Brexit and the Politics of Pain
Head of Zeus, £11.99
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There has been a flood of books on Brexit, but most have focused on what Brexit means for Britain’s future. Heroic Failure takes a different path by focusing on what Brexit reveals about Britain. The book is also notable in that its author is an Irish journalist, not a domestic politician or pundit. O’Toole argues our Brexit woes are not really much to do with the European Union, but rather a symptom of the desires and neuroses within our national character, as well as a howl of rage at the political establishment.
The Leave campaign’s success was a result of its tapping into our long-standing insularity combined with national paranoia about foreign occupation, says O’Toole. That we are so obsessed is shown by the success of books and television series set in a Nazi-run Britain, he argues.
This leads him to wonder whether many Brexiters oppose Europe just so they can live out a long-held fantasy of being part of an underground resistance. The perceived loss of national and regional identities within the UK itself also played a part. Polls show those who identified as “English” mostly voted to leave, while those considering themselves “British” voted to stay.
The Remain campaign’s emphasis on the economic costs of leaving the EU, on the other hand, overlooked the fact that the British have always secretly preferred heroic failure to success, as shown by our fascination with the Charge of the Light Brigade and Scott of the Antarctic. Sarah Vine’s joke to her husband Michael Gove, that “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”, was particularly telling. The Italian Job (the source of Vine’s quote) deals with a British attempt to raid Europe that ends on a literal cliffhanger that is impossible for the characters to resolve satisfactorily.
O’Toole makes some interesting points, but his argument ends up descending into caricature. Although Britain spurned the opportunity to become a founder member of the European Community, for example, it still spent a huge amount of money keeping western Europe safe from the threat of Russian invasion throughout the Cold War. And while the citizens of the remaining 27 countries don’t want to leave the EU, they
are generally opposed to any further integration (which is why Britain’s exit is also a tragedy for them).
Still, it’s always refreshing to get an outsider’s take on political events. The book provides an original perspective on a topic that has dominated British politics for the past couple of years, and looks set to continue do so for some time yet. It is also an entertaining read that will at times have you laughing out loud.