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.)
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.
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.