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Mark Francois’ Spartan Victory is illiteracy on parade

They shared a famous TV Brexit moment. When Mark Francois wrote a book, there was only one person who could review it...

Mark Francois on the move. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty.

In a book characterised by the rapid-fire alternation across more than 400 pages between bathos and pathos, perhaps the saddest and most pathetic moment of all comes in Mark Francois’ valedictory acknowledgements: “I am particularly indebted to five people who took the time and trouble to read through an initial draft of the manuscript, and then provide me with a number of very helpful comments on how the text could be improved.”

Francois then lists the five and their job titles; besides his fellow parliamentarian, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the European Research Group’s chief researcher, Christopher Howarth, the other three are all professional journalists.

Rees-Mogg has also provided his quondam political ally with a blurb of consummate slipperiness, suggesting that “If you voted for Brexit, you really should buy this book.” Not, you note, read it. And indeed, it seems pretty unlikely that Rees-Mogg and Howarth – let alone the three pro’ scriveners – sampled more than a page or two of this magoozlum, or searched a digitised version of the text in order to check a fact, or their own mentions; because the first thing to be said about Spartan Victory is that it’s both appallingly written and hasn’t been copyedited at all.

How bad these solecisms – stylistic and grammatical – really are, is debatable. That Francois should be unable to spot myriad literals, typos, misspellings and egregious repetitions in his own text is perhaps excusable – even we who make our living reading and writing can become astonishingly word-blind when it comes to our own copy in particular. For tyros it’s far worse – which explains, among other reasons, why publishers exist.

But here’s the pathos: poor little self-publishing Mark, before sending this, his magnum – and odds-on, only – opus, to the press, didn’t have one friend or colleague close or caring enough to prevent him becoming a laughing-stock. Because this is illiteracy on parade, and anyone competent in these matters who’d actually scanned the book for more than a few minutes would’ve told him so.

Which brings me to the style of Spartan Victory; I’d wager that Francois is a fan of JK Rowling, because in common with the ruling mistress of crap English prose he leans heavily on adverbs as modifiers. Well, not adverbs – just the one: “ironically”, which appears no fewer than 33 times in Spartan Victory. By comparison, there are only five instances of “sadly” and none at all of “happily”.

I’m a great proponent of the one-word school of literary criticism; most writers can’t help cleaving to one term which, through repetition, acts as a strange sort of synecdoche of their worldview – for Lewis Carroll it was “curiously”, for Fyodor Dostoevsky, “ecstasy”, but for Mark Francois it’s “ironically”. Not that he knows how to apply it correctly – indeed, Francois rivals Alanis Morrissette when it comes to wrongly ascribing irony to events that are severally bizarre, paradoxical or coincidental.

Of course, irony isn’t even an attribute of things that happen (unless you believe in a snobbish and interventionist God), but rather it is situational and concerned with demarcating persons and their estate. “Oh, we all love X,” coo the knowing nobs, all chortling merrily because one amongst them – the ignorant oik – doesn’t know that X is a total anathema. His failure to understand their irony keeps him in his place.

How much of this sort of behaviour must Francois, a working-class boy from Essex, have suffered during his decades as a card-carrying Tory? The position of working-class Tories generally is, um, ironic (as is that of middle-class socialists) and it’s surely this that Francois inadvertently betrays with his ironic incontinence: even watching Jacob Rees-Mogg on television feels patronising to Oxbridge-educated middle-class me – how much worse it must it be for Francois, who’s spent hour-upon-hour listening to that over-cultivated and inherently sneery accent.

Not that he takes out his anger on the patricians in his party – instead, he reserves this for the “metropolitan elite” who tried to frustrate “the democratic will of the people”, and whose praetorian guard are – somewhat paradoxically – formed by those Francois dubs “Marxists”, myself among them.

Actually, if Christopher Howarth is any good at all as a researcher, he can’t have provided poor Francois with any real assistance either: a few keystrokes would have led either or both of them to the intelligence that I am not now and never have been a Marxist; nor am I – as Francois seems to believe – a “sociology professor”.

The reason I’m taking such a prominent role in this review is that Francois has allocated it to me. Our notorious encounter on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme in March 2019, during which – according to the tabloids – I unleashed on the hapless MP for Rayleigh and Wickford a ‘death stare’, forms an entire section of Spartan Victory; moreover, Francois ascribes his subsequent notoriety to this episode, an eventuality he cannot forbear from viewing as – you guessed it – “ironic”. It was nothing of the sort – only grotesque. I confess, that just as I regularly fail to read the Daily Mail, and so didn’t realise (until I consulted the style Bible in the course of writing this review) that “Marxist” in Tory Middle-to-Little England’s lexicon is a catchall applied to anyone at all they feel an instinctive revulsion from, so I was unaware on the day I bumbled into the BBC’s studios at Millbank what all the fuss was about Geoffrey Cox’s “codpiece”. I mean to say, I – unlike Mark Francois – have a life outside of politics.

