“The lunatics took over the asylum”



British award winning author Jonathan Coe will not join the Brexit celebrations on January 31st. In an exclusive interview with profil he talks about his Brexit novel Middle England and how as a patriot he must hope now that leaving the EU will be a success.


Jonathan Coe, 58, was awarded the european Book Prize 2019 and the British Costa Fiction Book Award 2019 for his novel “Middle England”. In its conclusion the jury worte that the English author brilliantly described “the history of a changing country and the cracks within families and between generations”. Prospoect Magazine called “Middel England” “the perfect Brexit novel”. The book is the thrid part of a trilogy after the Rotters Club (2001) an the closed Circle (2004). Coe’s fine, satiric humour and his profound sympathy for England have helped the author to become the Brexit explainer amongst the British literati. “Middle England” will be published on February 11th by Folio Verlag, translation by Cathrine Hornung, Dieter Fuchs, ISBN 978-3-85256-801-0, 480 Seiten, 25 Euro.




Profil: At the end of your book, there is a Brexit baby. Is there a good future ahead for Britain?

Coe: In a way you have a moral duty to be optimistic. Not only as a person but also as a writer. It is too easy to leave the reader with a feeling of despair and hopelessness. I wanted to end the book on a note of hope. But of course the final chapter of the book is not as realistic as the other parts of my book. My hope is not for the short term. I think it will take us a decade or two at least to get us out of this mess we got ourselves into. And the election result of December 12th does not help us with that.


Profil: Boris Johnson wants to hoist the Union Jack everywhere in Britain. As if the national flag was forbidden during the membership to the European Union. Is there a divroce euphoria gripping the country?

Coe: I don’t think it is gripping much of the country to be honest. Brexit has turned British politics into phantomime. We don't look like a serious country on the world stage anymore. That's not because these people who were driving the Brexit sentiment, did not exist before, but the political system kept them quite rightly at the margins. It kept their views at the fringe, where they belong. Mark Francois or Jacob Rees-Mogg are not serious political figures. I see it as a failure of the political system. Every country has extremists at the margins, but usually you find a way of keeping them there. Our political systems has broken down in the last few years and now the lunatics have taken over the asylum.


Profil: Do you also think of Boris Johnson in this way?

Coe: Boris Johnson in many ways is the worst person to be prime minister.


Profil: Why? He can deliver.

Coe: Supposedly. But what can he deliver? The 31st of Janaury is the easy part of the process. Can he deliver on December 31st? He is attempting this very slight of hand by which he tells that Brexit is over. But it is not over.


Profil: Ministers and officials are not allowed to use the term Brexit anymore.

Coe: That is very Orwellian. Maybe Tory politicians cannot mention Brexit anymore. But if I am invited on the BBC I will use the word Brexit 30 times in the first answer.


Profil: Brexit is a done deal. What does this mean for you?


Profil: In your novel Middle England you describe the change in mood in the years before the referendum. It is called the perfect Brexit novel.

Coe: Of course I began planning this novel before the referendum result. I did not know that we would leave the European Union before I started it. For the first ears after the referendum I was still thinking we would find a way to not leave. Or at least stay closely aligned. What is asthonishing now is that we are now leaving on such harsh and hard terms on the basis of thirty perceont of the vote of the population. If anything this was a mandate on compromise.


Prifil Did it become so hard because the softer May deal was rejected?

Coe: My personal feeling about Brexit is that everything that could go wrong in the last few years, went wrong and everything that can go wrong in the next few years will go wrong. Every time we reach a fork in the road we take the wrong path and we get deeper and deeper in the forest and it gets harder and harder to find a way out of it.


Profil: Why did England turn against the European Union? You describe the families divided in your book. Benjamin is devastated when his father tells him that he has actually voted for Brexit.

Coe: I think David Cameron had no idea what question he was really asking when he put the referedum on. Or he did not understand what question people would hear. Or what people like Dominic Cummings would turn it into. On June 2016 was the question: What kind of country you want to belong to. It was like a question: Who do you want to be? Personal and political identity has become totally intertwined. It is not a question anymore if you want to vote Conservative or Socialdemocratic. That seems superpficial now. The issue of immigraiton and racism became center stage. Not that all leave voters are racist. But the central message of the Leave campaign was about stopping immigration. As I am trying to remind people in the book it was not about economic or social issue. It was about Breaking Point. People found it suddenly impossible to have a conversation about it. In my book you have the situation here sophie and Helna look at each other and they know, they cannot speak to each other anymore, after Helen brought up the famous sperivers of Blood speech of Enoch Powell.


Profil: What happened, why did the liberal society here turn against white, Christian workers from Poland who picked up jobs the English did not want to do themelves?

Coe: Birmingham, where I grew up, is often held up as a model for multicultural co-existence. But still, a slight majority voted for Brexit. The Asian population was maybe even less welcoming to the Eastern Europeans.


