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EU Referendum Thrillers: A Primer

June 5, 2016

As there is less than a month to go before the referendum in which the British people will decide whether the United Kingdom will leave or remain in the European Union, I thought it was high time I returned to the niche subject of Eurosceptic crime fiction.

The fear that British democracy is being subsumed into a centralised, undemocratic and corrupt EU has proved a fruitful subject for several thriller writers. Some of the Eurosceptic thrillers I have looked at on this blog include Andrew Roberts The Aachen Memorandum (1995) which presents a dystopian view of Britain in the year 2045, now a colony in the United States of Europe. For a contemporary setting read Michael Dobbs A Sentimental Traitor (2011) and Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy (2012), both are rattling good yarns with stiff upper lip British heroes battling sinister EU bureaucrats. For Euroscepticism outside of a British setting there is the Icelandic writer Hallur Hallson’s rather heavy-going Vulture’s Lair (2012), and Adam Lebor’s The Budapest Protocol (2009). Lebor’s work is particularly impressively as much of the novel is concerned with exposing the discrimination against the Romani or Roma people in Central and South-Eastern Europe which, I believe, counteracts the claim that Eurosceptics are a right-wing fringe.

Head of State

Recently I came across two entertaining works to add to my list, both written by authors who one would not naturally describe as Eurosceptic. First, we have Andrew Marr’s Head of State (2014). Marr’s novel was published a year before the general election in which the Conservative party was returned to government and the EU referendum became inevitable. The plot is rather prescient as events begin three days prior to an EU referendum. The ‘In’ campaign is heavily reliant on the Prime Minister’s personal appeal (sound familiar?) and not on his pre-vote renegotiation, a vague promise to establish a freer-market, which looks like a less regulated EU for the richer northern countries (although that sounds better than what David Cameron actually achieved). But when the Prime Minister suddenly dies, his Euro-fanatical aides hatch a scheme to keep this information from the public unless its derails the expected ‘In’ vote. What follows is utterly preposterous, and if I told you the cast of characters included impressionist Rory Bremner (no really) you can probably guess the shenanigans that ensue.

I described Head of State as entertaining, I didn’t say it was particularly good. It received scathing reviews, none of which I’d argue with. Marr credits Lord Chadlington with giving him the basic plot, and the Tory peer writes a foreword defending the ridiculous narrative ‘we should remember that much of what we take today as ‘normal’ political behaviour would have been considered unthinkable fifty – or even twenty – years ago. Today, almost anything seems politically possible.’ Fair enough, but I hardly think civil servants decapitating the Prime Minister’s corpse and then running around Downing Street with body parts is very likely.

Peter Preston’s 51st State was published in 1998 and is a futuristic satire which possesses remarkable foresight. When Preston was writing, the big debate in UK politics was whether Britain should join the Single Currency51st State begins with Brexit: a late intervention by the mild-mannered Tory Leader of the House of Commons Rupert Warner (think Michael Gove) unexpectedly sways the country into voting to leave the EU. The suddenly popular Warner find himself elevated to the role of Prime Minister (think Boris), and Britain needs to rethink its place in the world, and its future. Warner is persuaded by his ambitious colleague Polly Gurley to join a political union with the United States, and Britain becomes the titular 51st State in the world’s only remaining superpower.

51st State is a better novel than Marr’s Head of State, with Preston more self-aware of the absurdities of the plot and producing better satire as a result. Neither writer shows much enthusiasm for the European Union (the Europhile Utopian-tinged views of Edward Heath and Tony Blair disappeared years ago) however, if I was to guess their personal views, they seem glumly resigned to Britain staying in the EU as the best of a collection of bad options.

Having studied Eurosceptic thrillers for a few years now, and reading many views from the other side of the debate, I can’t just resign myself to voting Remain in the knowledge that the EU is becoming more and more unaccountable, bureaucratic and arrogant with power.

I respect Marr and Preston as writers, but I’ll be voting Leave, and long live the Eurosceptic thriller!

51st State

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