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WILL SELF: The story behind my stand-off with Mark Francois

Illustration by Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Our writer WILL SELF on his BBC television encounter with Tory Brexiteer MP Mark Francois – which went viral.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Who am I to criticise people whose newsfeeds pump Arron-Banks-funded disinformation into their dumb heads, causing a sort of enraged hydrocephalus that makes them shit in their own nests then gobble up the bemerded straw, crying out ‘Mm, taste that rich substance!’ After all, I’m just as much a creature of my own mediatisation: a sort of bourgeois grub, white and pampered, floating in the aural amniotic fluid of Radio 4.

I fall asleep listening to Today in Parliament, and wake up with Mishal or Martha, Nick or John – and occasionally Justin – blowing their conformist bubbles into my already saturated brain. Fuck it! I was raised on this: the royal jelly of Reithian self-satisfaction. Not only that, I’ve gone on to blow BBC filter bubbles myself – for surely, any media outlet becomes made in the image of its own consumers, and thereafter acts, even if subliminally, to confirm them in their prejudices? I’ve been sitting, in comfort, listening to brilliant reports about others’ acute discomfort for time out of mind.

So, surely, I should have some respect for people who at least want to do something rather than nothing? In particular, shouldn’t I respect their culture? They want to take back control of their own destiny, and believe that as free and sovereign Britons this is their birthright. Although, this being noted, the stats suggest there’s been a rather rapid reconfiguration in identities within these isles over the past quarter-century or so. At the beginning of this period, anyone asserting they were English rather than British was likely to be some leftist Billy Bragger, summoning Blakean ideas of mystic Albion and a folkish commonweal that largely consisted in producing corn dollies, corn circles, and just about anything else… corny.

Perhaps the pivotal years were around middle of the noughties – at any rate, that’s when I went to speak to my friend and mentor JG Ballard about what would prove to be his final novel, Kingdom Come. Jim was as bluff and strange as ever – he had the manner of the RAF pilot he might have become if he’d completed his training, combined with the thousand-yard stare at what’s immediately to hand, which is the sure sign of a surrealist. He pointed out to me the flags flying in the front gardens along Old Charlton Road, the utterly bland suburban road in Shepperton (an utterly bland Surrey dormitory town), where he’d lived for 40 extremely odd years.

For him, the flying of the Cross of St George was undoubtedly minatory: it had come about through a synergy between football fandom and the rise of ethnic nationalism; these were the years of the British National Party’s ascent to the giddy heights of the 2010 general election, when their candidates won over half a million votes.

Reviewing Kingdom Come in the Guardian, Phil Baker succinctly noted ‘Ballard’s central idea is that consumerism slides into fascism when politics simply gives the punters what they want’. Well, Jim was always prescient – this was the writer who conceived of the celebrity car crash as a catalyst of collective hysteria a quarter-century before Diana Spencer was killed in the Pont de l’Alma underpass, and who also anticipated the baleful impacts of global warming as early as the late 1950s. Jim got that English nationalism was on the rise – and that under neo-liberal conditions favouring consumption over production, it was likely to become a vector for the most troubling aspects of the famously ‘tolerant’ English psyche.

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Anyway, these were on display today at the BBC’s Millbank studios, where I appeared on Politics Live alongside former Tory spin-doctor Jo Tanner, stand-up comedian and feminist campaigner, Grace Campbell, and the deputy chairman of the European Research Group and arch-Brexiteer, Mark Francois.

OK, granted, I concede I didn’t cover myself with glory – but then I seldom do. I certainly didn’t enter the studio intending to mix it with Francois – I’d been told Nigel Farage would be one of the panellists, and I was looking forward to a rematch.

The last time the erstwhile leader of UKIP and I locked antlers was on an episode of the BBC’s Question Time broadcast from the prime minister’s constituency in Maidenhead. On that occasion I called him ‘a grubby little opportunist riding on the coattails of history’; a rhetorical flight I didn’t see coming until – like a speech bubble in a Gillray cartoon – it pooted, ectoplasmically from my lips.

