Rule Britannia by Daphne du Maurier (first published 1972)
LIKE many of Daphne du Maurier’s books, this is set in Cornwall – a fictional Cornwall of the early Seventies. Britain has just ‘crashed out’ of the Common Market and is in economic difficulties.
‘Mad’ (short for ‘Madam’) is a retired actress, socially well-connected but a bit of a Left-wing luvvie who sometimes wears Chairman Mao outfits. She has an eccentric household, composed of six adopted sons (aged from three to 19), her 20-year-old granddaughter Emma, and Dottie, her dresser from theatrical days who is the housekeeper.
They wake to the sound of planes flying overhead and see an American warship in the bay. Soon US marines come ashore. In a foretaste of darker things, one of the advancing marines shoots a dog from the neighbouring farm. The prime minister announces on TV that Britain and the United States have joined together to form one country to be called USUK. There is a state of emergency with roadblocks and interruptions to phones and post. Emma’s father, an international banker from London, puts in a brief appearance but fails to persuade her to join him as he jets around the world, trying to sort out the financial crisis.
At first the marines are on their best behaviour and try to create enthusiasm for the new country with the assistance of the local MP and various hoteliers and tradesmen who see possibilities in the new order. America’s plan is that Britain should become a huge heritage holiday destination. But there is a building undercurrent of resentment and resistance. One of Mad’s adopted sons, Andy, aged 12, has an obsession with bows and arrows. He shoots and kills a marine corporal (who was on his way to apologise for an earlier unpleasantness).
With the help of the neighbouring farmer and a Welsh hermit who lives in a shack on the coast, they dispose of the body over the cliff and into the sea. Later they discover that the hermit is in radio contact with nationalist resisters in Wales.
The marines respond by cutting the area’s food, water and electricity. They arrest the local men. Mad persuades farmers from the surrounding area to dump manure in front of the hotel where the authorities have organised a Thanksgiving celebration.
Soon afterwards the American warship in the bay is sunk by a mysterious explosion, taking with it a personable marine lieutenant of whom Emma had been quite fond.
Nobody knows the exact cause.
Mad and the family retreat to the cellar where they break open an old well (a piece of du Maurier symbolism, I think) and live off their own apples and beetroot for a few days. They awake early one morning to helicopters flying overhead and what sounds like gunfire and depth charges. Mad sleeps on. The men have returned and the Americans are going home.
The doctor arrives in his Land Rover and Emma sees Mad standing in welcome at the porch but realises that nobody else can see her. Emma urges the doctor down to the cellar where Mad has been asleep for a very long time and she recalls her saying ‘We’re all together. What a good time to go.’
Fiction sometimes affects perception of fact. Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, about a threatened German invasion plan, certainly increased public demand for strengthening the Royal Navy before the First World War. I wonder whether Rule Britannia had somewhat similar but more diverse effects on opinions in the early years of our EEC membership. In those days before the internet, it was difficult and expensive to be well-informed. The press and broadcast media were almost totally pro-European. If you wanted to read a European treaty, you had to buy a copy. So you tended to rely heavily on what like-minded people told you.
I recall people of a pro-European view asserting time and again over decades that EEC membership kept us from the fate of becoming an American state. I wonder if it was this book which first nurtured that thought. Some independence campaigners thought that democratic Americans would surely be our allies against European authoritarianism if only they knew what was really happening to us. This belief popped up sporadically until the Maastricht treaty rebels spurred more intense publicity by independence groups including the Campaign for an Independent Britain, and became more effective. This was soon multiplied by the advent of UKIP. The CIA and American big business were strong supporters of the European project and of our absorption into it. The mistaken hope may well have been sparked initially by this book.
I also remember many pro-independence people who said that there was a master plan which forced our economy to de-industrialise and become dependent on tourism and financial services. It was a widely held belief although it was not until years later that credible evidence for this sort of intent became widely available. Again, I wonder whether this book first started the thought running outside informed political circles.
There are other threads running through it which show a great continuity of concerns and congruence of sentiments with today’s independence struggle.
Rule Britannia is not on a par with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or Jamaica Inn. Its plot is sometimes whimsical and sometimes brutally bleak. A detestation of our centralised, over-mighty, London-based, metropolitan, political class shines through it. In spite of massive EU grants, Cornwall voted in 2016 to leave the EU whilst London voted Remain. This is a worthwhile, thought-provoking read, especially for people with long experience and interest in the cause of independence.