In G. K. Chesterton’s dystopian 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, he presents the reader with a picture of a politically apathetic future Britain, which the leader is no longer elected by democratic vote. Instead, a rotational figurehead leader is decided by simply pulling names from a hat. This works well, for a time, since the lottery winner is typically an average Englishman, with average tastes and proclivities. All is well, until the name “Auberon Quinn” is plucked from the hat.
Quinn, as a character, is equal parts passion and insanity. He can see that political apathy has degraded the quality of life of the average person, and seeks to (however mischievously) solve this serious problem. At the same time, he is fascinated by medieval pomp and ceremony, and seeks to inject a medieval patriotism back into contemporary British life. To that end, he enlists town criers, flag-bearers, knights on horseback and the like, to patrol the towns of Britain. He divides the nation into traditional hamlets, and sets some in deliberate battle against others.
Quinn’s enemies soon seek to depose him, but they soon find that their best chance depends on playing the very game he has set up. They don their helmets, they mount their horses, they wave their flags and, in medieval fashion, fight against the new system installed by Quinn. So, the irony becomes clear. In seeking to defeat Quinn, they have, by necessity, had to develop the very sense of medieval patriotism that they claimed to be fighting against. In choosing to fight for Britain, Quinn’s enemies concede the very principle that Quinn himself had thrust upon them. In fighting for the right to political apathy, they must abandon it.
At bottom, the book sets two values against one another: patriotism and apathy. I wonder whether this book has something to say about Brexit, and the incommensurability of values that now stands between the hard brexiteers and the remainers. The brexiteers, it seems to me, are Quinns for the remainers. Their passion, their zeal, their war cries, and their slogans all evoke a different era of political discourse. They seem to be demanding something closer to an idea than anything tangible (“What do we want?” That feeling of what is was like when the Commonwealth was a thing! “When do we want it?” Now!). For the remainers, a no-deal brexit is a political nightmare, an economic catastrophe, and could dissolve the peace in Northern Ireland. “Why aren’t the ignorant brexiteers listening?” they wonder. But it seems clear enough that the brexiteers happily accept the possibility of political nightmare, of economic catastrophe and of the possibility of conflict in Ireland, just because these would be part and parcel of the freedom of the United Kingdom from any superior legal authority.
All this has left me wondering how the idea of “love of country” is being considered by each camp. For the brexiteers, patriotism is arguably a more dominant political value. If one loves one’s country, says the brexiteer, one does all one can to ensure its autonomy and to fight against its domination by others. I believe the remainers may, on the whole, find the notion of “love of country” somewhat more distasteful. “Patriotism” can be a dirty word in some circles. Yet for the remainers, a new idea of “love of country” is emerging. Witness Scotland, and the SNP’s repetitive cry that once Scotland is an independent nation, it can once more subject itself to the dominion of the European Union (Yes Chesterton, the irony isn’t lost on me either). If one loves one’s country, says the remainer, one does all one can to ensure its political and economic security, whether this is found within a larger political structure than the country itself or not. The brexiteers may have stoked the flames of a resurgent British patriotism, much like Quinn did in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. But the irony comes when the remainers are forced to find love for country once more, on their own terms. Remainers must, by necessity, adopt patriotism to fight that of the brexiteer.
Chesterton’s novel is not prophetic, by any means, but the book is good food for thought about all that is happening in the United Kingdom. In fact, although I say it is not prophetic, perhaps I should reserve judgement until 11pm on the 12th of April, just to be sure.