Dreams Of Leaving And Remaining by James Meek

(Verso, £16.99)

Review by Barry Didcock

“In March 2019, the UK will leave the EU, facing an uncertain future.” So runs the blurb on James Meek's book about the financial, political, psychological, environmental, administrative and historical forces which propelled Leave to victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

It's a sign of the uncertainty of that future and of the indecision, misgivings and rancour affecting those tasked with trying to shape it – the executive, in the form of the Westminster government, and the legislature, in the form of MPs – that March looks increasingly unlikely to be the month the UK does quit Europe. We'll find out for sure next week. Or, more likely, we won't.

But uncertainty is the overwhelming feeling elsewhere, too. It's implicit in Meek's title (the only thing you can be sure of with dreams is that they aren't real). It's central to his enquiry, which consists of four extended pieces of themed reportage, plus an introduction and an epilogue. And it sits close to the heart of his own response to Brexit. He voted Remain and would do so again, but he also confesses to having what he describes as an “inner Leaver”. So within his own certainty there is uncertainty and conflict.

How then do you plot a way through the infinite variety of opinions, arguments, theories, facts, pseudo-facts and counter-facts that make up our ongoing Brexit discourse? With difficulty you’d think, but Meek cleverly imposes a clear and understandable structure on Dreams Of Leaving And Remaining, cutting the subject into chapters headed Sea, Land, Life and Work.

In Sea, he heads to Grimsby, once home to one of the UK’s biggest fishing fleets but now in apparently terminal economic decline. His first visit there was in March 2015, two months before the General Election. He found a town which was turning its back on Labour and flirting with UKIP, whose anti-EU message found favour in a place which blamed the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) for the decimation of its fleet.

Of course nothing’s that simple. Digging into the facts, Meek shows that all British fishing fleets were in decline by the time the UK joined the EEC in 1973. The number of working fishermen halved between 1948 and 1960 and then declined on a steady basis every year afterwards. Nor would the UK’s fishing fleets have been much better off had the country stayed out of the EEC, as Iceland did. That country declared a 200-mile exclusion zone, but it was as much a reflection of Reykjavik’s concern with over-fishing as it was annoyance at trespassing. To that end, it introduced its own quotas on what Icelandic fishermen could catch. Canada, which also declared a 200-mile exclusion zone covering the lucrative Grand Banks cod grounds, took a hands-off approach and almost caused an environmental disaster as a result. It had to ban cod fishing entirely in 1992 in order to let the fish stocks recover.

Facts aside, it’s still easy to see why fishing communities voted Leave, particularly those which felt ignored by the political parties they had previously supported. In Grimsby, Meek meets tattoo parlour-owner Chris Osborne, a former steel worker who had stood on picket lines and was present at the Battle of Orgreave but who was now a campaign manager for UKIP. He’s typical of formerly steadfast Labour voters who were deserting the party, as it had deserted them.

But it’s harder to see why farmers also tend towards Euroscepticism given the generous subsidies available to them from the EU. In the chapter titled Land, Meek traipses round Norfolk, meeting men like Stuart Agnew, a UKIP MEP since 2009 and the recipient of an annual £40,000 subsidy for his 400 acre farm, and Old Etonian Charles Townshend, the 8th Marquess Townshend, whose family pile of Raynham Hall brings with it an annual subsidy of £360,000 and who apologises to Meek for his home being “between butlers”.

Around these and other confrontations Meek teases out more fascinating facts, highlighting the EU’s concern with environmentalism (farmers are paid more if they leave boundaries of a set width for wild flowers, weeds and insects to flourish) but also the contradiction between low food prices and efficiencies of scale and our British notion of the countryside as patchwork of fields and smallholdings of which farmers are really only custodians.

In Life, meanwhile, Meek visits Leicestershire for a chapter about the NHS – the promise to fund the service by an extra £350 million a week was one of the most notorious “lies” of the Leave campaign – and in Work he follows a Cadbury’s chocolate factory from Bristol, where it had been located for generations, to Poland, where labour is cheaper and there are juicy EU subsidies available to the factory’s multi-national owners.

Northern Ireland and Wales don't figure at all in Dreams Of Leaving And Remaining, ironic given the political leverage the Democratic Unionist Party currently have and the symbolism of the Irish border. And, though Meek was raised in Dundee, Scotland is mentioned only in passing here and there. In Sea he contrasts the improving zeal of Aberdeen’s Victorian civic leaders and the architectural and cultural legacies they left behind with the dearth of similar projects in the city during the boom years of the oil industry. In the same chapter he notes that the only British political party to successfully combine “vote-winning potential with the promise of disruptive change” is the SNP.

Essentially, then, this is an English story, and it’s given an appropriately English flavour by its introduction and epilogue, philosophical musings which bookend the factual reporting and which dip into and chew over what Meek thinks are the guiding folk mythologies giving Brexit its framework: St George and Robin Hood. These in turn play into the “dreams” of the title, something Meek defines as “an underlying model of the world … a transcendental map-narrative”.

It's in these opening and closing chapters that he’s at his most interesting, provocative and persuasive. St George signifies victory, in this case the slaying of the EU dragon, and is an event. Robin Hood is a process, the capturing of wealth from the rich and the distributing of it among the poor. St George is an easier sell, he thinks, but it’s to the myth of Robin Hood that Remainers and pro-EUers need to turn to give symbolism to their world view – though as he highlights, one of the tricks of the political right over the last decade has been to co-opt even the Robin Hood myth to its own ends, recasting the feckless benefits scrounger as the “rich” and the “poor” as the “hardworking”. (Here’s the kicker, though: “hardworking” in this model also includes oligarchs, billionaires and fund managers.)

It’s a grotesque inversion, to be sure. But it’s emblematic of the topsy-turvy times we’re living through and to which Meek, in this illuminating and thought-provoking series of essays, tries to bring some sense of perspective.