Where were you when Britain voted to leave the European Union?
I remember quite clearly. I stayed up all night, my predictions bearing true as result after result came in. My mum woke me up in the early hours, minutes before David Cameron resigned. I showed up at college, dazed, meeting with my friends, similarly dazed. That night we went to a raucous house party in the middle of the countryside – perfect for those long, summer evenings of June. I stood with a friend or two, watching the clouds move away and become drenched in rich orange light. It was as stunning a sunset as you’ll ever see. And as I stood, the memories of what had happened returned to my mind.
Britain had just voted to leave the EU. The Prime Minister was gone. The pound had collapsed. The country, along with much of the world, was in chaos. Never had anything like this happened before. Ever.
“Well,” I thought, “what the bloody hell happens now?”
Over two years on, we’ve seen what happens next. Theresa May became Prime Minister, the Brexiteers infiltrated the state, Article 50 was triggered, the Conservatives enjoyed unprecedented success, May called a snap election, barely won it, half her cabinet have resigned, people want a second referendum, and the government’s been on the brink of collapse for close to 18 months.
With all that, it’s easy to forget that the referendum was a story in itself, rather than the beginning of a tumultuous two years. Remember when Cameron renegotiated Britain’s EU membership in February 2016? Me neither. That’s why Tim Shipman’s All Out War is such a brilliant read. Well, that, along with the witty prose, the proliferation of fun facts, quotes and gossip, and the excellent political analysis. As somebody with rigorous, self-imposed reading lists, I am much appreciative of what I call a ‘treat read,’ which Shipman thoroughly satisfied. It has been said many times because it is true: if you are into UK politics, then you must read this book.
Even if good prose is of no value to you (in which case I would wonder what is wrong with you), the sheer volume of information is astounding. Did you know that George Osborne described Iain Duncan Smith (the former Work and Pensions Secretary) as ‘not smart enough’? Or that, when asked if he was willing to let Labour split, John McDonnell said, “if that’s what it takes”? What about the fact that Michael Gove was on the toilet when David Cameron called to concede the referendum?
Such examples are more gossip-y, but All Out War draws rich illustrations of the maniacal characters who dominate British politics. Jeremy Corbyn is the grandfatherly king controlled by his aides and their “duty of care” (yes, that’s a direct quote). Michael Gove is the adopted working-class boy who worked his way up to Oxford and the highest chambers of British society, finally breaking free and setting his own path with Brexit. Dominic Cummings reads like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes if he ended up in politics (how fitting that Cumberbatch is playing him in a TV movie). Shipman differentiates his book from other political novelists by honing in on real personalities in a Game of Thrones-esque narrative spanning multiple camps: the bad boys at UKIP and Leave.EU, the middle-class Eurosceptics of Vote Leave, the misguided establishment at Stronger In and Number 10, and the tired, frustrated folks over at Labour In, seamlessly interweaving between them.
Characters – and they feel like characters – do not make decisions in All Out War because they did in real life, but because those decisions make sense with the people they have been established as. Evident from what the book looks like now, there were just too many interesting decisions.
Enlivening this tale further, Shipman shows that the title is not just a rhetorical device: All Out War is written as a war. Steve Baker reads The Art of War to prepare for the campaign, proverbial artillery is cocked, locked and loaded, strategies of military history are deployed to great effect, and the well-oiled defences of all the parties are left pierced and obliterated. Reading the book with hindsight, it is clear to see that, contrary to the conclusions drawn by Shipman, the necessary repairs have not been made.
As the book speeds towards its conclusion, the eerieness, the stillness, the sheer state of shock which followed the referendum result permeates. In the context of 2018, the uncertainty evokes the sombre mood of Infinity War, after the Mad Titan Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half of all life in the universe. With a simple tick at the ballot box, the British electorate wiped out the political consensus of decades-old in an instant, setting the island for a course to as yet known. Dread builds, as our characters stand in the ashes of their destruction and realise that history’s quill and ink has been bestowed upon them. “What now?”
We still don’t know. I find non-fiction books, film and television (discounting the news, which never ends) fascinating because they aim to offer some decisive analysis of events which have yet to end. Shipman is at least aware of this, recalling Chou Enlai’s 1972 comment that, 183 years on from the French Revolution, it was “too early to say” what it meant. 873 days on from the referendum, we are none the wiser. Shipman quotes David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, stating that a referendum has a “long tail … it’s not a one-off event that can just be absorbed and moved on from.”
Nonetheless, Shipman proves adept at absorbing what was readily available to him, providing analysis which remains thoughtful and convincing 873 days on. Brexit happened for a multitude of reasons, any one of which, had it not occurred, would have given Remain the crown. This emphasis on individual people and moments is particularly stark as the People’s Vote campaign scramble to stop Brexit now. They will no doubt know too that the coalition behind all events is inherently unstable. They will know that history has its eyes on them.
For all even mildly intrigued in British politics, people, power, history and military analogies, I cannot recommend All Out War enough. It is a tome of a piece, but one which simply cannot be put down, for it is far too exciting and enthralling.
Now, time to get cracking on…