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On Brexit, we’re feeling the aftershocks of earthquakes that happened years ago

The worse things get, the more passionately the English cling to the past. 

Like most English-speaking dramatists I am frequently asked why I am not writing plays on one of two popular topics. My usual answer is to say that I’ve always preferred to write about things that people may have overlooked, rather than things of which they’re already heartily sick. But the more profound answer is that I don’t believe that either of the requested subjects for drama are earth-shaking in themselves. Both Donald Trump and Brexit are the malign aftershocks of earthquakes that happened many years previously.

The 21st century has been characterised by two acts of outrageous misappropriation, with global consequences. When Osama Bin Laden ordered planes to crash into the World Trade Center in New York, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were ready to exploit the event in order opportunistically to set off a dirty bomb of dishonesty against Saddam Hussein. The subsequent invasion, catastrophic for the lives of Iraqis, also did lasting harm to the notion of Western democratic politics, democratically conducted. The spectacle of Colin Powell, the soul of decency, parroting the lethal rubbish he had been given to spout to the UN in 2003, became the defining disgrace of the disgraceful crisis. But 2010 next played out just as painfully for those of us in the UK.

When the Notting Hill wing of the Tory party, led by David Cameron and George Osborne, exploited a financial meltdown (which was the fault of the banks and the banks alone) in order to pursue a long-planned reallocation of wealth from the public to the private sector, they aimed stomach punches at anyone who believed that the task of politics was to define and serve the common good. Byron burgers in hand, two privileged public schoolboys shredded received notions of social justice. Rather more seriously, they also made millions of people needlessly poor.

In the Richard Hillary lecture at Trinity College, Oxford in the spring of 2016, I argued that conservatism no longer made sense. How was it possible to pretend to believe in the free market if you were not also willing to encourage the free movement of people? The two had to go together. A market that traded behind a wall was, by definition, not a free market. The recent Conservative inclination to insist that most immigrants should be banned from entering Britain was self-evidently incompatible with its belief that markets should freely compete. Unless some way were found to resolve this contradiction, the Conservative venture was finished.

The lecture was badly received at the time. I was patronised by professional opinion vendors such as Matthew d’Ancona, who leapt to argue that I underestimated the genius of the Tories. The Conservative Party was above all pragmatic, a brilliant machine for winning elections, reluctant to resort to extreme ideology and always ready at the last moment to pull itself together under pressure. When, a couple of months later, David Cameron lost a referendum because half the public, dunned by austerity, were desperate to grab at the promise of reducing immigration, once blowhard critics of my lecture seemed mysteriously more muted. When Brexit militants deployed an armful of spanners to stick in the spokes of the forward march of “the brilliant electoral machine”, those same critics were in knots.

At this moment in history, we are getting everything that is bad about capitalism without any of its benefits. Capitalism has been asset-stripped by racists. The chief thing capitalism had in its favour in previous centuries was a certain rough vitality. It was driven by openness. Who is not moved by the devotional motto under the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? But how is a Syrian or Libyan migrant travelling in an open dinghy towards Theresa May’s hostile environment supposed to believe that the system is not now ferociously rigged against the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore”?

It was WH Auden who said that “the worse things get, the more passionately [the English] cling to the past”. Because I was born immediately after the Second World War, I had imagined that I had seen the end of British imperialism during my schooldays. But Brexiteers, in their excitement, clean forgot that we had a working border with an Ireland we no longer rule. They then talked themselves into a frenzy about the prospect of trading with Canada, with India and with Australia. Fantasies of empire have returned centre-stage, as though the intervening years of being citizens rather than subjects had been an interruption, not a progress.

Everyone has noticed, rightly, that since the referendum, advocates of leaving the EU have failed to make a single new convert to their cause. The half of us who once wished to remain still wish to remain. But even more striking is that not one Leave-minded politician or journalist has been able, in three years, to suborn language to create an interesting phrase. Brexiteer speeches and newspaper articles have offered an Antarctic of boredom. Hardly surprising, the only public coinage that cut deep enough to survive this era – Donald Tusk’s reference to “a special place in hell” for Brexiteers who promoted leaving “without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely” – was memorable precisely because it was true.

At this point, I cannot imagine my country being civilised until it is back in the hands of people who believe that the state has a duty of care to all its citizens, and most particularly to the most deprived. If that is not possible, then, as second best, I would still be ready to accept a version of capitalism that was continually revitalised by offering open access to newcomers from outside. What I will never accept is the idea of rich nations imprisoned inside rotting gated communities, with right-wing politicians barking through the railings like mangy guard-dogs. Too many walls are being built, creating too many strongholds for people who have no vision in life except to hold on to what they’ve already got and kick everyone else in the face.

Write about Trump? Write about Brexit? Why? 

David Hare is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter

Click here to read the rest of our “State of emergency” series, featuring articles from writers including Paul Collier, Elif Shafak, and Jonathan Coe.

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency