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11 October 2017

Leader: Kazuo Ishiguro, Brexit and global Britain

The Nobel Prize-winning author's strange, restrained fictions are political in the best sense. 

By New Statesman

Kazuo Ishiguro, who was deservedly awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on 5 October, is not a writer who writes more than he has to. He is not a journalist or cultural critic. “Screenplays I didn’t really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I [was] just determined to write the books I had to write,” he said in 2005.

But in the immediate aftermath of the vote for Brexit, he published an essay in the Financial Times in which he expressed “anger” at what had happened. He was angry that “one of the few genuine success stories of modern history  – the transforming of Europe from a slaughterhouse of total war and totalitarian regimes to a much-envied region of liberal democracies living in near-borderless friendship – should now be so profoundly undermined by such a myopic process as took place in Britain”.

It was a surprise to read his swift response to Brexit because he is not an explicitly political writer or commentator in the style of, say, Ian McEwan. But his strange, restrained fictions are political in the best sense. They explore themes of historical amnesia and unreliable memory, of guilt and delusion, as well the untruths we tell ourselves in order to cope with disappointment and loss – personal loss, national loss.

The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989, is set in the 1950s and narrated by a butler called Stevens, reflecting on a long life of service and repression. At one point, early in the book, Stevens muses on the question of national greatness. “We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this is a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective. And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’?”

It is a pertinent question, as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, when Britain was recovering from the trauma of two world wars. Clearly, the Brexiteers have a heightened sense of the greatness of Great Britain. Yet they seem to believe that this greatness lies in the future, as a buccaneering, free-trading “global Britain”. This is so much nonsense. Britain will surely never have more influence than it did before the fateful decision to vote to leave the European Union.

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As Mr Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but has lived in England since he was five, understands, nations like people can make foolish decisions and be in denial about their consequences. They can commit acts of self-harm. “Global Britain” is one of the cant phrases of our age. Before the Brexit vote, Britain was already global as one of the dominant states in the EU, with enormous reserves of soft power and acting as the “Atlantic bridge” linking Europe to the United States.

Praising Mr Ishiguro, the Nobel committee said that in novels of “great emotional force” he “has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This would do nicely, too, as a summary of the present state of play in Britain: a country haunted by the past that has an increasingly illusory sense of connection with the world. 

The woes of Scottish football

Hard to believe it but Scotland were one of the pre-tournament favourites at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, an event for which England did not qualify (just as they did not qualify for the 1974 finals in West Germany). In the 1970s, Scottish footballers were among the finest in these islands. In 1967, Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, with a squad of players who grew up in and around Glasgow.

Today, Scottish football is in deep gloom after the national team failed once again to qualify for a major tournament. Coach Gordon Strachan bizarrely blamed genetics for Scotland missing out on the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. “What I do know is that genetically we are behind,” he said. “In the last campaign we were the second-smallest squad behind Spain… Genetically we have to work at things. It is a problem for us.”

This is absurd. There is nothing wrong with the physical health or size of Scottish sportsmen and women. The problem is cultural and institutional. Sport is an engine of globalisation and a source of national pride. The SNP government should play a more active role. It should invest in sports infrastructure, in and out of schools, and create centres of sporting excellence. The alternative is to watch Scottish sports teams keep failing – or to blame genetics. 

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled