Has England Lost Its Way? – A mournful essay written on train journey just after the Brexit vote.


“I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong, brown god.” I always think of TS Eliot’s line about the Thames whenever I cross it. The surface of the water is calm. You get no sense from looking at it of the political earthquake that is shaking the UK. That’s the difference between a political earthquake and a real one. You can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or that its effects are unimportant.

After some time away, I am back in the UK, making the familiar journey from London to Edinburgh by train, the morning after a party. A pitstop for brunch with a young friend on the way to Kings Cross. She voices anger about the Brexit vote, which she blames on the old. “I feel betrayed by the older generation. They have caused economic turmoil and limited my opportunities yet they won’t have to live with the consequences.”

To her, the most important thing about the European Union is that it is a band of small, weak countries who together make something more formidable. That feels important. The voting generation gap is huge and shocking but then, after a pause while she toys with a strange fried egg and avocado concoction, she admits: “But I know a lot of young people didn’t vote.’

Our Colombian waiter joins the conversation. He has never taken British citizenship and so was unable to vote; and yet he never managed to complete the paperwork that would have enabled him to vote for the Colombian peace process. Now, giving a rueful shrug, he feels faintly guilty about both situations.

Is this whole mess our waiter’s fault? Is it down to him, and the millions of other who could have, should have, would have voted? No, that’s not right. That’s not how democracy should work.

At the party last night, over the loud music, the host said: “I think it should be our prerogative to grumble about the decisions the politicians make, not the other way around.”

The Times Redbox reported that before the referendum, Boris Johnson expected the ‘Leave’  vote to be “crushed beneath the harrow” quoting from the G.K. Chesterton poem, “We are the people of England who never have spoken yet.”

I remember re-reading that particular poem on the night before the poll and getting no comfort from it at all, because as I was reading it I was thinking that no other leader in English history has ever asked the English people such a damn fool question. “What do you think of Johnny Foreigner? Like? Unlike?” as no English leader ever asked.

As the old adage has it, ask a silly question, get a silly answer. Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe is a complex matter and not one that can be answered by the bald ask that was presented to the public. There was no clear presentation of what Brexit meant. Like insurance salesmen pushing PPI, the Leave campaign offered claptrap. The British people were mis-sold.

I buy an armful of papers and head for the train. Out of London, into the Home Counties, the cloud lifts and sun spills over fields interspersed with hedgerows, which after decades of disappearance seem to be returning, probably thanks to those European farm subsidies.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, wrote Keats in his ode to autumn, “close-bosom friend of the maturing sun”. England is as lovely still as when Keats knew her.  A heron perches motionless on a bank in a small river. A Norman church, some pretty dappled cows and a row of Rowan trees dripping red berries spin by. The harvest is in and Rubik’s cubes of machine-made haystacks stand in fields cropped to straw-coloured stubble.

London of course voted to remain, and that busy, important city with its eyes wide to the world is doing its best to carry on regardless. Within it are many of the millions of EU nationals, resident here whose future is worryingly uncertain.

The papers are full of metropolitan anger: most columnists sound furious. There is nothing like a weekly column for leading to overwrought prose but this seems like something more. Britain is facing the worst crisis since Suez writes Matthew Parris in the Times, and its new leaders he likens to the character in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’. He mocks an equally angry recent column by Michael Gove which began “Take.Back.Control” by replying in the same style: “What. Are. You. Going.To.Do.”

We rattle through a station that looks like Grantchester, the title of a famous poem by Rupert Brooke. “Stands the station clock at ten to 3? And is there honey still for tea?” We stop at Newbridge where the Roman numerals on a large clock say 2.25, the actual time, which is somehow surprising, as is the fact the train is fully three minutes ahead of schedule.

Soon we pass Grantham, the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher. Lincolnshire was one of the biggest Leave areas, and nearby Boston had the highest in the UK. Why did they vote that way? Local papers reported a sense of being ignored and sidelined. Concerns about national identity, a wish to return to a more English way of life. Sovereignty to be returned to the mother of Parliaments.

What do they think of what they are getting now, I wonder.  A friend said that Amber Rudd’s speech at the recent Tory party conference, which has been compared to Mein Kampf, for its drawing of lines between native-born Britons and foreigners who only work here, made him embarrassed to be British. “Thatcher would never have said that, because she didn’t think that.” said my friend. “She thought if you could get on in life then good luck to you and that we need people from other countries.”

I remember years ago when the Cameroons took over the Tory party hearing a radio programme in which the Thatcherite old guard dismissed them as “a bunch of pinko faggots”. Well for better or worse those more acceptable faces of the Tory party have been pushed out now, to be replaced by hard-line Tories. The UK government that was elected in 2015 and the manifesto it stood on has been discontinued, replaced by policies that the new lot feel will appeal to places like Grantham, such as more grammar schools.

They also want to make decisions about the path to Brexit without a vote in Parliament, in secret, in the executive, meeting away from Westminster and then enact them by using antiquated royal prerogatives. Is that democracy? Or is it a chemical facsimile which would not fool anyone? A sort of “I can’t believe it’s not butter or democracy”. What do you think of that Grantham?

Yorkshire. The landscape is hillier now, steep, regimented lines of chimneys in red brick villages. More trees, the leaves turning a soft brown. York itself voted to remain, though its hinterland was ‘Leave’.