I’d actually like to apologise to Farage for that – because while it works as rhetoric, I don’t really believe it to be true. Sure, Farage, in common with the vast majority who enter politics, is driven by vanity and self-interest as much as idealism – but I don’t doubt the idealism is there. Together, in Farage’s case, with a huge dose of the resentful poison that seems to animate so much Brexit thinking. Anyway, on that occasion Farage just sucked it up and gave a shit-eating grin – not so his fellow traveller, Francois, the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a large rural constituency in Essex.

I was already seated at the desk in the studio when he came in, and as he was plumping down beside me, someone made a comment about motivations for getting up in the morning, and he said words to the effect, ‘I’m always full of resolve when I wake up in the morning…’ I can’t say exactly why, but this got to me. I think it’s because since 2016 I’ve had a growing conviction about the world that really does undercut any simple binary oppositions between right and left, or in and out.

True, it does interpolate a binary of its own, but that’s sort of unavoidable when dealing with such a consummate dualist as the human mind. Anyway, it’s increasingly occurred to me that all the troubles in the world really result from just this sort of inflated resolve, and the equally inflated conception of agency that accompanies it. Think about it: almost everything bad that happens in the world is a result of people doing too much – and often with the best intentions.

Anyway, Francois was giving off a great whiff of this inflated agency, so I said, ‘You couldn’t put on your pants in the morning without that resolve, could you, Mark’. Whereupon he said, ‘I don’t have any problem putting on my pants – or my codpiece’.

Such a strange thing to say – as if he were in Romeo and Juliet!6 I immediately thought of Tybalt (Mercutio’s eventual slayer) ‘What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues and thee: Have at thee, coward!’ Which is probably why I needled him further: ‘Oh, you wear a codpiece, do you, Mark? Why’s that then – is there something about your anatomy you need to exaggerate?’

Pretty juvenile, I concede – and on International Women’s Day, with the rest of the panel looking on at us as if we were, indeed, rutting stags. Still, Francois very pleasingly lost what little sangfroid he’s ever had, making as if to remove his lapel mic’, and threatening to leave the studio.

The presenter, Jo Coburn, managed to soothe this ruffled coxcomb, and we went on with the show – but when we got to the vexed matter of, um, the rise of the populist anti-European Union right, everything kicked off again. Francois had been indulging in conspicuous virtue-signalling over what he’d probably refer to as ‘women’s issues’, but used his allotted time to go all partisan on the Labour Party’s ass, banging on about their anti-Semitism problem as if he’d single-handedly averted the Holocaust.

When it came to me I made a point I’ve made publicly before: the problem for Brexiteers is that while it’s by no means the case that you had to be a racist or an anti-Semite to vote to leave the European Union, the stark fact of the matter is that probably every racist and anti-Semite in Britain in fact did.

I thought his piggy little eyes might pop from their sockets – and, as a former Territorial Army officer with a seat of the Defence Select Committee, it’s surely appropriate that he went… ballistic, frothing at me that I should ‘apologise on national television to 17 million people’ who I’d apparently insulted.

I’d have liked the leisure to point out to him that those half-million BNP voters must have voted one way or the other in the 2016 referendum, and I somehow doubt it was to stay in the European Union, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity. We had a sort of Beavis and Butt-Head-style stare-off for a while, and at the end of the transmission – which was live – he headed for the exit pronto. I’m not saying he wanted to avoid a physical scrap – although he’d virtually offered me out over the codpiece thing – but his alacrity was… telling.

I did call after him ‘Good luck with the codpiece’, to which his witty riposte was ‘Good luck with your life’; which might, I think, have been a threat of some sort. Anyway, I wasn’t too bothered about going mano a mano with Francois, who has the proverbial small hands; nor am I especially worried about being crushed beneath the jackboot of a Brexiter fascist regime: I meant what I said – I don’t think all those 17 million people were racists and anti-Semites, but I firmly believe they are now the vector carrying that disease – which is why, in part at least, the Labour Party is having such a hard time with anti-Semitism right now.

• Will Self’s special edition of The New European is in shops now, and is also available to buy from our online shop.

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