Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

July 10, 2020

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus press, 2018
Reviewed by TR

O’Toole provides an Irish perspective of Brexit. He brings to it an ironic style and viewpoint comparable with that of The Guardian’s John Crace. His central theme is an explanation of Brexit as a heroic failure, shaped in the English collective consciousness as failure dramatised as heroic, and implicitly through post-imperial exceptionalism, as heroic triumph.

Another Dunkirk moment

Brexit, he points out, is seen as another Dunkirk moment. Failure elevated to success, often associated with the Dunkirk spirit. He might well have added, associated with the will of the people. He compares Boris Johnson with Enoch Powell. I found that a bit of a stretch. I do not consider Johnson a racist any more than I consider Jeremy Corbyn anti-Semitic. (Powell I considered a deeply anguished racist at the time, and still do.)

Ironic distancing

However, O’Toole deepens my understanding of Johnson’s distasteful vocabulary by his argument that Powell and Johnson both cultivate a public persona of ironic distancing themselves from an era whose vocabulary they espouse. Johnson wrote of ‘the Queen being greeted by ‘flag-waving piccaninnies’. Powell wrote of a mythical old lady followed to the shops by ‘charming wide-grinning piccaninnies’. The measured archaic style is ‘something knowingly impish or unexpectedly camp, in his presentation of self’ (pp 100-101).’
Johnson’s language, O’Toole suggests, can be deconstructed as conforming to [Susan] Sontag’s definition of camp as ‘the love of the exaggerated…’ Just as Enoch Powell’s ‘weirdly arch manner ..gave a strange knowing theatricality even to his inflammatory racism’.
It seems the vivid vocabulary still deployed at times in BJ’s speeches is a reworking of a theme and style which included the invention of ‘the Brussels war on prawn cocktail flavour crisp. When the story is revealed as false, the schoolboy Boris is able to survive and profit from its exposure. A convincing explanation of how the child as father of the man escapes punishment.

History as nostalgic psychology

The demographics of the referendum vote show that a high proportion of older men with fewer educational qualifications voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Successive chapters build up an explanation  in what has become known as the psychodramatic approach.
It is a view contested by another Irish commentator Brian Hughes. In The Psychology of Brexit, Hughes considers the psychodrama approach as over-claiming the significance of England’s Imperial past and risking a treatment of ‘history as nostalgic psychology.

Overview

The debate continues. Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain is an enjoyable and thought-provoking contribution to the Brexit debate. I read it with pleasure for its fiercely expressed argument as well as its enviable style, which is as smooth as a well-known dark Irish beverage.

 


Leadership books I won’t be reading this week

July 15, 2007

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In the near future, I will not be reading two very large books about leadership that were published this week. The first by Alistair Campbell is an account of his days as Tony Blair’s spin doctor. The second is by Conrad Black on Richard Nixon.

It’s mostly a matter of added value. There have been quite exceptional coverage of both books, for rather obvious reasons. Maybe I could find something unique by a page by page reading. As it is, the books are on hold, for me. Even as holiday reading, I think I’ll wait for the paperback versions.

Alistair’s magnus opus

Alistair’s mangnus opus, The Blair Years, is subtitled Extracts from Alistair Campbell’s Diaries.

It has been serialized and summarized enough. I’ve also watched several hours of television docu-drama around the story in the book. Even if this had left me wanting more, my hunger had been assuaged by the news that the author has produced an expuragated account of his own primary notes. He has removed material that could be turned into political capital by Tony Blair’s opponents. That, from the decade’s spin-master, was enough to confirm my misgivings about reading his final offering on behalf of himself and his greatest creation, the Blair Brand.

I was tempted to invest time in a full read by one review by Julian Glover. But even Glover (like others) noted how few references in the book cited the journalists with whom Campbell had frequent contact.

Alastair Campbell’s diary is a 750-page heavyweight that can be boiled down to a single sentence: “How me and Tony stuffed the media and changed the world”.

It captures strikingly the laddish, hungry, boastful side of New Labour, a thuggish competition to acquire and use power. The details are realistic and for the most part depressing … Nasty, brutish and long, Campbell’s diary is the edited outpouring of an obsessive, but its significance cannot be denied.

That significance, historically, is likely to be its account of the unfolding of events and reactions to events around the Iraq war. The point was not quite convincing enough to overcome my ‘no thanks, no sale’ position.

The Big Black Biog

I shall also be abstaining from about 1000 pages of a biography of Richard Nixon by Conrad Black. The book was launched during the week when its author hit the headlines in Chicago where he was convicted in a high-profile fraud trial. It has been cruelly pointed out that unless his appeal is successful, Lord Black will now have time enough to plan and write his next historical text away from the distractions of running a business empire.

Several critics have rated him as a competent writer of historical works. No Jeffrey Archer here. One review again helped confirm my prejudices that the book would not be worth reading just yet. So it’s thanks to The Guardian’s Peter Preston for saving me the £30 and the labors of ploughing through Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest .

It is worth noting that its reviewer is a distinguished journalist who was editor of The Guardian for twenty years. His achievements include several exposes of corrupt Conservative politicians including Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton.

Even so, his review offers a powerful critique of Nixon, and (a happy coincidence) a chance for Preston to comment on its author, someone he obviously been tracking for many years. (Nothing personal, Conrad, only doing my job).

Here’s Preston summarizing Black’s analyid

Nixon, [according to Black], was a politician of great talent, and a man traduced. Black, on behalf of traduced chaps everywhere, has to come out of his corner fighting. Mere facts aren’t .. entirely fit for rehabilitation purposes… Nixon was tricky from first to last, carving up hapless opponents who played by the rules, first with the slur that hurt most, always liable to break into foul rages against “that senile old bastard” Eisenhower (or any younger bastard who crossed him). You can’t show that the real Nixon was better than this. You have to tell us so, with conviction. And Black can’t pull that off all the time.

So we’re back to the inevitable second strand here, to Richard M Nixon as an invincible model for [Lord Black, who is] …much more than your average, controversy-ridden press baron. He has a rare talent for serious history, and the talent to tell it well. … How could he toil to such solid effect in the midst of such personal strife? It’s remarkable. But it is also calculated. Set Nixon against Kissinger, rivals as well as partners, and you’d think Kissinger (a Black appointee to the Hollinger board) would get rave reviews. Not exactly. Kissinger was a “self-absorbed egotist”, a malignant gossip, a master “of scraping the barrel with his obsequious memos and asides” – while “loyal Richard Nixon” was “touchingly generous countless times in his life” but, in his loneliness, sadly vulnerable “to the counsel of extreme cynics and people of thuggish mien”.

Then we have Preston’s somewhat mischievous summing up:

Consider your literary verdict carefully, members of the jury: and try to remember exactly who’s there before you in the dock.

So it’s thanks Alistair, thanks Conrad, but no thanks. But most of all, thanks Peter Preston, and Julian Gover. For two great reviews, but also for saving me a lot of time than I can now spend on less dodgy dossiers.