce when roused” references features of British identity bordering on clichés linked to another myth – the Blitz era.

  • 38 Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, London: Pimlico, 1992.
  • 39 Jørgen Riben Christensen, “Deep England”, Akademisk Kvarter / Academic Quarter, 2015, <https://jour (...)

28The concept of “Deep England” itself bears a strong connection to this defining period in British history as it was coined by Angus Calder in order to describe how British propaganda in World War II put forward a mythical version of national identity which emphasized the rural lifestyle of the south of England.38 There is, therefore, a degree of overlap between the concepts of Middle England and Deep England, as both rely on outdated tropes and tend to subsume British (or English) identity as a specific version of a southern English rural lifestyle. This coexistence of overlapping versions of national identity was already visible in John Major’s aforementioned speech before the Conservative Group for Europe in 1993 (the infamous “country of long shadows on cricket grounds” speech): the Prime Minister was trying to convey a specific brand of Britishness which turned out to consist in a patchwork of outdated clichés on Englishness, or, more specifically on the rural idyll of Deep England. The common point between Blitz-era propaganda and more recent depictions of Britishness described above (whether in some Top Gear episodes or during the 2012 Olympic Ceremony) is that they all rely on myths rather than reality, and as such, these stereotypes are problematic since they paint the picture of a “perpetually vanishing world”, as Jørgen Christensen put it.39

  • 40 Neil Berry, “Little England, Little Blitz”, Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 2019, <https://www. (...)

29This mythical view of national identity came to the forefront of public debate in the lead to the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union as the Eurosceptic rhetoric frequently called upon concepts of insularity and fighting spirit to win new supporters over. For instance, Nigel Farage, former head of the UK Independence Party (and Brexit Party after 2019), who was instrumental in rallying Eurosceptic forces prior to the 2016 referendum, often referenced World War II and the “Blitz spirit” in his speeches.40 In fact, a large part of the arguments in favour of Britain leaving the EU relied on British history to prove that Britain has been, politically and culturally speaking, a different country than the rest of Europe: from Great Britain’s geographical insularity to the implementation of a common law system by Henry II (as opposed to Roman civil law throughout the Continent) and through to the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII, it is not surprising to see history being used as a basis for Eurosceptic arguments. Consequently, a clear link can be established between Euroscepticism and “Deep England”, as both phenomena rely on stereotypical views of national identity and tend to propose a narrow vision of Britishness not only as Englishness, but more specifically as a mythical kind of Englishness. Such reliance on “Deep England” myths certainly constituted a way for the Leave campaign to speak convincingly to Middle England’s conservative sympathisers who identified strongly with this narrower kind of British identity, as opposed to the multicultural model favoured by more liberal, pro-Remain voters.

Conclusion

30As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction can cast a revealing light on reality. Jonathan Coe’s Middle England remains a fictional narrative but is deeply rooted in the accurate observation of facts and trends in Britain’s recent history which reveal some of the factors having led to Brexit, including the thorny issue of national identity. The fractured nature of Britishness had indeed come to light in recent years and, in England at least, had led to a shift between the run-of-the-mill concept of “Middle England” to the clichés of “Deep England”, a vision of collective identity engrained in a mythical past which might have seemed quite out of place to many in 2016. Although it would be extremely far-fetched to say that the 2012 London Olympics or Jeremy Clarkson should be held responsible for causing Brexit, the popularisation of “Deep England” myths by some mainstays of British popular culture since the early 2000s reveals how large parts of the public were exposed to a kind of “Deep England” patriotism similar to that traditionally observed in Eurosceptic circles.

31The feelings expressed in Middle England remain, of course, the thoughts of fictional characters within the scope of a satirical novel, but they serve to highlight the position of relative dominance of a specific brand of Englishness within Britishness, as well as varying attitudes and beliefs towards national identity which revealed increasing rifts between socio-political views, as most notoriously illustrated in the regional contrasts in the EU membership referendum’s results. This fractured Britishness may have been one of the underlying causes of the Leave vote, which was more prominent in England than in the other three British nations, but also in rural England, regions where the myths of “Deep England” might still be an eminent part of collective consciousness.

32This geographical analysis of the referendum’s results and the debate initiated by Jonathan Coe surrounding the validity of “Deep England” as a version of Britishness make it tempting to see the Leave vote as a manifestation of a certain kind of Englishness. However, such analysis also confirms that there is not one official, monolithic Englishness, but several versions thereof, as part of an ever more diverse Britishness, and that these cultural differences cannot fail to express themselves in electoral form.

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Notes

1 Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!, London: Viking, 1994.

2 Jonathan Coe, The Rotters’ Club, London: Viking, 2001.

3 Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle, London: Viking, 2004.

4 Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, London: Chapman & Hall, 1854.

5 Julian Barnes, England, England, London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.

6 Ali Smith, Autumn, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016 ‒ followed by Winter (2017), Spring (2019) and Summer (2020).

