Cool it, Cleese

An open letter to John Cleese on London, Brexit and Englishness.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
31 May 2019, 4.48pm
John Cleese posing by graffiti in a cycling tunnel in the Netherlands, 2016
Utrecht Robin/PA Images

Dear John,

You gave a brilliant interview at the Byline festival last August with a great explanation of the two basic things wrong with Britain: its constitution, especially its voting system, and the media, especially the way they fix their coverage.

Brexit is clearly a product of their combination. Yet you supported it. Pressed by a member of the audience, you explained this by saying “I don’t want to be ruled by Luxembourg”.

This seemed to me such a ridiculous answer, I could not credit it. France and Germany are not ruled by Luxembourg, so why are we? The EU is undemocratic, to be sure, but it does not rule us. I thought of writing to you then to say, surely you can see that Brexit is the product of the two venal forces that you identified as being wrong with Britain.

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Now your recent tweet about London being “not really an English city any more” suggests that your support for Leave is not so much about how undemocratic the EU is, but rather that it – and by implication, freedom of movement – should not be part of England’s way of life at all. That you share the feeling, so to speak, that we are ‘invaded’ by it.

I know from working with you way back, making videos for Charter 88 on the ridiculous way Britain is governed, that you have a genuine interest in reason and holding power to account. In America you have been an outspoken supporter of Obama and opponent of Trump. So I’d like to put it to you that it is time to change your mind about Brexit; now it is clear that Brexit is Trump’s game and the plaything of oligarchs. That far from it undermining our democracy, the EU helps to secure it from their influence .

Take the two issues you identified at Byline last year. First, the UK’s constitution and especially its winner-takes-all election system. Its defenders say it leads to strong and flexible government. In fact it generates hysterical government, lurching from one gimmick to another, in hock to the short term. The penny is dropping. Just now, Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP who led the call for Brexit from within his party, wrote, “The first-past-the-post system is capricious. It protects you until all of sudden, it eliminates you”. It was to counter the threat of elimination by UKIP that then prime minister Cameron embraced the promise of the referendum.

Your second point about the media struck me powerfully because it was new to me. You didn’t complain about sensationalism, or lying. But you described how a Dutch magazine was interested when you expressed a view they did not expect whereas with any interview in Britain the ‘angle’ has already been ordained. Even the photographer is briefed to take a picture to fit with the ‘line’ that has been pre-decided.

You did not accuse the British press of being homogenous – each broadcaster will run different voices, so as not to be boring – but of being mentally closed, believing it knows what its users want and how to ‘position’ its content.

The result is an overwhelming superficiality and splashes that only go to show how shallow it is. For being serious does not mean being boring. It’s the precondition for fresh argument. Which means trusting the intelligence of readers and viewers, a trust that does not exist in England.

The combination of a mentally closed media and a winner-takes-all politics ensured the dreadful superficiality that created Brexit. I have just written about how the newspapers, their journalists and proprietors, were the original creators of Brexit and the Mail in particular forged Theresa May.

Why, then, did you support it? You can’t have a problem with our young people being free to work and fall in love and live in, say, Vienna?

Your tweet helps answer my question. Here it is.

There has been a huge reaction to the implicit racism of saying London isn’t English, led by Maya Goodfellow pointing out that you can’t tell if someone is English by looking at them. And anyway, as Ben Rogers showed in a fascinating article in openDemocracy some time back, London is arguably the most English of cities – the London of William Blake and Sadiq Khan, of the Kinks and Dizzee Rascal, of England football captain Harry Kane and of his club side’s local MP, David Lammy (who also responded to you on twitter).

But I’m writing to you about Brexit. There is a plain mistake for a start. London voted 59.9% for Remain. It was far from being “the UK city that voted most strongly to remain”. For example, Bristol (61%), Manchester (60.4%), Glasgow (66%), Edinburgh (74%), Cardiff (60%), Brighton (68%), Aberdeen (61%), Cambridge (73%), Oxford (70%), even St Albans (62%), voted more strongly.

Later you tweeted: “I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing, but in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it”.

That’s not what you’re being asked to apologise for. Personally, I much prefer the multi-racism and hustle-bustle and feel the humour is better and life less dour, drab and confined, especially in London. But I sure take the point about England today being more money-oriented.

Perhaps, then, like many of our generation, you voted for Brexit because you want to see a return to “the Englishness of my upbringing”.

If so, John, don’t blame Brussels for its loss. If anything it’s the other way around. It’s Sabine Weyand, the EU’s key negotiator, who studied for a year in Cambridge, who is closer to your pre-tabloid English values and it is your Brexiteer chancers now elbowing each other out of the way in the Tory leadership race, who stand for the vulgar commercialism you rightly despise.

There is a big generational issue here. A YouGov survey on 31 March this year asked people what they wanted if there was no agreement by 11 April (the date of the first extension). 58% of those under 25 said they wanted the UK to stay in the EU, only 26% of those over 65 did so. When it came to the possibility of a ‘No Deal’ the gap was even huger. 68% of the over 65 said they’d support No Deal and only 14% of those under 25 did so.

This is a cavernous difference. Our duty now is to support the decision of the new generation, the politics of diversity they stand for and their judgment which is nowhere represented by the mainstream media. I am not saying they are perfect, any more than Europe is. But this is where the best of England is to be found.

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