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An Over-Excited Broadside of a Book. A Review of Heroic Failure

Heroic Failure Fintan o'toole
Written by John Wilson Foster

John Wilson Foster provides a shortened version of his much-lauded review of Fintan O’Toole’s book-length diatribe against Brexit and the English (Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus).

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When I read in this overexcited broadside of a book that “the political erotics of imaginary domination and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit psychodrama“, I was for a moment an envious author resembling the riveted deli customer in When Harry Met Sally replying, under fresh circumstances, “I’ll have what he’s having”. It is but one of many such feverish, inspired and mostly unfalsifiable propositions. And you naive Leavers out there in UK-land thought you were voting to escape an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, the 4000 pages (or is it more?) of regulations and (take your pick) the EU common agricultural policy, fisheries laws, freedom of movement policy, ad hoc immigration and refugee rules, or the brewing plans for an armed United States of Europe!  

Like Sally, O’Toole has method in his performance. Brexit for him “is essentially an English phenomenon”. “Essentially”, not “primarily”. But if the Leave vote in the EU referendum was 52.5% in Wales, 44.2% in Northern Ireland (re-run, that would be much higher, thanks to post-referendum Sinn Fein and their border poll) and 38% in Scotland, surely “essentially” is not the mot juste. That’s an awful lot of people outside England who voted Leave. One of the two largest vacancies in Heroic Failure is the 17 million who voted to get out; their only identity is, by implication, that of useful idiots.

The other emptiness is the European Union itself (which after all somehow provoked Brexit), the virtues of which are nowhere flaunted in order to prove the madness of Brexit. Instead, the restriction of Brexit to its English essence allows the author to view Brexit as a phenomenon that defines the truest England: Brexit is a fantasy of the “English reactionary imagination” which he sees as having been at work for centuries and – it is his inescapable corollary – is at the very core of Englishness. And that imagination is most active at the idiot apex of society: Brexit is “another upper-class jest” by the poncy English public-school culture. At the summit we find, unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg; indeed, as if it were litter on Everest, we find Brexit is somehow emblematized in Boris’ empty packet of prawn-flavoured potato crisps.  

Psychology, not political science, is the “discipline” which drives Heroic Failure. England is anthropomorphized as a patient on a couch whom the author diagnoses in order, supposedly, to effect a cure. Any English history adduced in the book is evidence of a national disorder. The most evident symptom of an inner malaise is self-pity which mixes a sense of self-worth with the perception of undeserved treatment from others. Within the paragraph, this is melodramatised into a fevered imagining by Brexiteers of “a revolt against intolerable oppression”. The escalation is possible because Brexit is never analysed as the Exit of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union but instead trips off the keyboard in six letters and is analysed biographically as a man (a white man, a middle-aged or elderly man, an angry man, a racist man, and, I’m afraid, a straw man).

Brexit Man (England, for O’Toole’s intents and purposes) wallows in self-pity, suffers the “torment” of being unable to square feelings of inferiority with feelings of superiority, alternates neurotically between sadism and masochism, lives on delusions, courts and celebrates failure, suffers abjection and as 200 pages tell us, engages in surrogation, transference, displacement and scapegoating. Basket Man, in a word.

All manner of evidence can be recruited in support of this caricature. As though a modest proposal, it’s suggested that “It does not seem entirely beside the point that, in the years immediately leading up to Brexit, by far the biggest-selling book by an English author in any genre was E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.” There follow four pages of analysis of the novel’s submission-and-domination dynamic. English author, s & m theme, best-seller: ergo the Zeitgeist, indeed Brexit n’est ce pas? But what of the novel in unmentioned EU-loyal Ireland? Almost half a million books in the Fifty Shades of Grey series were sold by 2015, making €5 million for the author; the first in the series was the 5th ranked Irish best-seller the same year; in one week it sold 24,500 copies. The English (and not just the ones with reactionary imagination) allegedly bought the novel to reinforce their dominance-and-submission habit that would soon be given a real-life work-out in the EU referendum. And the Irish?

Cartooning the English when the Irish culturally overlap so amply with them is risky. He is determined to make a meal of prawn cocktail – “the quintessential English idea of fine dining” (as Reagan might have said, “there you go again”) – and cites Johnson’s tongue-in-cheek embattled defence of prawn cocktail flavoured potato crisps against the food Nazis of the EU; he ignores the tongue in cheek in favour of emphasising Johnson’s opportunism in exploiting a quintessential English piece of naffery, the prawn crisp. But it was Tayto Crisps Ireland that invented the first flavoured crisp production process and one of Tayto’s best-selling varieties is prawn! It seems that an English cult of heroic failure has been one historical method of marrying masochism with a sense of superiority. The theme of heroic defeat in English culture (borrowed from Stephanie Barczewski), has legs; but it is merely part of the structure of feeling not, as O’Toole makes it, intrinsic to English identity and its central load-bearing beam. We get (all of them anticipating Brexit) the evacuation of Corunna, the charge of the light brigade, the Franklin expedition, Scott of the Antarctic, Islandlwana, Khartoum, the Somme and the “flight” from Dunkirk – but silence on Waterloo, Shackleton, Rorke’s Drift (what Brit recalls in preference Islandlwana?), the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Bluebird, the conquest of Everest (an English expedition), Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile, Wembley 1966.

