Hilary Mantel knows her history. Her trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell made that clear. Those dazzlingly successful books brought Tudor history to life in all its monstrous glory. So it’s a tad surprising that Ms Mantel appears not to understand the history of the European Union. This brilliant mind seems to think this political body, which has only been in existence since 1992, is synonymous with Europe itself, which has been around for a fair bit longer than that.
Ms Mantel has got diehard Remainers hot under the collar with comments she made in an interview with La Repubblica. She slammed Brexit as the handiwork of politicians who are ‘callow opportunists, insincere and devious, and often ridiculous’. As for Boris Johnson — he ‘should not be in public life’. She says she ‘feels ashamed, of course’ — why, of course! — to live in a country that elected Boris as PM. And so she’s thinking of leaving, possibly to Ireland, land of her ancestors. ‘I feel the need to be packing my bags, and to become a European again’, she said, to the vigorous nodding of anti-Brexiteers who dream of finding refuge from this cursed land of gammon.
I’ve never understood people who threaten to flounce out of the country when an election doesn’t go the way they wanted it to. Mantel is far from alone on this front. There’s always a celeb promising to do one if the Tories get in. Lord Sugar said he would flee if Jeremy Corbyn ever became PM. Jamie Oliver said he would be ‘done’ with the UK if we voted for Brexit, which is at least 50 per cent of the reason I voted for it. There’s a tantrum-like quality to these threats, isn’t there? ‘I didn’t get my way? I’m out of here!’
But it is in the nature of democracy, and of pluralism itself, that we are surrounded by ideas, policies and even people we disapprove of, alongside the things we find more agreeable. This isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it is proof of the existence of tolerance, proof that we are lucky enough to live in a country where there is political choice and where ordinary people are the ones who make the choice. Ms Mantel seems to think Britain has failed her, by opting to withdraw from the EU and putting into power a man she detests. In truth, it was the Remain camp that failed, and later Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. They had every opportunity to convince the public to vote to stay in the EU and to put Mr Corbyn in Downing St, but they didn’t manage it. They weren’t good enough.
There’s an arrogance to these threats to leave the country when you don’t get your way. It suggests your attachment to the nation, your very citizenship, is contingent on the pursuit of policies that you broadly approve of. ‘As long as the nation reflects <em>my</em> views, I’ll stay’ — that’s what these political flouncers seem to be saying. I’m sorry but democracy doesn’t work like that. Democracy is built on the recognition that there are people who have different views to our own, and that sometimes their views will hold sway. We might not all be as brilliant and successful as Ms Mantel, but we have a right every bit as equal to hers to determine the fate of the nation.
Mantel’s discussion of fleeing to Ireland smacks of a withdrawal of losers’ consent. Democracy depends on this consent, on the losing side in an election or a referendum agreeing, even in the midst of their upset, to live peacefully under the government or constitutional change that the people have chosen. That is what was so disturbing about the campaign for a second EU referendum — it was an unprecedented mass withdrawal of losers’ consent, a declaration by much of the great and the good that they would refuse to abide by the people’s will. Mantel’s talk about moving to Ireland is far more personal, of course, and she is fully entitled to leave Britain as she pleases. But it does feel a little churlish, a threatened stomping off in response to the follies of the masses.
Then there’s the bit about wanting to ‘become a European again’. Far be it from me to correct someone as decorated as Ms Mantel, but… you are European. Even in Brexit Britain. Even in this nation that has disappointed you so. Britain is part of Europe. It always will be. It is only the EU we have left.
People’s conflation of Europe and the EU is highly irritating. It confuses an extraordinary continent full of culture, history and intrigue with a grey bureaucracy plonked in Brussels. It is very wrong to view the EU as Europe. First, because there are many European countries that are not in the EU — Iceland, Norway, Albania and others. Are they not truly European? But mainly because it allows cliques of technocrats and commissioners — which is all the EU really is — to pose as the true representatives of Europe, as Europe itself. It erases the diversity of Europe and replaces it with a bland vision of Europe as approved by people we’ve never heard of and most likely didn’t vote for. The truth is that Brexit itself is European. That was a revolt of ordinary people against their supposed betters of the kind that European history is wonderfully peppered with.
And finally, there is Mantel’s musings about Ireland. Now, Mantel is perfectly within her rights to seek Irish citizenship. She has Irish grandparents, and that means she can become a citizen. As an Irish citizen myself, I can attest that Ireland is a great country to be a citizen of. And yet, might there not be better reasons to become an Irish citizen than to escape the alleged horrors of the British people’s democratic choices?
I’m worried that Ireland could become to Brexit Britain what Canada was to Vietnam-era America — a place for dodgers to escape to. Americans dodged the draft by fleeing north, and it seems some Brits want to dodge democracy, or at least the consequences of democracy, by fleeing to Ireland. Numerous Britons with Irish descendants have sought and secured Irish citizenship since the vote for Brexit. I’m sure Ireland, which has a vast diaspora, much of it in the UK, is delighted that its ranks of citizens have swelled. But I’m not convinced that treating Ireland as some kind of safe haven from British populism will do wonders for Anglo-Irish relations.
Also, what will the Brexit-dodgers do if the Irish people vote against the EU, as they have done before, rejecting the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008? Go somewhere else? At some point you have to settle down and accept that, you know, there is a great, clashing plurality of views in our societies, and that this is a sign of political good health.
So, please stay, Ms Mantel. We need voices like yours. In that La Repubblica interview, Mantel didn’t only moan about Boris and Brexit — she also struck a blow for the ideals of freedom against the tyranny and idiocy of cancel culture. She lambasted the ‘self-righteous, stifling, fear-ridden climate of cancel culture’ and defended JK Rowling from the mobs who falsely accuse her of ‘transphobia’. ‘It is barbaric that a tiny minority should take command of public discourse and terrify those who disagree with them’, she said. Absolutely. That, right there, is a great defence of democratic values. Britain — yes, even Brexit Britain — will be a better place for the presence of Hilary Mantel.