A nation divided over a 50p. Is this the most Brexit Britain thing ever?

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Philip Pullman’s complaint over an Oxford comma is the first shot in another irrelevant culture war remainers are sure to lose

Sajid Javid with the commemorative Brexit 5op coin
‘The only physical token of Brexit that actually exists.’ Sajid Javid with the commemorative Brexit 5op coin. Photograph: HM Treasury/PA
‘The only physical token of Brexit that actually exists.’ Sajid Javid with the commemorative Brexit 5op coin. Photograph: HM Treasury/PA

Last modified on Mon 3 Feb 2020 06.43 EST

What’s the maddest you’ve ever been at a coin? At school, once, there was a scuffle for a lost 20p, five or six large pubescent boys all jostling for it, each claiming they had spied it first; and in the midst of that, I – the first and only boy, truly, to spot the 20p – bent down to grasp it and, at that exact moment, got body-bounced from behind and ended up scraping my fingers along the exposed brickwork of the quad, a cheese-grater sensation I can still, when I want to, wince about today.

In the intervening years, having grown up, I’ve found it hard to get similarly worked up about a coin. And then Philip Pullman came along.

“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma,” the acclaimed author tweeted on Sunday, “and should be boycotted by all literate people.” To give a flavour of the quality of the country’s discourse, the tweet became, when ground through the hard mincer gears of journalism, not simply a throwaway joke Pullman made in the face of some early-morning writer’s block, but the closest thing we’ve had post-Y2K to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

“Author Philip Pullman has declared war on the new Brexit 50p - but it’s nothing to do with politics,” the BBC wrote, ticking the Doomsday Clock ever closer to midnight. “Author Philip Pullman moans new Brexit 50p coin is missing Oxford comma,” the Daily Mail went, before detailing how the remainer was thoroughly schooled on Twitter for his error. Ever thoughtful and classy, the Express went with: “Brexit 50p coin: What is an Oxford comma? Should it be on Brexit 50p coin?”, hoping to loop in the lucrative “jabs very blunt search terms into Google while squinting at their large-font iPad” crowd who make up so much of the bustling, ever-moving internet.

The weird thing about Pullmangate is that it both divides and amplifies all the voices of Brexit at once, in a way that is both completely fascinating and utterly irrelevant, and most of all, absolutely, undeniably, embarrassingly British.

So on one side you have People Who Have Been Waiting For An Oxford Comma Debate All Their Life. You know these people, you walk among them: they walk up to harried waiting staff and say, “What’s an ‘avacado’, then?” as if spotting a typo gets them a gold award; they can get five answers in a row on University Challenge but end up bankrupting themselves in court because they’ve decided to challenge an archaic piece of legislation that somehow affected their house move eight years ago.

To give you an example, Alastair Campbell tweeted, “I for one shall be asking shopkeepers for ‘two 20p pieces and a 10’ if they offer me a 50p coin pretending that Brexit is about ‘peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’,” and you can imagine the former Blair attack dog directing a tired newsagent, who’s stoically watching a queue form behind him, to open a fresh bag of 20 pences and empty them into the till because Big Ali Campbell doesn’t like Brexit. These are the people who lost.

The people who won, meanwhile, are happy the 50p is even happening in the first place, because it’s the only physical token of Brexit that actually exists. For over three years Brexit has been a concept in the air, a 55-comment Facebook status, a surefire pub argument, but it hasn’t actually been anything because it hasn’t happened. Is a clear and intelligible relationship with Europe sorted? No. Are we any closer to the Island of Utopia Brexit promises? Not really. But in getting sucked into a culture war over a coin, both Remainiacs and Brexiteers create the illusion of Brexit being “done” in a single moment on Friday, when, really, it isn’t. It’s almost like a test administered by some experimental arm of the government: after three years, here’s a low circulation coin. Your emotional reaction to it reveals your true feelings about Europe.

For my money, the Oxford comma is an outmoded piece of prescriptivism that doesn’t particularly affect meaning and is aesthetically prim, and is therefore bad. But an argument about an Oxford comma embossed on a coin that has already once had to be scrapped and melted down at large cost to the taxpayer because the government got the date wrong of its own exit from Europe? That’s actually really good.

It’s also the Brexit debate in a microcosm: here we are, in the historic week where it all actually happens (kind of), when we all assemble around a silent Big Ben as it mutely bongs us out of Europe, and it all feels … a bit flat, doesn’t it? Like, yes: the EU anthem Ode to Joy has re-entered the charts as some sort of Lib Dem thumb in the face of God, like everyone who ever got Rage Against the Machine to Christmas #1 once grew up, got a Bupa policy but still thought “buying music” was a viable form of protest. And, yes, Romford’s Tory MP Andrew Rosindell told the Sunday Express that he’ll be holding possibly the most vibeless party in European history, with “a great British buffet with food from around the UK and English sparkling wine - nothing French or German but everything British and Commonwealth”. But who cares?

This is what we deserve, what we all deserve. After three years of Farage on a flotilla and “enough!” and elections and more elections and another election then two more elections, this is what Brexit boils down to: a grey week in January where we’re all waiting for an endless payday and getting furiously mad about a 50p. It is simply stunning that any country ever respected us.

Joel Golby is the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant

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