I’ve been re-reading a couple of the James Bond books. Most of them were written during the 1950s, and they’re fascinating period pieces. But most of all, they’re interesting because they show what hasn’t changed. They explain a great deal of what we’ve been seeing in Britain in 2016.
The first, Casino Royale, was published in Coronation year. The country had recently won a war. England was great. The Empire was great – just about. (India had gone, but there was still plenty of pink on the globe and Suez was a couple of years in the future.)
All foreigners were untrustworthy – that is to say, anyone not English. (And I mean “English”, not “British”. Scots, Welsh and Irish were not as dodgy as the rest of the world, but still not quite the real thing, if you know what I mean, old boy – though some of them have done extremely well considering their disadvantages.) Others – people from other countries – often betrayed the wiliness of their race, or displayed the typical spongey handshake of the Eastern race, or some such phrase. Antisemitism was so normal as to be literally unnoticed. But we mustn’t take it personally. Absolutely everybody else who wasn’t English was patronised, mistrusted or dismissed in some way or other.
The world was run by people who had been to the right (private) school, most probably become members of the officer class, and above all, had the right breeding. They knew how to appreciate the good things in life – Bentleys, Bollinger, or Beluga. They knew how to treat their servants. And by God they knew how to treat women. A woman was for wooing softly or taking with violence. And a woman who might seem too much of a person, like Vesper Lynd, who maybe held back a little piece of herself, would give the sweetness of rape to the transaction. An (English) God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. Bond himself wasn’t quite one of them, but he learnt fast and was a useful hands-on thug to implement his masters’ hands-off thuggery.
The thing is, while this seems foreign and out of date to me, this is bang up to date for the leaders of the Brexit campaign. This is the world that Farage and Boris and the others want to return to. Actually, not return to, because for them it still hasn’t quite slipped away and they want to hang on to the last remnants of it. Certainly, they were followed in their Brexit campaigning by disaffected, disillusioned people for all sorts of reasons – but if you want to understand the establishment leaders of the British anti-establishment movement, turn to the pages of James Bond.