Melvyn Bragg: “Brexit has become a cult. It’s a bit like the Moonies"
Since the referendum, Melvyn Bragg has made it his business to familiarise himself with all things Brexit. The broadcaster fears that leaving the EU will be a disaster for the country – but sees a way out for his party and Theresa May. He talks to Sebastian Whale
The morning of 24 June 2016 began just like any other for Melvyn Bragg. He woke up at his usual time and switched on the news. What he heard left him dumbfounded. “I was knocked sideways,” he says, shaking his head as though reliving the sense of disbelief. “I was completely unprepared for it. I thought, oh Christ!”
For the Labour peer, the referendum result provoked a renewed sense of political purpose. “Ever since then I was wondering, how can we reverse that?” he says. “It seemed to me, only knowing a bit about it, that it was going to be very bad. Since then, I’ve made it my business to know a lot about it.”
“I’m a news junkie,” the author adds with vigour. “It’s the best novel going.”
I’m visiting Bragg at his central London office just off Oxford Street. He is slumped comfortably into an armchair in the corner of a meeting room with a mug of tea held by both hands resting on his chest. The host of the South Bank Show has been through a tumultuous year. He got pneumonia soon after a hip replacement and divorced his second wife (and mother to two of his three children) after 44 years of marriage. His voice, deeply familiar to listeners of Radio 4’s In Our Time, is frail. That said, looking handsome as ever in a three-piece suit, his appearance defies his 79 years of age. “That’s my lucky genes,” he says with an electrifying showbiz smile.
The softness of Bragg’s speech masks an underlying anger at the political class over Brexit, which he fears will have widespread implications for his beloved creative industries and the UK. During our 40-minutes together, which is less an interview than a speech punctuated by a few questions, he airs gripes with many of the usual suspects associated with the debate – and even finds time to have a crack at “that weasel Macron”. His chief target is one David Cameron, or “contemptible Cameron” as he calls him with a Trumpian flourish.
“He got everything wrong. He needn’t have called [the referendum], he just gave into his right wing because he’s a pusillanimous person,” he says. That marks one of seven mentions of the former PM during our time together. “Now, Cameron, with his usual bloody stupidity, should have said ‘it’s got to be at least a 55%’ and so on. But he didn’t think that through because he doesn’t think things through. He is a smarmy PR man… Cameron is the sort of leading wimp… God knows Cameron is useless.”
So, I take it Bragg is looking forward to reading Cameron’s memoirs?
“I’m looking forward to getting hold of his book, I can tell you, yes. Self-serving, and now this swaggering on – ‘I’m very bored, I think I’d like another job now. Bit bored, so I’d like to be Foreign Secretary’. He ran a lousy campaign and then he ran away… we’ve never heard a pip or a squeak from him. He didn’t go on the Remain march, he didn’t do anything. Cameron could have saved his name by leading the Remain minority,” Bragg argues.
Another Cameron swipe flows from a question about the House of Lords’ role on Brexit. “It’s terrific but we don’t have an impact. We’re derided. The stance of the Cameronites and duds like that is that ‘oh if they oppose us then we must abolish them’. What a witty, thoughtful, intelligent reaction to being opposed – ‘oh let’s abolish them’. Bloody child’s play. It’s like ‘I would like another job’ – who the f*** does he think he is?”
He delivers the final line with a grin so cheeky that I burst into laughter.
Though Bragg says he didn’t see Brexit coming, he’s not short on ideas of how it came about. Alongside “contemptible” Cameron, he points the finger at the BBC (whose HQ is just around the corner) and others for giving airtime to Nigel Farage. “Boris Johnson, of course, gave his exhibitionist, narcissistic, self-seeking backing to it. People like Farage and Boris, some newspapers think ‘oh they make news, they’re so colourful’. They’re dangerous these people and so it turned out to be,” he says.
Bragg, who grew up in a “two-up, two-down” in West Cumberland (and still has hints of a Cumbrian accent), says the working class had been “severely neglected by both parties over the last 30 years at least”. “Nobody gave a s*** about them… it was a sod them vote, partly,” he argues, and one of “sheer bloody-mindedness”. Successive politicians had failed to communicate the virtues of the European Union or “substantial contributions” it made to British life, he adds.
Does he feel conflicted about his hometown voting for something he thinks would be a disaster? He takes a rare pause. “No, it doesn’t make me feel conflicted. They were lied to,” he replies.
Bragg, who was appointed a Labour peer in 1998, is also unhappy with his own party for failing to communicate the benefits of immigration. “The interesting thing is that the people in this country most comfortable with immigration were people in London, where there was most immigration,” he says.
“I was canvassing in Carlisle for the Labour party – you couldn’t believe it really – they were worried about immigration,” he continues, barely containing his amusement. “Nearly ninety per cent of the people in Carlisle had been born in and around Carlisle! … but ‘oh, this terrible threat of immigration!’”
After gathering himself, he asks: “Why didn’t the Labour party tell people that? Why isn’t the Labour party behind the truth?”
