JB Priestley: 50 years before Brexit

Brexit shocked the world. But the writing had been on the wall. It had been foreseen nearly 50 years ago – by an English writer, naturally. Today is his birthday.

JB Priestley (September 13, 1894 – August 14, 1984 ) might have been forgotten by now had his play, An Inspector Calls, not been one of the prescribed texts for the English literature GCSE examination. Only a couple of his books can still be found in Singapore’s National Library Board catalogue. But he was one of the most popular writers and broadcasters of his time.

His novel, The Good Companions, proved so popular in 1929 that fleets of lorries had to be engaged to distribute it, recalls the Guardian.

Only Churchill reached a wider audience than Priestley during the Second World War. Postscripts, the talks Priestley gave on the BBC on Sunday nights in 1940 and 1941, drew peak audiences of 16 million, according to Wikipedia.

Priestley had his critics. Virginia Woolf called him a “tradesman of letters”. His bestselling novel, Angel Pavement, was “an excellent holiday read”, said George Orwell, but it was “absurd” to compare him with Charles Dickens.

Priestley, however, had the common touch, or he would have never been the bestseller he was.

He had the same misgivings about Europe as the majority who voted for Brexit in June this year. He spoke for them nearly 50 years ago – even before Britain became a member of the European Union.

After French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed British Prime Minister Macmillan’s request to join the Common Market (as it was called then) in 1963, Britain restarted talks to join the union in 1967.

‘Britain home of the British’

Don’t join the Europeans, warned Priestley. Those who wanted Britain to join the European union said it would be good for business and economy. “But Britain is not a super-ICI but the home of the British people,” argued Priestley. (ICI was a major British company.) The article appeared in the left-of-centre New Statesman on May 26, 1967.

Priestley wrote:

“The truth is – and we might as well face it – we English find it hard to develop an overwhelming passion for business. (We are a nation of hobby-horse riders, and out of our pursuits and pastimes, from birds and flowers to football and tennis, has come an astounding contribution to world civilisation.) ..

He expressed the same feelings about foreigners as the Brexiteers. If Britain joined the European union, he wrote, “London, Birmingham, Manchester will be swarming with cleverer business men than we are.”

“A nation must have trade but it is not primarily a trading concern. Britain is not a super-ICI but the home of the British people,” he added.

“But how can we go our own way, so many eccentric islanders, who don’t want to work too hard or think and talk about business day and night?” he asked. “The answer is – and I write in all earnestness – not to have our corners rubbed off by chaps from Clermont-Ferrand, Essen or Liège but to turn ourselves into even more eccentric islanders.

He concluded: “We have a well-meaning, careful government that may take us cautiously into the Market, behind high tariff walls. But we might be happier out in the wind, risking the loss of colour television, holidays in Spain, more and more cars, prepared to make audacious experiments, so many odd but exciting islanders. “

Incidentally, Priestley came from the north, from Bradford, which voted for Brexit.

Priestley’s article anticipated the Brexit debate but, of course, he belongs to a different era. It was a long time ago I enjoyed reading his memoirs, Margin Released, and An English Journey, his account of his travels in England in the autumn of 1933, during the Depression.

“During the 1930s Priestley became very concerned about the consequences of social inequality in Britain, and in 1942 Priestley and others set up a new political party, the Common Wealth Party, which argued for public ownership of land, greater democracy, and a new ‘morality’ in politics,” says a BBC page. “The party merged with the Labour Party in 1945, but Priestley was influential in developing the idea of the welfare state which began to be put into place at the end of the war.”

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