On Brexit be careful, for you tread on my myths

For British and Irish readers alike, Fintan O’Toole is a leading scourge of Brexit, delving deep into British history and culture to explain its mainsprings.  For champions of  diversity  suffused with Brit guilt about unresolved issues of empire and the shifting sands of identity, there’s a  thrilling novelty about an Irishman with his history of victimhood,  even one with  such a  cosmopolitan outlook, diagnosing British ills and offering lessons from Ireland’s new minted – and more confident- present. Thank God for an end to Irish whingeing. How completely have the tables been turned!   The endless variety and colour of his writing recall the creative genius and deserved high status of the monkish illuminators of the Book of Kells.  But is he right in every aspect? (Not a question that occupied them much in the round towers).

Developing his case reported by Mick, the craggy Scots Presbyterian but equally cosmopolitan John Lloyd has taken O’Toole to task in the Irish Times. Lloyd challenges O’Toole’s explanation that nostalgia for Empire and illusions about the Dunkirk spirit lie behind the desire to leave the EU, as in a Guardian article, drawing on his book Heroic Failure, quoted here.

.. the idea seems to arise from a deeper structure of feeling in England. One is the fear of the Englishman turning into the “new European”, fitting himself into the structures of German domination…

The other crucial idea here is the vertiginous fall from “heart of Empire” to “occupied colony”. In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony.  The pain of colonisation and defeat can, in the context of uneasy membership of the EU, be imaginatively appropriated.

John Lloyd replies:

Fair enough, to highlight the Anglo-Saxon attitudes – though these were post-second World War reflections, when a certain amount of national self-regard after the defeat of the Nazis is understandable.

More strange – really weird – is a quite sustained passage, designed to show that the English are wallowing in the self-pitying delusion that Brussels controls them. For this, the fantasy of submission and dominance which is EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) is pressed into the imperial service.

In the Guardian, O’Toole  is hardly alone in diagnosing a collapse of British democracy –  including the possible end of the Union.

It is time to move on from the pretence that the problem with British democracy is the EU and to recognise that it is with itself. After Brextinction there must be a whole new political ecosystem. Drop the dead dodo, end the mad race for a meaningless prize, and start talking about who you want to be.

And in the Irish Times

There is a long-term crisis of belonging in the UK. Brexit is its most lurid symptom, but it is not a cure. Theresa May’s appeal to the “precious, precious union” is mere denial about the rise of English identity. The hard Brexiteers, under the cover of nationalism, want to unleash an even more virulent form of globalisation that will destroy what is left of working-class communities

Here, Lloyd disputes the darker interpretation of recent British history and O’Toole’s view of the  anti-democratic motives of Brexiteers per se.  (does the pejorative tag “ neo-liberal” apply here)?

England – Britain – voted Brexit not because its citizens regretted the loss of empire, thought it could be re-assembled, believed that the commonwealth could take its place or saw the EU as a sadomasochistic monster. They wished to be governed by a parliament and an administration that they understand, and on which they have a direct influence through their vote.

Nor were their impulses those of 1960s racists. Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan and a remainer, wrote in the New York Review of Books that her “leave-voting constituents have been called stupid, racist little Englanders. The truth is nothing of the sort . . . when people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to push back against one of the most vivid symbols of a political system that is faceless, unresponsive and unaccountable, where decisions are made by people hundreds of miles away”.

England – Britain – has not gone mad. The chaotic scenes in parliament and the thousands of arguments up and down the country bear witness to a deeply democratic and civic culture. Those who prefer politics to be the smooth management of the people by an elite mistake it for dementia.

You could say that Lloyd is a bit further to the right than O’Toole and that O’Toole as an Irishman is free of any compulsion to be defensive about British history.  But he too will be influenced by his background and could be challenged on it. English nationalism bad, Irish nationalism good?  Is this the same Fintan O’Toole who excoriated the EU’s terms for the bailout and lamented Irish democracy’s loss of control?

A few extracts can’t do justice to this massive topic and the huge amount of common ground.  But at the heart of their differences is whether Brexit is rational or mainly about lies.

A major contribution on the reform of British constitution will be made shortly by Vernon Bogdanor. Other types of analysis, of the impact of flat earnings for a decade and widening inequality that seem intrinsic to  so-called enlightened capitalism may be more relevant, but not half as entertaining as the tropes of history and identity.

I leave with another version that in some respects follows O’Toole’s – and how could it not? James Meek  on “Brexit and the Myth of Englishness,” in the London Review of books vol. 40 No 19, 11 October 2018


Of the two folk-myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over; but St George kills the dragon, and that’s it.

But the win-lose, legitimate-illegitimate argument about the referendum is a fight that plays out on the Brexiteers’ territory. The Brexiteers assert that the myth has been enacted (‘We killed the dragon!’). The Remainers deny the myth (‘You lied, there was no dragon!’). This makes it an argument about myth, and here the Brexiteers are on stronger ground.

In 2005, Andy Beckett wrote in the Guardian about the then novel middle-class English fashion for Englishness – ‘the feverish popularity of beach huts, and of knobbly local potatoes at farmers’ markets, the rebranding of fish and chips and sausages and mash as restaurant dishes, the transformation of peeling old resorts such as Whitstable and Hastings into locations for second homes and fashion shoots, even the status of the name Jack.’ He went on:

The current taste for English things, it is hard not to notice, has happened at the same time as the rise of Euroscepticism, and the emergence to national prominence of Ukip and the British National Party. The new sellers of Englishness seem to be a gentler kind of nationalist … but they do sometimes seem to be fighting the same sort of rearguard action.

The damage is twofold: economic and cultural. Economically, high-status jobs with good pay and conditions have been replaced by low-status jobs with bad pay and conditions; housing has become scarcer and more expensive; taxpayer-funded public services such as health, education, police and the criminal justice system have got worse; and privatised user-funded public services such as water and energy have increased in cost to the benefit of their (mainly overseas) owners. Culturally, the distinctiveness of place is being erased by a creeping uniformity whose paradoxical hallmark is a shallow diversity.

One side blames immigration and the EU; the other, austerity and globalisation. Looked at more broadly, both halves of the electorate are dismayed by the same phenomena – economic decay and the corrosion of identity. To see a relationship between hostility to immigrants from far away and hostility to capitalists from far away is not to equate them, but to acknowledge the coincidence of mood. In the same way, the blaming of immigrants and the blaming of government spending cuts are two quite different responses to the strain on public services, but they meet at the heart of the problem, which is that British government spending is not increasing at the same pace as the population of Britain. According to my calculations, taking inflation and population into account, the British state now spends 6 per cent less on public services than it did in 2010 – an absolute cut that most affects the poorest and the oldest.

Whatever course the Brexit process now takes, the future for those who believe themselves tolerant and outward-looking, but resist Britain’s economic and cultural corrosion, must be to project the Robin Hood myth outwards beyond Britain. The failed liberal slogan for the world that sounded so loudly in the afterclap of communism’s fall – ‘democracy and the free market’ – lacks the Robin Hood kicker: fairly shared wealth.


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