Matt Gemmell

Stranger than fiction

Politics 5 min read

When I published my first novel, CHANGER, six days ago, a part of my mind was focused on the following day’s UK referendum on membership of the European Union. My wife and I had already voted by post, and we’re both strongly in the Remain camp — like the majority of people here in Scotland.

Much of the UK didn’t believe that a Leave result was a real possibility — clearly including the Westminster government. No plan in place, and no response ready. When that result nonetheless materialised on Friday morning, there was shock across all four nations, and beyond. The currency’s value fell by an unprecedented amount, wiping hundreds of billions from British assets in the space of only a couple of hours. There was anger, and disbelief, and a palpable sense of regret. Never in living memory was the United Kingdom more divided.

Scotland voted Remain, as did Northern Ireland. Wales and England voted Leave. The campaign to leave the EU was predicated on the promises (or let’s be generous and say strong implications) of risible and pernicious men like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who painted a picture of an end to immigration, money freed up from EU membership fees to instead fund the National Health Service, and some notional return to the glory days of British prosperity. These promises were undeliverable, and they knew it when they made them.

The backpedalling on campaign claims began before 9 AM on the day of the results. The fictional £350m per week that would go to the NHS was suddenly “never promised”. And indeed won’t be delivered, since the currency crash caused by the result was equivalent to decades worth of EU membership dues for the UK. The Conservative MP who prominently sold Leave to the public on the grounds of immigration control, stated the same day that anyone with that expectation “would be disappointed”. Nor did anyone have an actual plan as to how to proceed.

Within a further two hours, the Prime Minister announced he’d be resigning later in the year. And within a few days, most of the Shadow Cabinet (the senior party members of the Opposition, i.e. primary not-in-power party, Labour) had resigned. The Leader of the Opposition is sure to be forced out, leaving the two main English parties essentially leaderless. On the day of the result being announced, Northern Irish politicians voiced the possibility of Irish reunification! Spain proposed “joint custody” of Gibraltar, as they had duly threatened to. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite the financial disaster, was nowhere to be found over the critical weekend, leaving the reassurances to the Governor of the Bank of England — an Irish-Canadian.

Europe looked on in bemusement (and I daresay amusement), with no small amount of anger and an understandable sense of betrayal. The arrogant British shot themselves in the foot, at last. The Prime Minister tried to curry favour with the longstanding extremist “Euro-sceptic” backbenchers of his own party by allowing them to ask the public a question that should never have been voiced. A campaign was run that appealed to latent xenophobia, racism, illiberal values, desperation, and atavistic fears. And it worked. The age profile of the voter turnout skewed old.

Leaving the EU means so much more than losing the ability to freely live and work in 27 other countries. It means more than losing the oversight of a trans-national body that isn’t beholden to craven media moguls and private-sector, white-collar criminals. It means more than casting away the shield of a higher legislature that has driven so much progress for human rights, for equality, for consumer protection, and for a diverse yet integrated society.

What it means is abandoning the ideal that like-minded and forward-looking nations should cooperate, to form something greater than themselves. None yoked to another, as the nations of the UK are to Westminster, but standing together on a platform for the future — not without its own problems to be solved, of course — and believing that being together as equals is the natural state of an evolved culture.

The Remain campaign seems to have conclusively won the debate, but not until a day or two after they lost the referendum. To listen to the radio here, or watch TV, or read the newspapers, it seems that many of those who voted the other way are only now thinking to question what they were told. Some of them didn’t even check what they were actually voting for.

My novel is staunchly pro-EU, and is the beginning of a series with a diverse cast of characters from these countries, working together to overcome dark fates of various kinds. A special forces team, united in their differences and similarities, each contributing what they can with a shared goal in mind — the common good. Different genders, ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and languages. Their name, in the fictional world of the book, is KESTREL, which refers to various kinds of falcon; a bird of prey. Small, tough, of a hundred species but of a common type, and ubiquitous from Europe to India and Africa, and beyond.

It’s not a coincidence. KESTREL represents what used to be called the European Idea (and Ideal), and became the European Experiment, and the EU. It’s at the core of what I — and Scotland — believe. And right here in the real world, it’s once again what’s at stake.

I don’t have Captain Greenwood to lead the way, reassuring me with her stoicism and absolute commitment to doing what’s right. I don’t even have Neil Aldridge, afraid but determined, ready with inappropriate sarcasm in the most tense moments. The antagonists here beyond the safety of the page are indistinguishable from the protagonists, and they’re all around.

What I do have is a British passport, with the words “European Union” embossed in gold at the top. I have a European Health Insurance Card. I go out and I drive my car, and I see the gold stars against a dark blue ground at the left edge of license plates, with the abbreviations of all those other countries. PL. DE. FR. NL. And of course GB. For now.

I also have a feeling of deep sadness, and anxiety; I can only imagine how the many European Scots here feel. I’m proud to be Scottish, and proud to be European. Scotland’s future lies in Europe, within the family of nations. My faith is in my First Minister, and I hope she can find a way to deliver us from this madness. Scotland (and Northern Ireland) did not let the European Union down.

Whatever happens, KESTREL will go on. I have control; they’re mine, and so is their world. I’ll write it all in, and if necessary, the British members of the team — Scottish, English, and Welsh — will see their own circumstances change. My own heroes-on-paper won’t be torn apart, and nor will Europe herself. Some things are too important to sacrifice.

Out here, though, in Edinburgh on a day that as usual can’t decide between sunshine and rain, the outlook is less clear. There are clouds sweeping in from the horizon, and again Scotland is a country being dragged into a situation it doesn’t want, by a distant and uninvested government, against the will of our people. These are the times when lines on maps deepen to become chasms, and when decaying unions crumble ever faster. It’s a sad time, and shocking, and shameful. It’s a time of frustration and fear.

There’s so much at stake. Disaster looms over dear nations. One man’s weakness spiralled out of control, fuelled by fear and prejudice, leading to a decision that unleashed a blight on what was already becoming a precarious assembly of countries. Every hour brings more dire news.

We don’t know what will happen. The clock is ticking for the fate of the land I love, and others besides.

Next time, maybe we can talk about the book.

KESTREL European Union logo, from the novel CHANGER


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