How disappointed is he in his party? “Very,” he says. “They’re fudgers, fudgers and fudgers.”
Despite that, Bragg says it is “impossible for him” to consider his party membership and insists he wouldn’t prefer a switch to the crossbenches in the Lords. “I’ve been Labour since I’ve been a member of nearly anything.”
What is his message to Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit? “I’d say come off the fence, back Remain and get on with it. His dallying is doing the Labour party no good… They should be streaking away [in the polls].”
Brexiteers, naturally, also feel his wrath. “These bunch of squirearchal, hedge funding, overprivileged people who think it’s going to be okay – it’s going to be okay for them. They’re not going to suffer, not a bit of it. They don’t offer any evidence now. It’s ceased to be a programme or a process, it’s a cult. It’s a bit like the Moonies. They just believe it because they believe because they believe it. Because they are who they are, they think them believing it is significant. No, it isn’t,” he says.
“Their so-called figureheads like [Sir James] Dyson runs away, buggers off – traitorous you could say, in some ways. ‘I’m a big Brexit man’ – as soon as he sees an opportunity he goes to Singapore, puts two billion in there when he could have done it here. Isn’t he rich enough? He’s the biggest landowner in the country. How greedy can somebody get?... Horrible… It speaks to what is wrong about our country. It also has unleashed feelings that are very unpleasant. We were getting on pretty well.”
Though Bragg says he would not consider leaving Britain now, would he if he was my age? “I wouldn’t leave because you particularly aged 27 are able to do something. I would say there was more reason for staying than leaving. Where would you go to, New Zealand? Being taken over by the Chinese. Australia? Taken over by the Chinese… France with that weasel Macron?” he asks.
“I have no intention of thinking of leaving this country… but your generation, like my son and two daughters, their job is to dig in and try to change things, which they try and do. There is no point in buggering off.”
Due to work commitments and his health, Bragg picks and chooses his time to speak in the Upper Chamber. In October, he gave a speech in which he warned Brexit would be “dire” for the creative industries. The sector, which employs more than two million people and is growing at twice the rate of the overall economy, would suffer from the end to free movement of people and the flow of goods; will miss out on key cross-border projects and grants, and receive less support on copyright law outside of the EU, he argues. In a nutshell, he fears that Brexit will jeopardise Britain’s success in the industry.
A poll by the Creative Industries Federation found that 96% of its members voted Remain. Why is the sector so heavily against Brexit? “They see what’s happening on a daily basis. Imagine taking the [London Symphony Orchestra] on a three-day tour and every instrument has to be checked in, every person – it’s ludicrous. They won’t go,” he says.
“The EU was helpful in all the performing arts in allowing the performing artists to come and go across Europe. That’s been an enormous strength. Last year, 96 performances by major orchestras took place in Europe. It’s very important.”
With political playwright James Graham’s drama on Brexit due out next year, what about the idea that the referendum could lead to a renaissance in the arts and form a new counter-culture? “I don’t think it’s strong enough… maybe there is a counter-culture, maybe not. I don’t see any Brexit novelists turning up. James Graham is the sort of talent that would have turned up anyway,” he replies.
Bragg, who was Chancellor of Leeds University for more than 15 years, adds: “The arts are a very good barometer. They are a good canary in the mine. It’s going to be dreadful.”
What is his message to those who say here is a member of the liberal elite, writing off something the British people voted for before it has happened?
“I haven’t turned against it. I have concluded that it’s a very bad thing for this country. It’s not ideological, it’s practical, it’s empirical,” he says.
“It’s an extremely bad thing for this country in many, many ways. It’s bad for society in the sense it’s saying, ‘we don’t want them’. It’s bad for our commerce. It’s bad for the arts, universities – we know about that. It’s bad for the country. What stacks up are the negatives. You tell me how many positives there are.”
He adds: “My opinion was that it was a dubious proposition and I’ve watched it very carefully over the last two years. In fact, I must be one of the very few people in this country who enjoy discussions on Brexit.”
He’s probably right on that one.
Bragg still holds faith that Theresa May could change course. He says the PM could salvage her reputation by rejecting the “Charge of the Light Brigade” approach and instead declare that she was not elected to make the country worse off. “If she did that, I think she’d emerge better than Boudica”.
“Now, there would be a bit of egg on our face. But what’s egg on our face compared with being destitute?” he asks. He turns his attention to the negotiations and that “weaselly little Macron” again, before pausing. “I think he’s a… I dunno… I’m personalising it a little too much.”
With the mug of tea still largely unmoved from his chest, and his voice reaching full health, he concludes:
“Forty-eight per cent is not a minority. This country has been built on minorities. The slave trade was abolished because of the minority pegging away. The suffragettes, the trade unions… universal education… again and again and again and again.
“Minorities turn into majorities quite quickly, especially when they’re right. I won’t go as far as Oscar Wilde, who said that minorities are always right. They’re not – but they were in this case.”