Mark Francois in his infamous TV clash with Will Self. Photo: Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty.

I’d never heard about this particular manhood-enhancer before, so when the presenter asked Francois if he had anything in his codpiece (a reference to the demand of the European Research Group that Cox, the Attorney General, give advice to the then cabinet which showed a substantive move on the terms of the Northern Irish backstop as it appeared in the current iteration of the EU Withdrawal Agreement), I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about – so it was perfectly natural for me to ask Francois if he had a small penis. I mean, why else would a man wear a codpiece – not just in this day and age, but any?

Francois is still smarting at the imputation – but let me please take this opportunity to apologise: it was rhetoric, Mark – I’ve no idea how big your prick is, and obviously have no desire at all to find out.

But the really meaty beef between me and this pocket John Bull came when I asserted that the problem for the Brexiteers was that while not everyone who voted for Brexit was a racist or an antisemite, the odds were that just about every racist and antisemite in the country did. Francois exploded, demanding I apologise – because he actually believed I’d insulted all his precious 17,410,742 Leave voters. It’s a wilful bit of idiocy he still clings to – and repeats in Spartan Victory.

However, despite this, I’m wary of either writing off Francois as a fool, or exhibiting the sort of de haut en bas mentality that’s led some reviewers of his book (notably Charlotte Ivers in The Times), to pass over his exhaustive detailing of the eponymous ‘battle’, in favour of psychoanalysis: Francois, whose father died suddenly when he was 13, and whose mother then spent much of the rest of her life (cut short by Alzheimer’s) in and out of mental hospitals, is indeed someone deserving of a considerable degree of compassion.

But not pity. Pity should be reserved for the powerless – and Mark Francois is not now, and certainly wasn’t during the heady three years between the Referendum and Britain’s exit from the EU, without power. Indeed, as the most spartan of the self-styled Spartans – those 28 Tory MPs who held out against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement to the bitter end, and so precipitated the general election that brought in its train the dubious delights of both Brexit and Boris Johnson – it was arguably he who was the tail that wagged the entire dog of the British state.

No wonder he wanted to write about it in such exhaustive detail – and if it weren’t for the brain-rotting, clichéridden quality of his prose (and the sycophantic little pen-portraits of his fellow politicos), the account would have its virtues: I have little doubt that on the blow-by-blow, Francois provides the goods. That his mythos and supervening narrative arc is one shared by a whole swathe of British ethno-nationalists is a tocsin awakening us to the parlous condition the United Kingdom now finds itself in.

Francois promised his soon-to-be-dead dad that he would always fight for a ‘free’ Britain – his father had been traumatised during his active service during the D-Day landings, and wanted – according to his son – nothing more than that his son should be a man in this very combative sense. Francois was widely derided during the Brexit process for harping on about his time in the Territorial Army, and throughout his text, the martial images are as frequent as the clichés, but the significant thing about this revanchist mindset is that it’s necessarily populist.

Early on in his political career, Francois (who doesn’t seem to have done much else with his life besides weekend play-soldiering and a little PR) fought Ken Livingstone for the seat of Brent East.

Francois says that Livingstone taught him a valuable lesson during the campaign, which is that an MP is only the employee of his constituents: his job is to represent their views, nothing more and nothing less.

Predictable, really, that one populist should learn this ‘philosophy’ from another (and a genuine Marxist, to boot); one that, far from being the essence of representative democracy, is rather its anathema.

It’s been the abrogation of the responsibility for an ever-evolving and reciprocal discourse with the prejudices of its electorate that has underscored the deterioration of democracy in this country – and both right and left are equally guilty of the offence.

An opportunistic crime made infinitely easier by the inception of the social media that Francois coos about – loving selfies (if not myself), and seeing nothing wrong in a politics conducted via What’s App groups, wherein complex issues are reduced to the cartoonery of internet memes.

On the wisdom or otherwise of Britain leaving the European Union, the jury will remain out for generations – and if Francois had been a regular reader of The New European, he would’ve known even back in March 2019 that I myself was no card-carrying “Remoaner”, but in fact a Brexit agnostic – however, on the wisdom of allowing Boris Johnson to occupy 10 Downing Street for even a week, let alone a year, the verdict is already utterly damning. And no, Francois, there’s nothing remotely ironic about this – it’s just tragic.

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois, Self-Published, 400pp, plus acknowledgements, appendices, notes, colour illos. £21.96 hardback, £11.40 paperback (Or sign up to Kindle Unlimited for a free trial, read the book then cancel your subscription – it’ll be one in the eye for Francois and Bezos…)

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