You might not think that the concerns of a former Prime Minister and a literary giant would have any notable similarities. But Gordon Brown and Salman Rushdie addressed themes with deep commonalities at different events on the same day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Brown was there to discuss politics. Naturally, he discussed Brexit and provided a plan to prevent a No Deal scenario. Parliament, he suggested, could vote on legislation preventing it, allowing time for a full investigation into the consequences of a No Deal outcome. But this plan may be imperilled by the recent news that Boris Johnson plans to trample all over parliamentary democracy.
He also took the opportunity to attack Scottish separatism, arguing that to respond to the issue of English and other nationalisms driving the Brexit vote with another nationalism merely compounds the problem rather than solving it.
How much worse, Brown said, to leave a union with our neighbours, with whom we do much more business than with European Union countries, than it would be to leave the EU. And shouldn’t the money Scotland receives from the Barnett formula be spent by the Scottish Government on health, inequality, and other issues far more important than independence? The devolved administration has it in its power to do so yet prefers to harp on about independence.
Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie launched his new book Quichotte in the world’s first event about that book. The book is a picaresque novel following Quichotte (key-SHOT), a lunatic traveller, as he embarks on an absurd quest around the USA to find love – and his creator, a mediocre spy fiction novelist, whose life mirrors, to a degree, that of his creation. It is a book-within-a-book and promises to be filled with the magic realism that Rushdie is known for.
The book is not just political, but it explores important themes, including the effects of the moral and spiritual vacuum that is Trump’s America. Rushdie said he was fed up with Trump’s voice and he doesn’t appear in the novel (‘I didn’t want him in my fucking book!’ Rushdie exclaimed when James Naughtie asked him about the current occupant of the White House) but the president and the deeper and antecedent malaise he represents loom large.
Quichotte is a great American novel in the tradition of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, exploring through an immigrant’s lens the meaning of America today, divided as it is. Rushdie, in fact, opined that he was far more concerned about the other two countries he loves, Britain and India, which are being poisoned by hard-line Brexiteers and Hindu nationalists, respectively. There is greater hope for the USA – after all, Trump lost the popular vote and won with a tiny majority, and this faced with a bad candidate who ran a bad campaign. So all that’s needed is a good Democratic candidate – Rushdie favours Elizabeth Warren – and the era of Trump may be over soon (though, as Rushdie also said, we live in an unpredictable age, so who knows?).
So the commonalities between Brown and Rushdie consist of a joint determination to see off the reactionary forces arrayed against cosmopolitanism and civility. The unlikely pair share a common desire to shore up liberal democracy and culture in an age when they are under threat from the simplistic and the solipsistic. The choices facing us are stark. To defend pluralism and civilisation against their enemies is the only correct course. Let us hope the forces of progressivism, represented in Edinburgh by two of their foremost champions, win.