The paper I am reading carries Boris Johnson’s fluently argued pro-Remain column. If any were needed, here is proof that the man could argue black was white. Why did he jump the way he did? Looking out at the moors, I imagine Johnson meeting three hags one night who salute him: “Hail Johnson! That shall be Foreign Secretary!” His ‘Leave” column should perhaps have started: “I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,/ And falls on the other”.

Johnson would have done better to choose the side of loyalty to his friend the Prime Minister. David Cameron is not brilliant but he has the more accurate moral compass.

At Newcastle, three women with big brightly-coloured rollers in their hair, alight, gasping on long vapour cigarettes before their feet have touched the platform. Newcastle voted to Remain by the narrowest of margins but the whole region defied the advice of both the Labour party and the TUC and voted Leave.

The Labour party campaign was weak, led by Jeremy Corbyn whose heart did not seem in it. He is merely the frontman of a faction of the Labour Party and the power behind the throne is his communications director Seamus Milne. Given a choice between the Queen and the KGB-backed kleptocrat Vladimir Putin, Milne would always choose to support the latter. Strange times. Useful idiots, fellow travelers, Putin has the leadership of the British Labour Party in his pocket.

Putin tests bunker-busters in Syria, masses nuclear missiles on the border of Estonia. At lunch last week, a friend passed on well-informed concerns from Europe that Russia may be contemplating invading Latvia. No doubt if there are troops sighted there, Seamus Milne and his ilk will argue that anyone can put on a Russian uniform – probably just happy citizens off to a costume party. The world is full of tinpot despots laughing at the idiocies of democracy and manipulating the truth. England has stumbled.

Is this crisis perhaps caused by England’s dearth of political leaders in this generation? Perhaps the toxic environment caused by the excesses of the tabloid media over the last 30 years has something to do with it. It seems the brightest people are no longer attracted to politics. They don’t earn what brilliant people in other professions do. But worse is the sacrifice they have to make of every vestige of privacy, not just their own but that of their families. It is rumoured that Alan Johnson who could have made a stalwart Labour leader stepped aside for this reason.

Next, the train glides through the open country from Northumberland to the Borders, sometimes called ‘the debateable lands’. A lot of fighting went on here; Celts and Romans, English and Scots, Reivers and everyone – they left us the word ‘bereaved’.

A muddy path heads off into the woods, puddles glinting. It makes me think of how much I would like to tramp off over the hills, our dog at my heels, and of how good the earth smells after autumn rain.

As usual the train is emptying out on its way north. Is Britain full up? It doesn’t looks so from here. Some ruined cottages, a lonely farmhouse. Cliffs fall down to the sea where gulls hover in the wide horizon.

We stop at Berwick Upon Tweed and a family gets out, shrugging into coats. The celestial-blue sky is immense. Grandparents with pink cheeks and a pair of long-legged dogs on leads are waiting.

Now we have crossed the border, where Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is probably the best political leader the UK has today. She is warm, empathic, smart and sincere.

But Sturgeon and Scotland have a difficult hand to play. The nationalists have a tendency to view situations for how they can be played to the cause of independence and the pressure is on for a second independence referendum. My family are not the only ones, I expect, who shout at the TV whenever someone says “Britain voted to leave the EU”; “It was England!” It reminds me of a Billy Connolly punchline to one of his stories: “A big boy did it and ran away!”

But the fact remains, Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and Edinburgh with almost 75% had the highest Remain vote in the UK.  There is anger here now and there are concerns too, over the effect of Brexit on Scotland’s economy, which is more fragile than England’s, her great universities, her cultural institutions, her financial sector, her industries.

The train slows entering my home city of Edinburgh, through Princes Street Gardens, beautiful as ever. As the poet Lewis Spence wrote in The Prows o Reekie “O wad this braw hie-heapit toun/ Sail aff like an enchanted ship/ Drift owre the warld’s seas up and doun,/ And kiss wi’ Venice lip to lip/… Pillar to pillar, stane to stane,/ The cruikit spell o’ her backbane,/ Yon shadow-mile o’ spire and vane,/ Wad ding them a’, wad ding them a’!”

Here we are, the end of the journey at Waverley. The station is decorated with quotes from Sir Walter Scott to mark an anniversary. Scott was a Tory and a Unionist who loved Scotland and was once reduced to tears by his distress at the dilution of Scoltand”s legal tradition. “Stands there the man with soul so dead/ that never to himself has said/ this is my own, my native land?”

That appeal to nationalist sentiment goes down well here – and there is a faction of the SNP which defines itself through its patriotism and would like nothing better than to paint their faces blue and charge for the border. But the SNP as a party has moved away from a nativist, ethnic definition of nationalism and sees it in terms of creating a better and more inclusive society for all.

The Scottish government declares it plans to reach out and build coalitions and alliances. It is setting up an office in Berlin. I would also like to see Edinburgh’s bonds strengthened with Dublin and Belfast. Scotland needs more immigration – its population has hardly grown in a century. If Ireland can retain free movement and be in the common travel zone perhaps Scotland can too. I am not sure how this would work – would it require the people of England to carry identity papers?

Soft Brexit may not be on the menu. It may be best for the UK to extend the status quo for five years. At the next general election, political parties could present manifestos saying what they propose for the future of the relationship with Europe in detail.

As well as being concerned for Scotland, I feel sad for England. If England has lost its way, if it has stumbled and may fall, if there is a battle afoot for its soul, then I don’t want for Scotland to view this merely as a good time to kick it in the crown jewels. As one of England’s greatest poets John Donne wrote in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: “No man is an island, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”

The poem ends: “Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”