Friday, 9 March 2018

Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain?

Dave Morris, author of Can You Brexit without Breaking Britain?, talks to JJ Marsh about the book, the concept and the collaboration.

Hi Dave and thanks for talking to us. For those unfamiliar with the format, could you briefly explain how an interactive gamebook works?

The reader takes the role of the prime minister, it’s all told in second person, and the choices you make take you to different numbered sections. “If you want to explore a free trade agreement, turn to 123. If you propose to stay in a customs union, turn to 456,” and so on.

The creative process is really just what any writer does as they construct a story. You imagine the things the characters might do and what the consequences will be, the only difference being that in a gamebook you don’t prune away all the other branches of the story tree.

Of course, the choices you give the reader have to be interesting. Not just “what do you have for breakfast?” Well, actually that is one of the choices in the book, but it’s a subtext for a more important question about international trade. And as the reader picks from all the options, they’re effectively creating their own unique story as they go.

I’m guessing the genesis of this was a combination of passionate views on the handling of Brexit and the right combination of your and Jamie’s skills.

We do both feel very strongly about it, although as a matter of fact we don’t share the same views about either the EU or UK politics. I found I kept getting sucked into arguments on Facebook that were just a waste of time, so one day I logged out of social media and decided, okay, let’s channel all this passion into a book.

Jamie and I both used to write choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks at the start of our careers, and we’ve also spent a lot of our careers working in the computer games business. I was a mentor in the American Film Institute’s digital content lab, which explored ways to connect emotion, storytelling and interactivity. So pulling all those strands together for this project made perfect sense.

Didn’t it seem like a daunting task?

Fortunately I go into every book with rose-tinted specs and the feeling that I can fly. I thought this one might take four or five months at most. By the time I realized the real scale of the work I was, like Macbeth, stepped so far in blood (or in this case in IMF reports and select committee transcripts) that I figured I may as well keep slogging through to the other shore.

Tell us about how you and Jamie work together.

I started out by designing a modular structure so that each of the ten major topics (trade, defence, the NHS, immigration, etc) could in theory be written by a different author. Jamie took a couple of those modules, but more than shouldering part of the work he came up with the voice of the book. If it had been left to me it would have been accurate and informative, which hopefully it still is, but Jamie has a great sense of humour (he won the Roald Dahl Award a few years back) and he found a way to keep it funny and entertaining at the same time. 

Jamie Thompson

Apart from posing the puzzle of trying to extricate the UK from the EU (or not), this book entertains the reader with acerbic political satire. It looks effortless but the knowledge behind such choices and wit must be considerable.

It maybe says a lot that the first comparison I reached for was Macbeth. Every day I was looking at as many diverse sources on each topic as I could find, loading it all into my head, reading reports and economic models and what politicians had actually said again and again until the pieces of the jigsaw started to fit. They say you really have to understand something to explain it simply. I did the heavy lifting so the reader doesn’t have to.

The humour and insights have quite rightly been compared to The Thick of It and Yes, Minister, both of which place the real power in the hands of ear-whisperers – the civil servants and government advisors. As authors, the information you choose to give the PM casts you in that role, wouldn’t you say?

Where is the real power? Sir Humphrey would be holding his head at the prospect of a government issuing endless mission statements and no plan, but his position these days has been usurped by special advisors whose loyalty is to the party (or more often just to individuals) rather than to the country.

What the reader will soon discover is that you can’t just point yourself at a goal. You have to contend with other elements in the party who will block whatever you try to do unless you can find ways to accommodate or outmanoeuvre them. In order to win, you have to stay in power – which incidentally explains a lot that’s happened since June 2016.

The issue of the referendum has caused much polarity of opinion. What kind of reader is this book aimed at?

Lots of people really want to understand Brexit for themselves but they feel overwhelmed. Who can blame them? One politician says one thing, another is wheeled out to say the opposite. The debate soon becomes abstract and confusing.

Yet there is a truth to be found, and people care about their future, so the point of the book is to give them a way of really getting to grips with the reality of Brexit. Then they can discuss it and make an informed decision. Democracy needs this. We can't just switch off such a vitally important issue because we’re bored.

Is your aim to change minds?

We want to open minds. In the book there are ways to achieve a successful Brexit or to reverse it. But not every goal can be achieved, and you can’t get anywhere without a plan. There are trade-offs. Compromises must be made. That’s how the real world works.

What I hope is that everyone who reads it will discover how to better examine and articulate their views, and to appreciate where they might make common ground with the half of the electorate who went the other way on 23 June. We need more tolerance, and we need everybody to open their eyes about what negotiating Britain’s new relationship with the EU will involve. I want to see an end to all the “enemies of the people” invective and to help restore some of that famous British common sense.

Obviously the advantage of your publishing now is that it’s extremely topical, but with the ground shifting every day, are you concerned the book will date? Or does that not matter?

The book I’m currently reading is Graves’s Goodbye To All That, and I’m getting pretty steamed up about the botched military planning on the Somme a hundred years ago, so I don’t think these things suddenly cease to matter. There are lessons to be learned for the future. People are always going to want to look back and see what we could have done differently.

Added to which, Brexit isn’t going to stop affecting us on 29 March 2019. Even ten years on we’ll still be feeling the effects of decisions being taken now. The generation who by then will have grown up in post-Brexit Britain and Europe will want to understand it for themselves.

Have you sent a copy to Theresa May? Or across the Camden/Islington border to Boris Johnson?

I have a friend who knows Boris Johnson and offered to pass on a copy. I think he really ought to read it, but I see no sign that he’s been too bothered about details or planning up to now. If he changes his mind he can always let me know, and I’ll happily deliver a signed copy to the Commons. I’d like to send one to every MP, actually, as I genuinely do feel it’s a case of, “If you only read one book about Brexit, make it this one.”

About Dave Morris

I'm equally drawn to both stories and equations, to both literature and science. Over the years I've written novels, textbooks, comics, gamebooks and television shows and I've designed videogames, boardgames and role-playing games. And co-authored a paper on the propagation of light delivered to the Institute of Physics. What can I say? I thrive on variety and I'm always looking for a fresh challenge!

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