Profil: You won the Costa novel prize 2020 and the judges say because you present the debate from both sides. The country is split as before but after Brexit now will maybe start healing the divisions?


Profil: Jeremy Corbyn did not manage the Brexit question either. Was he a bad labour leader?

Coe: He was definitely the wrong leader for this moment in time. Nobody anticipated the circumstances in which he had to be Labour leader. David Cameron thought the issue of the referenduwould put the issue to bed. Corbyn looked like a good anti-austerity politician. Which he was. But austerity was wiped off the table by Brexit. So his field of expertise meant nothing anymore. And Boris Johnson is a very dangerous, difficult prime minister to oppose because he is quite shameless and agile in some ways. He uses humour, which is very important in Britian. Corbyn was not nimble enough on his feet in Parliament. We need someone with a little bit more energy. Corbybn did not look as if he is enjyoeing the job at the Dispatch Box.


Profil: Does Corbyn have a sense of humour?


Coe: I don’t think so. Politicians on the left tend to be quite lacking in humour.

Maybe hunour is not the important thing. What peopke repsnded to is cheerfulness. People have been tired constantly getting the messag ethat Britain is broken, and shipwrecked witout a paddle. Maybe this is even true but people don't want to hear it. And it does not sqaure with the facts of their lives. They don't even see it.


Profil: You won the C for describing the Brexit debate from both side with a tendency for satire.

Coe: I don't see my novel Middle England as satire. It is social realism with comic episodes. My previous novel No. 11 was more of a satire. And also contained a section about humour itself and humour as a political device. The conclusion I came to after writing this section, that I was very ambivalent about the role of humour in British politics. I think it plays a too large role in British politics. Our politics is too colourful. The public have grown used to finding it too entertianing. Politics should be boirng. Politics should be faceless bureaucrats doing their job done in the background. Our politicis is a punch and duty show with this confrontational parliament setting. The leader of the opposition shouting insults at the prime minister.


Profil: Are you sure? I think Brexit brought out huge interest in politics and in the ongoings in Westminster in particular. People in this country and in Europe became experts in lobby rules and historic events like 1604. Millions watched BBC Parliament for hours on end. I think this is great.

Coe: That is an optimistic spin on it. The problem was that British people’s interest is still not focused not on institutions but on personalities. Johnson is colourful and Corbyn boring and this is that. We do the theatre well but the British are very easily bored people. This is why our literature is so popular around the world because our writers try to be entertaining. As well as instructive. The worst sin you can commit as an author or politician is to be boring and invisible.


Profil: Britian was indeed quite boring and stable politically. Now: gone.

Coe: I think it is primarily depends on how Brexit pans out economically. Many Brexiters now insist that it was never about economics but abut independence, identity and immigration.


Profil: They have to say this because initially at least they will be worse off…

Coe: True, but it is to be seen how much worse off we will be. And how noticably becomes noticiable. If it rapidly becomes obvious that Brexit was a foolish decision. If this is the case than the Rejoin Movement will come to life quicker and gather momentum. On the other hand if somehow by some kind of miracle we wether this economic storm and Britain prospers outside the EU than it depends a lot on how Remainers deal with that. How forgiving they are. How much they are able to reconcile themselves. Where does the anger go then? Can we ignore it for a few years? The most likely scenario to me is that the economy starts to tank in the next two or three years and then the blame game will start. What will the people who brought this on us do then? Will they blame the EU again? Or do we star tin other directions? Brexit is a proxi for a general cutlural war. This is not going away.


Profil: Is nationalist tension between the four nations of the UK part of it?

Coe: The English nationalism thing will be continue to be a problem. It appears that all the other national assemblies – Scots, Northen irish and Welsh – have voted against boris Johnson Brexit plan.They al lhave united against the English parliament. It will become more and more obviosu that Brexit is an English problem. And that the United Kingdom has come under increasing strain as this becomes more and more felt. The role of English nationalism will still be important. It al aligned around Brexit. The most reliable indicator if someone voted for Brexit is if they support the death penalty. There is also a big overlap between people who are climate change deniers and Brexiters. So maybe Brexit itself will be a proxi war. If we falter economically in the next ten years people will continue to fight Brexit in repclament fighting the other issues. In 2014 we did not suddnely ge passionate about the EU we decided to figh over it as a proxi for the real issues.


Profil: Can Britain not be sucessful?

Coe: Not to me I think. I will always feel european and sadt tha tbritain has distached itself from the EU. I will always eel European. As a Patriot I will always hope that britain can be successful. Now tha tBrexit is happening I hope for my country that it will be a success. We have to try to reconcile with it. For mental health reasons we should not focus on what we have lost.


Profil: What will you you do on the 31st of January?

Coe: It is not a cause of celebration for me. I will read a good book, have a cup of hot chocolate and an early night.