O’Toole complains about a “vertiginous analogy” Daniel Hannan, MEP and Brexiteer, made between the condition of the Irish Free State in 1921 and Brexiting Britain in 2018.  But the precedents, prologues and parallels for Brexit in Heroic Failure are an unremitting series of vertiginous analogies. One of them is the Hundred Years War (begun in the early 14th century) which is summarised over three pages. What is the connection? Well, England’s answer to the problem of military manpower in France: “Its solution was one that would appeal to most of the free-market ultras behind Brexit: the war was privatized and outsourced to gangsters” resulting in “terrorism on a great scale . . . They stormed towns, raping and killing”. With chivalrous bathos we are reassured that “Even the worst Brexit will be nothing like the catastrophe of the Hundred Years War”; for this relief much thanks.  But it is still worth recalling, apparently, because the effects of Brexit could last a hundred years, the number of years being the only connection, and a wild surmise at that.     

Failure is hardwired into the English psyche and Brexit is more of the same. Worse, it is the spawn of the usual suspect, the Empire. Brexit as nasty imperial nostalgia is a main plank in the author’s platform. The decision to withdraw from the EU and seek trading opportunities in the bigger world beyond, with China and India, North America, the south Pacific, to re-orientate the country and in doing so unfetter pent-up energies – these have nothing to do with Brexit: no, Brexit is Little England in the cockpit of Empire, not Big World; the quintessential aim of Brexit is to re-constitute the old white colonies – “putting the old white empire back together again”. Perish the thought that apart from vast overseas markets that the UK at present cannot independently exploit there might be practical economic and logistical advantages in trading with partners who share history, a language, and memories of a common culture.  Talk about the hermeneutics of suspicion! The author is wildly more conscious of the British Empire than the average Brit Leaver is.

But then retro-imperialism is part of the problem posed by “The rise of reactionary and xenophobic nationalism in England” to which membership of the EU is the obvious solution. Agreed, an English rightward trend is indeed worrying, but does the English right wing begin to compare for extremism and the threat of violence with the right wings in Germany or France, two pillars of the EU?  Are there far right-wing parties in the British parliament? (Momentum and the new hard left go unremarked.) No matter, Brexit is a right-wing movement which is not even centrally about the EU; it is a sublimation of rage, not at EU bureaucracy or increasing loss of national sovereignty, but at black Britons, the sublimation necessitated by the decline of overt racism in England! This free-floating English nastiness simply scoured the land for a new cause to inhabit and happened upon the EU.

Brexit, then, is a force concealing its aggressive neo-imperialist and ultra right-wing agenda behind an apparition of its inverse; to succeed, it “needs to imagine that it is a revolt against intolerable oppression”.  O’Toole sees no oppression at work, just the fantasy of such, nor anything to get worked up about. The notorious EU regulations are but “petty annoyances” though in a recent Irish Times article by the author they are more than outweighed by the bureaucracy from which the EU allegedly frees the member nations!  (Is this not damning with gossamer faint praise?)  In only two pages is the EU his real focus and on them he lists only negatives of the EU: its drift from social democracy, its installation of a technocratic elite, the alarming increase in economic inequality, the dastardly treatment of Greece.  Yet for the author, there is no better alternative to the EU. O’Toole says we were all warned there is no better alternative by the EU itself, which therefore “In the best sense” has been a Project Fear! So the UK will get no credit for staring down that fear. He will not champion at any length the virtues of the EU, but merely insist that Brexit is self-harm, in addition to its Trojan horse carrying-capacity for some very bad hombres.

  The book will not countenance reasonable or mundane explanations for Brexit (whether you then accept them or not), nor the complexity of the ongoing event and of the participants, for and against, who come in all shapes and sizes and from all social classes and backgrounds, with or without other agendas. But on page 41 O’Toole makes a wise observation that ought to have been his starting-point for a patient search for its cause: “As an idea, the EU had a distinctly weak grip on English allegiance” (and on a significant portion of Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish allegiances). Yes, the EU has never been a good fit for the UK. Yet the boredom, indifference or bemusement on the eve of the UK’s entry into the Common Market shown by the writers, scholars and commentators whom O’Toole quotes amounted in his opinion to “a treason of the clerks”.  Perhaps. But what of the virtual unanimity of the current commentariat in Dublin and London, and on all the campuses (now bastions of conformity) in favour of the vast machinery of the EU and its dubious political aspirations? What of their contempt for the people for their “illiberal” views at the coal-face on the EU, multiculturalism, immigration, Islam?  Is this blanket orthodoxy, suspect if not smelly, with dissenters despised as reactionary, not also treason of the clerks? Orwell is plentifully quoted and it is easy to recruit his musing on a democratic socialist Europe in support of the EU; but something tells me he would have recoiled from a quasi-democratic mega-bureaucracy.

Over the decades the allegiance weakened further until a decision was taken to escape from a behemoth-in-progress, a majority decision taken by 17 million citizens, rightly or wrongly, and after a strenuous pre-referendum campaign. It is arguable that we are witnessing with Brexit an astonishing, overheated, even worrisome exercise in democracy – our democracy in full media and social-media cry – not an undemocratic tussle between a few over-privileged and louche bad guys and the many good guys. Those good guys have of course given Heroic Failure rave reviews, reflecting the very self-deprecation and tolerance (even in the face of effrontery) that O’Toole, agenda-driven, fails to find much evidence of in contemporary England.


This review is a contraction of the version that appeared in the Dublin Review of Books.

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About the author

John Wilson Foster