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.


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.


Mitt Romney’s ‘Potholed’ Road Map

January 6, 2012

Mitt Romney appears to be the front-runner as Republican candidate for the next Presidential elections. His journey towards nomination has been described as ‘a potholed road-map’. Leaders We Deserve examines the metaphor

The metaphors of map-reading, map-testing, and map-making have been applied to leadership ‘journeys’. The metaphor also crops up in political writings as ‘road maps’ leading to peace.

The Fiscal Times applied the metaphor to the road to be travelled by Mitt Romney who appears increasingly likely to be the Republican candidate to oppose President Obama in the next Presidential campaign.

In the view of most political professionals, the race for the Republican presidential nomination is essentially over. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney … has a 20-point lead [Jan 5th 2012] over his nearest rival in recent polls [which suggests that] most Republicans will quickly coalesce around him as the inevitable nominee… Of course, that doesn’t mean that Romney’s road to the nomination is free of potholes.

On maps and journeys

It is more precise to say that the map is of territory through which a journey must pass. The map indicates the road to be travelled. The Fiscal Times believes the road will be one which will not be easy on to travel, hence the pothole reference. Students of leadership may have noticed how in in everyday speech we may mix up the map with the journey. (Kark Weick likes to say that ‘the map is not the territory’.

The Fiscal Times has written about the likely political journey for Mitt Romney and examined the map and the route to be taken. This is mostly Map reading. The article then attempted to understand the journey better (map testing).

A complication: maps within maps

This map-testing suggested that the road would be a potholed one. Note how the author of the article has to outline a personal map, and incorporate a ‘reading’ of Mitt Romney’s possible mapping processes. And you may also have noticed, that I am now reading and testing the article’s maps. Don’t get too hooked on these ‘maps within maps’ . They conform to a systems theory of recursiveness which means the ‘maps of maps’ replicate the structures found in the simpler ones. You can satisfy yourself on this point if it an unfamiliar concept, by doing more ‘map-testing’. You will find that the basic structure will stay the same, although some features will change from higher level to lower levels of recursion.

So back to Mitt Romney’s journey

The Fiscal Times tests the suggestion that the Romney road is full of potholes by pointing to the challenges from other candidates who have become front-runners from time to time. These are metaphorically the potholes or challenging aspects of the journey.

Potholes and dilemmas

It sometimes helps map-testing to look out for a leader’s dilemmas. Here the potholes are signals of implied dilemmas. The article tests the pothole theory by describing Romney’s support, which is sticking stubbornly at 25%. Romney needs some way of dealing with the dilemma of low support, while being hailed as the front-runner.

Divide and rule (and ‘map-making’).

The article addresses this dilemma by citing an earlier article suggesting a leadership strategy for Romney. The suggested strategy is to avoid attacking other candidates, leaving them to attack one another. It is a divide and rule strategy. It is also an example of map-making.

More about divide and rule strategies

By coincidence, a similar map briefly became headlines in the UK, where the divide and rule strategy also figured. It involved the politician Diane Abbott in accusations of racism after an exchange on Twitter. There may be some value in comparing the two maps and the bumpiness of the journeys ahead for those involved.

Andy Rooney and the Power of False Reporting

November 6, 2011

Obituary Reflections: The death of Andy Rooney [4th Nov 2011] should remind us of the power of false reporting.

Andy Rooney, one of America’s best known TV commentators died at the age of 92. He announced his intention of standing down from the “60 Minutes” shows after what he described as “70 years as a writer”.

“My Lucky Life”

In his last regularly scheduled appearance on “60 Minutes,” Andy Rooney commented, “I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but of all the things I’ve complained about, I can’t complain about my life.”

A Cranky Voice

The New York Times described him as The Cranky Voice of CBS noting the tone of bemused frustration in much of his work, which led to censure on grounds of homophobia and racism. His output did carry with it a bluntness which offended.

Racist or victim of false reporting?

The Times article also reviewed the controversy over his alleged racism:

In 1990, CBS News suspended him without pay in response to complaints that he had made remarks offensive to black and gay people. The trigger was a December 1989 special, “A Year With Andy Rooney,” in which he said: “There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced. Too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, [i.e. sexual relations] cigarettes. They’re all known to lead quite often to premature death.” He later apologized for the statement.