7 Anthony Cartwright, The Cut, London: Pereine Press, 2017.

8 Jonathan Coe, Middle England, London: Penguin, 2018, 202.

9 “How Britain voted at the EU referendum”, YouGov, 27 June 2016. <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2016/06/27/how-britain-voted>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

10 “EU referendum: The result in maps and charts”, BBC News, 24 June 2016, <https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-36616028>, accessed on 21 March 2021. All referendum statistics cited in the rest of this section were found on this page.

11 Sofia Vasilopoulou, “UK Euroscepticism and the Brexit Referendum”, The Political Quarterly, Volume 87, Issue 2, May 2016, 219-227. <https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-923X.12258>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

12 Sascha O Becker, Thiemo Fetzer, Dennis Novy, “Who voted for Brexit? A comprehensive district-level analysis”, Economic Policy, Volume 32, Issue 92, October 2017, 601-650. <https://doi.org/10.1093/epolic/eix012>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

13 “EU referendum results”, Electoral Commission, June 2016, <https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

14 “I’ve lived in London for 30 years but I feel you can’t write a novel about contemporary England and just set it in London”, quoted in Lisa O’Kelly, “Jonathan Coe, ‘The British sense of humour is part of our problems’”, The Guardian, 4 November 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/04/jonathan-coe-interview-middle-england>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

15 Quoted in Barney Pite, “Provincialism and Middle England - An interview with Jonathan Coe”, Cherwell, 9 November 2018, <https://cherwell.org/2018/11/09/provincialism-and-middle-england-an-interview-with-jonathan-coe/>, accessed on 21 March 2021..

16 David Cannadine, Class in Britain, London: Penguin, 1998, viii

17 Stuart Maconie, Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England, London: Ebury Press, 2009, 2.

18 George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English genius. London: Penguin, 1998.

19 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (1707-1837), New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, 6.

20 “Population estimates for the UK: mid-2018”, Office for National Statistics, June 2019, <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/annualmidyearpopulationestimates/latest>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

21 “How the UK voted on Brexit and why -- a refresher”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 4 February 2019, <https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2019/02/how-the-uk-voted-on-brexit-and-why-a-refresher/>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

22 Adapted from the framework created by Luis Moreno in his comparative study of dual national identities in Scotland and Catalonia. See Luis Moreno, Decentralisation in Britain and Spain: The cases of Scotland and Catalonia, PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1986.

23 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 2018, 52.

24 Nick Growse, “The Reluctant Patriarch: The Emergence of Lads and Lad Mags in the 1990s”, InMedia, Vol. 2, 2012, <http://journals.openedition.org/inmedia/428>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

25 The last episode hosted by Clarkson in 2015 drew more than 5 million viewers and the show is listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s most-watched factual programme, broadcast in 212 countries.

26 Clarkson and Top Gear co-host James May appeared on a campaign video for the “Stronger In” campaign in 2016, now available on the People’s Vote campaign’s YouTube channel: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPz179E7rhA>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

27 Jeremy Clarkson, The World According to Clarkson, London: Penguin, 2004. As of 2020, the “World according to Clarkson” series comprises six volumes.

28 Jeremy Clarkson, “Health and Safety and the Death of Television”, The Sunday Times, 11 April 2004, <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/comment-jeremy-clarkson-health-and-safety-and-the-death-of-television-7k8ssz80j3x>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

29 Phil Churchward, Top Gear, Series 17, Episode 1, BBC Two, 26 June 2011.

30 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 131.

31 The entire ceremony is available on the Olympic Committee’s official YouTube Channel: “The Complete London 2012 Opening Ceremony”, YouTube.com, 27 July 2012, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4As0e4de-rI>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

32 Jonathan Coe, op.cit., 130-131.

33 Idem, 132.

34 Idem, 202.

35 Idem, 213-214.

36 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937.

37 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954; The Return of the King, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955.

38 Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, London: Pimlico, 1992.

39 Jørgen Riben Christensen, “Deep England”, Akademisk Kvarter / Academic Quarter, 2015, <https://journals.aau.dk/index.php/ak/article/view/2767>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

40 Neil Berry, “Little England, Little Blitz”, Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 2019, <https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/little-england-little-blitz-britain/>, accessed on 21 March 2021.

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Guillaume Clément, « “Insular hobbits”? Englishness, Euroscepticism and the Brexit vote in Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018) »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°51 | 2021, document 5, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2021, consulté le 23 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/13109 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.13109

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Guillaume Clément

Guillaume Clément est maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l'Université de Rennes. Ses travaux de recherche portent sur les rapports entre culture populaire et politique au Royaume-Uni, avec une attention toute particulière à la dimension politique de la musique rock, des Beatles à nos jours. Il est également l'auteur d'articles et de chapitres d'ouvrage sur la question du Brexit, plus récemment dans le manuel Civilisation Britannique paru chez Hachette (2020).

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