Every writer is always on red alert for a metaphor. Coming out of the gates of Downing Street at the start of the European Union referendum campaign, Craig Oliver, communications supremo at 10 Downing Street, sees a fox scurry across the path of his car. In its mouth the fox is carrying a dead duck. At this stage, he hopes to win and expects the fox to make it rather than the duck. Ted Hughes springs to mind in his poem “The Thought Fox”: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:/ Something else is alive/ Beside the clock’s loneliness/ And this blank page where my fingers move.”
The blank page has certainly been filled. It seems there was nobody involved in the referendum who was not simultaneously keeping a diary. It’s a wonder anything got done so busy were they all making notes. The surprising but overwhelming question that emerges from the unnatural act of reading so many accounts of the same campaign is to wonder whether any of it really mattered. The whole genre is predicated, of course, on the claim that it does, yet Denis MacShane’s fine history of British relations with Europe—on which basis he saw early that we would vote to leave—contains the reason why it might not. After four decades in which nobody had a good word to say about Europe, this mountain of books places a colossal weight on a few weeks of frantic activity in which hardly anyone is watching. There are two implications that sit uneasily together. This is all of great historic moment and the decision is in the balance. Yet it will all be settled by quite junior campaigners in a few madcap weeks.
Books of this kind usually struggle with a sense of proportion. The reporting of emails sent and texts not read until the following morning becomes bewilderingly detailed. Inevitably, the blow-by-blow accounts (Tim Shipman, Owen Bennett, Craig Oliver, Arron Banks, Michael Mosbacher and Oliver Wiseman) contain a lot of padding. An awful lot of food seems to get eaten and not many meals go unspecified. There are times when it feels like you are caught in the script of an unusually dull episode of Celebrity MasterChef. Breakfast means breakfast and lunch means lunch too. When Bennett opens one of his chapters…