An easy way to measure how much and how swiftly Britain has changed in the age of Brexit is to compare the Britain of 2019 with the image the country projected of itself seven years ago. The last time that pre-Brexit Britain showed itself to the world, the last time it thought hard about its identity, even its own meaning as a country, was on a warm summer’s evening in 2012 when, under the guiding hand of the movie director Danny Boyle, London staged the opening ceremony of that year’s Olympic Games.
It was a spectacular show, of course, but it was also packed with unexpected oddities and comic eccentricities: children bounced on giant beds, Mr. Bean performed a one-note solo on an electric keyboard. It won immediate and near-universal acclaim, and cast Britain in a new light: not as the country of Masterpiece Theatre period dramas, forever looking back to an imperial past for grandeur and glory, but as a vibrant, ethnically diverse, tolerant society no longer embodied by, say, the sight of Kenneth Branagh in a top hat that came at the start of the show, but instead by the couple of black teenagers in sneakers who took the stage toward the end, acting out a tentative courtship in the age of the cell phone. Boyle’s message to the global audience was that Britain may once have been a nation that sailed out and into the world, chiefly to plunder its bounty and, if necessary, subjugate its peoples, but was now only too glad to play a different part, welcoming the peoples of the world back to its shores. For Britons watching at home, the message was fresh and thrilling: we should love the country we had become—informal, mixed, quirky—rather than the one we used to be.
So intense was the collective experience of that evening that it serves as a crucial point in a book that might one day be regarded as the first of a new genre: the Brexit novel. In Middle England, Jonathan Coe shows how the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in a referendum on June 23, 2016, both reflects and reverberates through the lives of characters scattered across the kingdom. Tellingly, he has all of them watching the TV coverage of the Olympic ceremony that night in 2012. Several experience a hitherto unfamiliar tingle in the breast: it is patriotism. One is in tears. Another thinks that “England felt like a calm and settled place tonight: a country at ease with itself.” That sentence describes the obverse of the Britain of 2019.
Naturally, skeptics will say that there was plenty wrong with the country in 2012 too. A Conservative-led government had for two years been cutting public spending—on schools, hospitals, police, children’s centers, local libraries, and much more—in the name of…
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