One of the best things about Brexit has been its shattering of anti-establishment pretensions. All the people who for yonks had been getting away with posing as rebels and disruptors and irritants to the status quo have been exposed as utterly allergic to radical political change; as small-c conservatives freaked out by revolt; as the nervous, nodding footsoldiers of political power.
From the trustafarians of Momentum, those laptop Leninists who fantasised that they were revolutionaries, to columnists like Caitlin Moran, the Times’ token rebel who once said she lives ‘like it’s 1969 all over again and my entire life is made of cheesecloth, sitars and hash’ (cringe much?), virtually every self-styled couterculturalist has gawped in unfiltered horror as a swarm of people, the 17.4m, has done something genuinely revolting. As they said for real, rather than just in a tweet or on a placard that will be binned before dinner, ‘We reject the political order’.
My favourite Brexit-delivered demolition of anti-establishment posing concerns Owen Jones. Poor Owen. A few years ago he wrote a book called The Establishment, railing against the rotters and bankers and tabloids he thinks are running Britain. Now he finds himself chortling along as bona fide establishment figure Nick Clegg takes the mick out of stupid northerners who voted for Brexit. Owen, like so many Fischer-Price revolutionaries, weeps hot tears over the democratic sucker-punch delivered to the EU, that most establishment of institutions, by the oiks.
This week it’s been the turn of comedians. Yes, right-on funnymen and women, who for decades have been cracking gags about nasty, grasping politicians, have also had a meltdown over Brexit. They’re raging against the revolting masses and pining for the EU. They’ve been exposed as court jesters — Juncker’s jesters — telling jokes (I say jokes) designed to flatter power and defame revolt. They are, perversely, satirists for the status quo.
Marcus Brigstocke told Radio 4 this week that his anti-Brexit schtick is causing him trouble in the north of England: ‘People have been angry. People have walked out of shows and people have booed.’ He reckons Brexit is ‘not just the hideous social and political turn we have taken as a country’ (yawn — change the record) but is also ‘comedic poison’.
Britain’s comics are almost universally anti-Brexit. The conformism is staggering. Aaron Brown, editor of the British Comedy Guide, nailed it this week when he said ‘the comedy world’s reaction [to Brexit] has been exclusively negative’. Too many comics, virtually all of them, ‘rely on lazily branding 52 percent of voters as racist’, he said. There isn’t much comic mileage, he reckons, in ‘lashing out at stupid people making the wrong decision’. Indeed. No wonder the likes of Brigstocke face fury in Brexit country. People don’t like being told they’re disgusting, hateful idiots. Who knew?
That a hulking swathe of the populace rejects the EU but hardly a single comic does shows how utterly disconnected the comic class really is. It confirms the colonisation of British comedy by a breathtakingly narrow strata of society. Tragically, the same is now happening in the pop and acting worlds: they’re being overrun by well-fed toffs or well-connected middle classes who tend to share the same worldview. Hence the cultural elite now thinks one thing, and ordinary people think another.
Having utterly jettisoned self-awareness, many of these fantasy rebels convince themselves they’re still in the business of rebellion. How? By bashing Boris and Farage and Gove and everyone’s favourite 1950s throwback, Jacob Rees-Mogg. They pretend (they must know it’s a pretence?) that these four Brexiteers, being posh and quite wealthy and influential in the government and media, are The Establishment, and that anyone who makes jokes about them or tweets photos of them gurning on Question Time is a radical.
Please. It’s such a farce. A minute or two of serious reflection will confirm it’s the pro-EU side that is establishment, and the anti-EU plebs who are anti-establishment. In the run-up to the referendum, the EU side was backed by most MPs, by big business, by virtually every global institution, by the White House, by almost all of academia. If you’re making jokes or writing columns or taking to the streets on that side, then you’re not anti-establishment. You just aren’t! And that’s okay. You’re nervous and conservative. Fine. Own it.
All of this points to the spectacular failure of the left with regards to Brexit. I’m not sure the left will ever recover from its failure to see in Brexit a good and honest mass yearning for greater democratic accountability and meaningful popular sovereignty. The right’s failures on Brexit are technical — it looks like they’ll make a dog’s dinner of the negotiations — but the left’s failures are existential. A movement founded to express the will of the people against the established political order now does the utter opposite. The right might have been exposed as inefficient by the Brexit revolt, but the left has been exposed as kaput, over, reduced from a dreamer of rebellion to the obedient propaganda wing of a clapped-out oligarchy that millions hate. Now that’s funny. Come on, comics: this material is rich.