Ian McEwan: referendums such as Brexit vote remind me of Third Reich

Sam Jones in Madrid
Ian McEwan has lamented the toxic state of debate in the UK since the EU referendum. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ian McEwan has reportedly described the decision to hold a referendum on Brexit as reminiscent of Nazi Germany and likened politicians and newspapers who attack judges scrutinising the process to Robespierre during the terror of the French Revolution.

The award-winning author made the remarks during a visit to Barcelona at the end of last week to promote his latest novel, Nutshell.

In comments reported by Spanish newspapers and websites, McEwan called Brexit “a real disaster”, questioned why it had been put to a referendum rather than parliament and lamented the toxic state of the debate in the UK since the vote last June.

“Sixteen million Britons wanted to stay in the EU and 17 million wanted to leave, but there exists a small and very energetic political group made up of opaque and impatient people who are driving the process and who speak as though half the country were the entire country,” he said according to El País.

“It’s also serious because Great Britain works on the basis of a parliamentary democracy and not through plebiscites, which remind me of the Third Reich.”

According to the newspaper, he added that the politicians claiming to speak on behalf of the people tended to “react violently” to those who did not share their views.

“Their militant wing, the tabloid press, has started to look into the lives of the judges who rule that Brexit could result in the loss of human rights to see whether they’re homosexual or something. It’s reminiscent of Robespierre and the terror of the French revolution. The air in my country is very foul.”

Last November, the high court upset the government’s Brexit plans by ruling that MPs should have a vote on the formal process for beginning Brexit. Three senior judges concluded that the government could not press ahead with triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty without first consulting MPs and peers in the Commons and Lords.

Parts of the British press attacked the decision, with the Daily Mail branding the judges “enemies of the people” in a front-page headline and the Daily Telegraph headlining its report “The judges versus the people”. The Mail Online went on to describe one of the judges, Sir Terence Etherton, as “an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer”.

McEwan, who has previously referred to the Brexit vote as “a plebiscite of dubious purpose and unacknowledged status”, also took the EU and the British government to task over their handling of the refugee crisis.

“It’s a really hard test for Europe, whose behaviour hasn’t been exemplary: we should accept more people,” he said, according to El País. “England, for example, is only taking in 20,000 over five years and, of course, [the EU] should spend millions more euros to welcome them sustainably and integrate them. The worrying thing is that the European far right is using it to fertilise a racist field that’s already well fertilised.”

However, another newspaper, El Confidencial, said he had praised the EU as “a heroic project, which, with all its weaknesses and imperfections, has allowed Europe to live in peace for 60 years in a state of relative wellbeing”.

The reports of McEwan’s comments on Brexit, originally in English, also varied, with El Mundo saying McEwan had criticised “hasty decisions made through a plebiscite, which remind me of the Third Reich”, while El Confidencial reported him saying: “Brexit has been a real disaster, and I feel bad because we are a parliamentary democracy and I don’t like these decisions adopted by plebiscite which remind me of the Third Reich.”

Writing in the Guardian in July, McEwan voiced disbelief at the Brexit vote.

“From our agriculture to our science and our universities, from our law to our international relations to our commerce and trade and politics, and who and what we are in the world – all is up for a curious, unequal renegotiation with our European neighbours,” he wrote.

“And what was the nation’s democratically tendered advice to our lawmakers? That we’re almost evenly split. One third wants to leave, fractionally less than a third wants to stay, and a third doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Seventeen million against 16 million. Each full of contempt for the other. And on this basis and unlike any other country in the world, we are about to redraft our constitution and much else besides.”

McEwan and his representatives have been asked for comment.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes