LONDON — The Irish Times columnist and public intellectual Fintan O’Toole has been studying the English for years. What he sees is a Britain that feels sorry for itself.
He has just published a book, “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.” It’s a polemic, but it’s also pretty funny in parts.
By pain, O’Toole means the “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind of pain, self-inflicted and a little twisted.
Philip Collins, in his review in the Times of London, observes, “O’Toole puts the nation on the couch the better to find out what is wrong with it.”
O’Toole writes about Britain’s “sado-populism,” or the pleasure of making trouble. And why the English carry on about “vassalage.” And why Brexit is really all about the Germans — and Blitz nostalgia.
I spoke with O’Toole by telephone, as he is teaching at Princeton University this semester. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and attention spans.
Q: If the symptom is Brexit, what's the syndrome? Your diagnosis is that Brexit is a national spasm of "self-pity." Or as you put it, that "steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves." How so?
A: When I thought about writing a book about Brexit, I sort of assumed I would write about Ireland and Brexit, but I realized there’s a bigger question, which is how does a very successful, relatively wealthy, very settled-looking democracy start to imagine itself being intolerably oppressed. Whatever you think of the European Union, and I have been as critical of it as have others, it’s not an oppressive force.
And yet the basic impulse in Brexit is we are an oppressed people and we have to have the equivalent of an anti-colonial revolution, whereby we throw off our oppressors. At the heart of that, you’re forced to think about self-pity, because you have to feel very, very sorry for yourself to imagine that the European Union is intolerably oppressing you.
The interesting thing about self-pity is we tend to think it involves low self-esteem. I don't think anybody would accuse the English of suffering from low self-esteem. But self-pity isn’t low self-esteem; it’s actually quite high self-esteem. You feel sorry for yourself because you think you deserve more. You're not getting what you deserve. And I think we have to see that this is a big part of the deep psychology of Brexit, this sense that the British deserve more than just to be another fairly normal Western European country, that their destiny is different.
Q: That feeling that we won the war but lost the empire?
A: To be absolutely fair to the British, I can’t think of any other historical parallel, anywhere, where a country wins a major war — a world war that was existential for humanity, where the British are heroic, where they are on the winning side — and yet within just 10 years, you’re looking at the defeated Axis powers — Italy, Japan, Germany — and they are all outstripping Britain economically. They are all in the middle of these extraordinary industrial miracles, and the British are stuck, the British are in relative decline. Add to that the insult of losing their empire. So this is not an experience that anyone else has had. And it does leave this sense of: How come we won and didn’t get what we should get? Which is a special status in Europe for having been the winners. This feeling is mostly aimed at Germany. We rescued you. We rescued the French; we rescued the Dutch. Pretty much everybody in Western Europe owes us for their liberation, and yet they are not treating us as the first among equals that we should be in Europe.
Q: You think the Brits have binge-watched too many Winston Churchill movies on Netflix?
A: This is important because the myth is that Britain is at its greatest when it “stood alone.” Of course, it didn't stand alone. When did Britain ever stand alone? I mean, even in the darkest hour, or finest hour, whatever you call it, before America came into the Second World War, Britain had a huge empire. It could draw on enormous resources. I'm not saying it wasn't heroic; it was heroic, and it was incredibly important for humanity that it was. But it was not alone. It is a simple fact, but there has not been any period of history since the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707, when England and Wales joined Scotland, when the British were alone. They had a huge empire — and then they were in the European Union. So this idea that their natural state is somehow to be alone is one of these myths.
Q: You seek answers in the best-selling erotic romance "Fifty Shades of Grey." I'd forgotten author E.L. James is English. And so for your Brexit narrative the dominant Christian Grey is the decadent Eurocrat and the poor submissive Anastasia Steele is Little England? And I guess the E.U. Council in Brussels is the Red Room of Pain. I can't quite get that imagine out of my head, Donald Tusk with a riding crop. But we digress.
A: This is where the empire comes in, that people talk about “post-imperial nostalgia for the empire.” I don't think it's that; I think it's much more complex than that. I think it has to do with an imperial mind-set.
Q: I'm imperial curious. More, please.
A: In an imperial mind-set, there's only two states: You're either the top dog, or you're being kicked. You're either the conqueror, the ruler, or you’re the subjected people. There's nothing in between. This is the legacy of empire, this strange thought process, where we used to be the dominant force. The British Empire was an extraordinary global creation. But if we are no long the dominant, what else can we be? Well, there is only one other thing, which is the submissive. You can't be normal. There can't be a consensual relationship, which is complex and full of negotiation and compromise, and equality, with a lot of other people.
In this particular mind-set, Europe is seen as the dominant, and it partly fits in with the legacy of the Second World War, the idea that, maybe, we didn't win the war after all. Maybe the Germans really won. We defeated them on the battlefield, but they defeated us economically and politically by sucking us into this submissive relationship in the European Union. It's crazy, but that's a big part of the mind-set. So instead of being the imperialists ourselves, we are a colony, of Europe.
Q: Some days on the BBC, it seems that Britain and Brexit are steered by patricians, by public school boys, these old Etonians and Oxford debating society types. Your Jacob Rees-Mogg fellow. But you argue that Brexit is "pure punk." A gob of spit in the face of the toffs on Kings Road. Sex Pistols and "Anarchy in the U.K." With Boris Johnson as Sid Vicious. Talk about that.
A: Punk is the greatest English popular cultural movement of the last 50 years. It’s an incredible energy. It had an extraordinary influence. It's attitudinal. Of course, it was a reaction to the collapse of social democracy in England, to the rise of Margaret Thatcher. There this whole sense that, well, nobody cares about us, so we don't care about you. So we will just hold up the middle finger to everything. We will spit in your face. We will assert ourselves. If we can't do something positive, at least we can drag something down.
With punk, the idea that comes to mind is the upper-class twits. The Boris Johnsons and the Jacob Rees-Moggs draw a target on a brick wall, and they say: Kick here. And a lot of the working classes kick the wall. And there’s the immediate pleasure in kicking the wall. But you also break your foot. It’s self-destructive, but the pain has meaning.
Q: So you also have the self-described "Bad Boys of Brexit," the gadfly, radio personality and campaigner Nigel Farage and his money man, Aaron Banks. They revel in being superlative disruptors. The American president calls himself "Mr. Brexit." So this is the English version of Steve Bannon's weekend workshop? We've had enough of the way things are. Sod the experts. Let's knock over the apple cart. That's Brexit, too?
A: I agree with you about the parallels. The question you have to answer about Trump is why. We know why very wealthy, ultra-neoliberal people want to smash up governments, which is to allow them to do whatever they want. Then they can come in and make a lot of money out of it. But why do working-class people ally themselves to this destructive project when it's objectively against their own interests?
And this is where I tried to make a connection between the anarchism of a decadent ruling class that has no real interest in actually ruling anymore. It's much more interested in a negative idea of rule, that getting power allows you to destroy institutions and regulations and laws rather than building things. But that meets that energy of punk.
Remember, the alternative of Brexit was [former prime minister] David Cameron. He went into a society which is being torn apart by austerity for 10 years and said, “We want you to vote for the status quo.” It's almost surprising, again, that 48 percent of people did vote for the status quo. Given that dynamic? The outlet for people was to rage. The rage is real and somewhat justified. But the outlet is an enormous act of self-harm.
Q: So you rage against . . . Belgium? The new scapegoat is the Brussels bureaucrat?
A: As you know, Brussels is ideal, for that odd reason that it's very boring, isn’t it? It's incredibly tedious; most of what it does is trade regulation. It’s to do with standardizing lightbulbs across the continent. Who really cares? This is why the idea of oppression becomes ludicrous, because most of this stuff none of us would ever want to think about, we don't want our head space to be taken up with most of this stuff. But there's the paradoxical effect that because it's so tedious, you can make up stuff.
Q: Like your story about the potato chips?
A: I devote pages, and I hope future historians will thank me for this, to role of the role of the prawn-cocktail flavor crisp in Brexit. What you call potato chips. You see, there was a regulation on the sugar content of potato products, and Boris [Johnson] realized this might have some effect on these exotic-flavored crisps the English bizarrely like to eat, and it becomes an issue with our democracy. It's these crazed bureaucrats in Brussels, most of whom are really Germans, who are happy to interfere with our way of life. So you have a narrative of oppression. The oppression is imaginary. But if you can say, those interfering [bad guys] over there in Brussels are trying to get between you and your good English grub, it's a very powerful.
This is the stuff you got for 25 years in the British newspapers. It's not just food; it's other stuff. Brussels is banning donkey rides on beaches!
One particularly good one: Brussels is trying to humiliate manly English fisherman, by making them wear hairnets. Where does that come from? The regulation says: If you're processing food, you have to wear a hairnet. Right? It’s pretty basic health and safety stuff.
Everybody knows these are lies. It’s Monty Python humor, you know. One thing most of us who are not English really appreciate about the English is their great absurdist sense of humor. So Brussels becomes a kind of Monty Python joke. You can say anything you like, because it has no consequences. Because Brussels is really bad at doing rebuttals.
Q: Before you go, I have to ask you: You're Irish, a writer, from Dublin. What is the Irish problem with a post-Brexit border? Who cares, really, if you have a customs and immigration agent at a tollbooth? Or a couple of cameras reading license plates? Norway and Sweden: They've got a border. The U.S. and Canada. The Irish argument, I'm sorry, sometimes seems to be that if there's a hard border, you'll start killing each other again. It's 2019. Twenty years after the Good Friday peace accords. Explain this to an American.
A: I’m 61 years old, so I remember, for a big part of my life, the border. I live in Dublin. If I wanted to go to the second-largest city on the island, Belfast, I would cross the border, and every time I crossed the border, it was telling me that I have to think about the partition of the island. I have to think about Irish history, particularly during the Troubles, [the 30-year period when 3,500 were killed]. Literally, a British soldier would be pointing a machine gun at me.
I’m not a mad Irish nationalist; I’m really not. But it’s really hard to just go about your life. I don’t want my head full of Irish history. I just want to get about my daily business, and that irritant, every single day, particularly for people who live on either side of the border, who might be crossing the border three or four times a day, it’s a ridiculous border.
[Now,] nobody stops me, nobody asks me. The relief of that — it's just hard to express how it lifts a psychological cloud for people. This is crucial for the peace process, because the peace process was all about saying, look, if you keep asking the big questions of Ireland, the only answers are deadly ones, because we don't have agreed answers to the big questions. The big questions: Are you Irish? Are you British? Do you want to be part of the United Kingdom? Do you want to be part of united Ireland? There are opposite answers to those questions, and they fuel conflict. The brilliance of the peace process was to say, let's park those things, let's try to get some boredom, let's try and get a generation of people who don’t have to think about that stuff.