2266 and All That: Chris Beckett, Two Tribes

As the British House of Commons is recalled to debate the new agreement with the European Union, it’s time to look at one last book in 2020: Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes, published just five months ago, during the summer of COVID lockdown.

In this novel, historians from far-future London find two archived diaries which chronicle a romance blossoming across the Brexit divide of 2016-17. Harry, a Remainer architect, is stranded in a rural Norfolk town when his car breaks down. He finds himself renting a spare room for the night from Michelle, a local hairdresser who voted to leave the EU. They forge a deep and unexpected connection which troubles and compels Harry, leaving him torn between Michelle and Letty, an arts administrator from his own North London milieu.

Harry and Michelle’s private journals are being examined in the year 2266 by Zoe, a researcher affiliated to the elite Guiding Body which now governs an impoverished, climate-ravaged, postdemocratic England, slowly emerging from a spell as a Chinese protectorate. Running water, motor cars, and twenty-four hour electricity are things of the past for Zoe’s world, as is the EU itself, and a vast shanty town has developed within the ruins left by a brutal civil war.

Two Tribes is a swift, compelling read. Efficiently drawn characters map out the polarisations of the Brexit debate, and Beckett deftly charts the unsteady progress of Harry and Michelle’s romance. The passages set in 2016-17, presented as fragments of a historical novel being written from the primary sources by Zoe, skirt and skewer Pygmalion fantasies of love across a class divide.

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Truth, lies, fake news, futures, Brexit

So, after the UK election, it looks like Brexit will be happening, barring a truly wild turn of events.

It hasn’t mattered to the electorate that politicians have lied to them; they haven’t been put off by misleading videos, the rebranding of a party’s social media account as a “fact checking” service, or the failure of politicians to submit to debates, interviews, and media scrutiny.

In fact, perhaps voters wanted to be misled – to be told that one can simply “get Brexit done”, after years of wrangling.

For information professionals, this moment returns us to the idea that policing facts will not solve the various issues of trust in information which have been bundled as “fake news”. People might accept being misled if they believe the political system is stacked against them; it seems people will also accept being misled if they are tired and frustrated by politicians’ failure to thread the needle of Brexit’s self-inflicted crisis.

Brits voted to leave the European Union in 2016 without a clear definition of what that meant, or what future relationship with Europe was being mandated. Politicians struggled to parse the meaning of that vote and, when Theresa May returned to the polls in 2017, the renewed “will of the people” was clearly and legitimately expressed in the form of a divided parliament. Nobody had a clear sense of how to deal with the outcome of that referendum.

Now, it seems the voters of the United Kingdom have chosen to slice the Gordian knot, irrespective of whether or not Alexander has lied to them, or what other cherished ties might be undone in that stroke.

What does all this mean for information professionals? Read more