With the likes of Dave Eggers and Stephen King in the US signing up to a petition against Donald Trump, and their UK counterparts lending their names to a series of open letters ahead of the EU referendum, intellectuals are mobilising in a manner reminiscent of the “Writers Take Sides” culture wars of the 30s (over fascism) and 60s (over Vietnam). The latest example of this is the lineup of creative figures who signed a letter on 20 May urging Britons to vote to stay in the EU.
Among its phalanx of fiction titans, interspersed with arts organisation managers and star performers such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Paloma Faith, were Carol Ann Duffy, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, John le Carré, Philip Pullman and Tom Stoppard, and Geoff Dyer, Michael Frayn, Kathy Lette, Kate Mosse and Michael Morpurgo were also signatories. It was an impressive, award-festooned squad, but perhaps in literary terms rather too posh – were pro-EU genre authors who sell shedloads snobbishly not invited to join them? Being embedded with the rest of the “arts” also meant non-fiction authors were largely absent from the glittering list; and interestingly missing too was JK Rowling, who was prominent in the 2014 Scottish referendum debate and has tweeted pro-remain views.
No grandees of fiction have openly backed leaving the EU. The Brexit camp only seems able to count on a handful of predictable literary supporters – Julian Fellowes, Frederick Forsyth, Susan Hill, Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson – and one or two irregulars. The crime writer Dreda Say Mitchell came out for Brexit on Newsnight; Irvine Welsh said on Question Time that he leaned that way, but had no vote (being based abroad) and disliked both options.
Pro-Brexit historians, in contrast, are more numerous and organised. Their website, bristlingly called Historians for Britain (with alternating patriotic backdrops oddly including a menacing Henry VIII), lists Andrew Roberts and David Starkey among its 42 signatories; other well-known outers include the columnist/historian Simon Heffer and Margaret Thatcher’s biographer Charles Moore. Ranged against them, however, like opposed armies in a Kurosawa samurai film, are the 300-plus historians (led by Simon Schama and Ian Kershaw) who signed a pro-remain open letter that swiftly followed the arts stars’ message to Britain. Some (Roy Foster, Quentin Skinner and Keith Thomas among them) were rewarded with an invitation to a seminar-cum-rally at 11 Downing Street hosted by the chancellor, a history graduate.
Which brigade historians have enlisted in has not always been predictable. Niall Ferguson and Michael Burleigh, for example, have broken with their usual rightwing allies by being remainers; while if you had to guess you’d probably go for Amanda Foreman and Roberts Tombs (co-author of That Sweet Enemy, on Britain and France’s “love-hate relationship”) as pro-EU, yet both are Historians for Britain supporters. Scientists (in a letter with 150 signatories including Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, countered by the Scientists for Britain group) and economists (in an Observer-commissioned poll) have likewise taken sides, and across the various fields there’s a similar pattern: a hefty majority (and most of the lords, dames and knights) for remain, with the pro-Brexit minority made up of unlikely bedfellows – economists favouring leave, for example, include Patrick Minford on the right and author and Guardian columnist Larry Elliott on the left.
Flip things around, though – to look at who in the rival campaigns is an author, not which gang famous authors have picked – and an intriguingly different picture emerges. Leading “Brexiteers” (a label aptly linking them to characters in fiction) Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Daniel Hannan and Dominic Raab, plus visiting outrider Steve Hilton, have all written two or more books (although Johnson’s Churchill biog was widely mocked as disguised autobiography and Gove’s magnum opus is 1995’s fatally titled Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right). Gove and Johnson have degrees in English and classics, respectively.
David Cameron and George Osborne differ in not having put pen to paper, and those who have successfully done so on their side – William Hague, Alan Johnson, John Major – have been deployed sparingly. If the soundbites you can remember from the referendum campaign have come from the Brussels-bashers, and not a single phrase sticks from all the pro-remain rhetoric, there could be a reason for that.