The TriCities News summarised the consequences of the episode:

The Advocate [A Magazine for the Gay Community] interviewed him over his comments [in Feb 1990] and printed remarks attributed to him from the interview, which he vehemently denied making. A torrent of negative publicity followed, after which then-CBS News President David Burke suspended him for three months. The outcry for his return was deafening. Burke reinstated him after only three weeks, saying Rooney was not a man “who holds prejudice in his heart and mind.”

It is not difficult to see that even the remarks he originally made would cause offense. But the dilemma of freedom of expression of opinion rumbles on. The wider corpus of Rooney’s life work and actions largely confirm his own claims that he was a closet liberal and approved of the achievement of Barack Obama in attaining the Presidency as a black American.
Other false reports persisted

The Tri Cities article continued:

Rooney was also mistakenly connected to racism when a politically charged essay highly insensitive to minorities was written in his style and passed off as his on the internet in 2003. Over the next few years, it found its way into the e-mail boxes of untold thousands, causing Rooney to refute it [although] it continued to proliferate, in an Associated Press article a year later.
Many assumed he wrote the [false article] because Rooney’s long time habit of writing or speaking plainly on sensitive topics had often left him open to attacks by activist groups. The racist essay was one of the many false Rooney quotes and essays bouncing around the internet. The racism charge angered and hurt Rooney deeply. He hated racism: As a young soldier in the early 1940s, he had himself arrested in Florida by refusing to leave the seat he had chosen among blacks in the back of an Army bus.

Spain victorious as Aragones departs

June 30, 2008

Spain won the European Nations cup gloriously. Much credit goes to the departing manager Luis Aragones. But the media had reasons for downplaying the role played by the controversial coach

Victory for the national football team is accompanied by praise for the ‘genius’ of the winning manager. But when Spain won the European Nations Cup in June 2008, there were few accolades for the manager Luis Aragones. This, despite the victory being the first by Spain after forty four years without a major trophy, and despite the clear evidence of the tactical and strategic insights of the veteran manager known as the wise one.


Maybe because Aragones has a reputation. An earlier controversy [in 2004] saw him branded as a racist, after training ground exchanges were overheard by journalists.

Transmitted around the world, his comments were interpreted as racist, at best revealing a flippant insensitivity towards racial issues. He denies such an interpretation. His subsequence defence revealed that his attitude to such matters were of the casually insensitive type.

As the BBC reported it

The row over Aragones intensified ..as he attempted to justify his comment [about Henry, earlier in the season]. He told Spanish newspaper El Mundo:
“Reyes is ethnically a gypsy. I have got a lot of gypsy and black friends ..
All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black..
I consider myself a citizen of the world, I don’t care about their skin colour. I feel I have been the victim of a lynching..
I didn’t use the term ‘black’ with any racist meaning.”

Remember Big Ron?

In that respect the decline in reputation of English coach and TV pundit Ron Atkinson comes to mind. Atkinson was a journeyman player, later an ebullient and outspoken coach. His media career came to an abrupt end after remarks off camera a few months before those of Aragones were transmitted world-wide, and regarded as racially offensive and unacceptable.

A question mark now hangs over his future after he resigned from ITV Sport following a racist comment made “off-air” in the wake of Chelsea’s defeat to Monaco on Tuesday.
The 65-year-old former Manchester United and Aston Villa manager has attracted attention in the past for his often clumsy on-air comments and eccentric turn-of-phrase.

Like Aragones, Atkinson denied accusations of being a racist, pointing to an exemplary record of advancing the careers of black players.

In England, debate over the latest Atkinson blunder raged in pubs and papers. For some, it was an example of what is now called political correctness run mad. And just a bit of banter. For others, it confirmed worries about casual and ‘institutionalized’ racism in football, but also as evidence for a wider cultural issue.

An established Spanish custom

The Aragones business might be dismissed as an example of an established Spanish custom. Which is itself arguably a racially offensive bit of stereotyping. Or a harmless metaphor. Depending on your point of view.

The context of racism in football in Spain at the time added to the sensitivity of the Aragones issue. It remains a hot issue today.

Aragones and leadership

Over the next few days, expect to read descriptions of Aragones as a charismatic but personally flawed leader. But that’s a more grown-up version than struggling to divide leaders up into good and bad in their professional roles, and heros or villains ethically.


The image is of a robot and not a bit like Luis Aragones.