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.

 


Tom Dalyell: Father of EVEL?

February 1, 2017

 

Tom Dayell, (1932-2017), was a controversial figure who lived a tumultuous personal and political life. Among his varied achievements and embarrassments he should be remembered for  being the person who posed the West Lothian question, which prepared the way for the 2015 legislation on English votes for English laws, [or EVEL to give it its slightly sinister-sounding acronym.]

I leave others more informed that I am to offer a formal obituary on ‘Daft Tam’ . The BBC offers a thoughtful account.

I will restrict this post to a few thoughts on his much-discussed conundrum, and its connection to EVEL. I make no attempt to hide my view that both are distractions from the needs from a political process of reconciling the rights of minorities within a wider union, be it the EU or the United Kingdom in their present forms.

The West Lothian question

In a parliamentary debate on devolution in 1977, Dalyell first proposed what would become known as the West Lothian Question.

A vocal opponent of Scottish devolution, Dalyell contrasted the town of Blackburn in his own constituency, and Blackburn in Lancashire.

“For how long,” he asked, “will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important and often decisive effect on English politics?”

It was Enoch Powell who coined the term West Lothian Question, in his response to Dalyell’s speech.

 

 

The Guardian, at its socially-sensitive best, had a decent stab at resolving the question.

EVEL is one of the signals of a paranoid streak in politics which manifest from time to time. It is a near-pointless effort to protect English interests against their disruption by pesky minority interests of other members of the United Kingdom. It deserves approval only by the rabid supporters on the now defunct English National Party, although I suspect it has the dubious merits of appealing to British Nationalists, and for all I know to the arguments whirling around in the head of Douglas Carswell, the only UKIP member of parliament at present.

 

The flow chart of the process of implanting EVEL makes a wondrous, if Alice through the looking glass, wall chart.

Today at PM Questions [February 1st 2017] all sides of the house paid homage to the man who lived up to his quote: You must not be afraid to be thought a bore

Anyone who wants to explain how you should have voted in the EU referendum deserves quizzing on how they understand EVEL, and Dalyell’s brain-numbing question.