When I supported Brexit in this column, much to the dismay of family and friends, I never argued that severing links with the European Union after so many years would be anything but immensely complicated or that Britain wouldn’t suffer serious disruption and financial losses.
My view, rightly or wrongly, was that Britain should never have tied itself to Europe in the first place (even though I admit I supported the referendum to join in 1975.) At that time Britain was in the doldrums, effectively run by the big trade unions, in the course of an apparently inevitable historical decline. Joining Europe was like a drunken man grabbing the nearest lamp-post for support.
There was idealism, too, of course, in helping to create a system in which traditional enemies like France and Germany would work together in peace. For me, and many thousands of others, however, the EU’s gradual but insistent move to a federal structure was an alien and almost certainly unworkable concept.
A Europe (now consisting of 27 countries, not the five when Britain joined) would be run as a single country from Brussels. That was not the Europe Britain joined and it was not one that a proud and unconquered island would tolerate for long. It would fail and the whole edifice might then fall apart. Britain was better out of it.
Brussels would inevitably punish Britain for leaving, if only to discourage others from following Britain’s lead. In due course, however – or so I believed - the EU’s own interests would require it to have a solid working relationship with the fifth biggest economy in the world.
The EU’s latest offer on Northern Ireland, removing trade barriers and thus making it easier and less bureaucratic for goods to reach the province, is perhaps the first faint sign that I may have been right. But Brexit won’t be complete until the European Court ceases to have any authority over the British province of Northern Ireland.
A tale of two writers
Two of my favourite Scottish writers are William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin. I was therefore delighted when my wife returned from London at the weekend with a new thriller, The Dark Remains, jointly authored by the pair of them.
The book was actually produced by Rankin from an unfinished story by Willie, who died in 2015. My wife and I went to his funeral at Glasgow University. He admitted (in an interview with Rankin at a literary festival two years before he died) that “I’m a wonderful non-finisher of things…I’m just going to get too old to finish them.”
Fortunately, Rankin, the hugely productive creator of Rebus, was an admirer of Willie as the founder of Tartan Noir and called him “the Scottish Camus,” and completed one of them. Willie’s great detective was a complex character called Laidlaw, who appeared a decade before Rankin’s first book. He won two Silver Daggers for detective fiction for Laidlaw books, finishing second only to John le Carre.
Laidlaw was so popular that Scottish Television were keen to run a series based on him, but eventually, to Willie’s lasting grievance, chose Glen Chandler’s Taggart instead. Sean Connery offered to play Laidlaw in a film, but it came to nothing, as did a purported autobiography of Connery that McIlvanney was due to write.
Willie then concentrated on writing more serious fiction, for which he also won awards. His death brought tributes from many Scottish authors, including Val McDermid, who admitted to owing a great deal to him. Willie might have attracted a wider audience if he had moved to London, but he remained in Glasgow, absorbed by the city’s character.
I got to know Willie through his elder brother Hugh, the greatest of sports writers, who worked with me on The Observer for 27 years and became a close friend. My wife and I were once present at a dinner where Willie and Hugh, sitting at opposite end of the table, sang a plaintive Scottish ballad of great beauty without an accompaniment, silencing the table for several minutes.
I remember meeting Willie for the first time in the mid-Seventies. Hugh said his two brothers were in town and would I like to meet them for a drink in the Mermaid bar, then across the road from the newspaper office. I went in to see three broad backs at the bar. I uttered the one word “McIlvanney” and the three men turned round holding drinks like gunslingers in a Western saloon.
Neil, the eldest, looked the toughest, with a craggy face that seemed to be carved out of the mining stock of their native Kilmarnock, 20 miles south of Glasgow. Willie, the youngest, was willowy and good-looking, with a Clark Gable moustache. Hugh was a mix of the two, tough but with a glint of sharp humour in his eyes.
It is a great solace to those who knew the McIlvanney brothers (Hugh died in 2019) that Willie’s greatness should have been acknowledged so warmly by his fellow Scottish writers.
Sally Rooney censors herself
While on the subject of writers and books, I was appalled to learn that Sally Rooney, the phenomenally successful Irish novelist, is refusing to allow an Israeli publisher to have her new book, Beautiful World – Where Are You?, translated and sold in Hebrew.
She evidently insists that she will only allow an Israeli publisher who supports the cultural boycott of Israel to handle her book there. Of course, as she should know, there no such publishers in Israel.
Her previous books have been published in Hebrew, and in Mandarin, Arabic and most of the world’s languages. To pick out Israel for boycott, she risks the charge of being anti-Semitic or, as one writer put it, “looking bigoted, in thrall to a juvenile, simplistic, Leftist view of the world.” It isn’t the state of Israel that wants to buy her book: it is individual readers with a whole range of political opinions, or none.
It seems reasonable to ask: Why only support the Palestinian cause and not the Uyghurs in China who have suffered genocide, or the opposition to Chinese rule in Hong Kong, or Saudi Arabia, where a ruler had an American journalist murdered and dismembered for criticising his country, or indeed any of the countries which deny rights to women.
To supply books to these countries and profit from the sales is morally at least as bad, if not worse, than letting Israelis enjoy her book. Besides, a cultural boycott is a dangerous thing for a writer to support. Art is universal or it is nothing.