Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Heroic Failure

Rate this book
England's favourite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s If , says that triumph and disaster are the same thing. It also enjoins the English to “lose, and start again at your beginnings/ And never breathe a word about your loss.” Most modern English heroics are screw-ups, retreats or disasters: the charge of the Light Brigade, the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, “Scott of the Antarctic”, the “last stand” against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk. The parallels with Brexit are obvious, but the problem is that the cult of heroic failure was developed precisely in an empire that could afford to play up its failures because it was so successful. Its pathos becomes bathos in a post-imperial world. Failure is no longer heroic -- it is just failure.

304 pages, Paperback

First published November 22, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Fintan O'Toole

55 books240 followers
Fintan O'Toole is a columnist, assistant editor and drama critic for The Irish Times. O'Toole was born in Dublin and was partly educated at University College Dublin. He has written for the Irish Times since 1988 and was drama critic for the New York Daily News from 1997 to 2001. He is a literary critic, historical writer and political commentator, with generally left-wing views. He was and continues to be a strong critic of corruption in Irish politics, in both the Haughey era and continuing to the present.

O'Toole has criticised what he sees as negative attitudes towards immigration in Ireland, the state of Ireland's public services, growing inequality during Ireland's economic boom, the Iraq War and the American military's use of Shannon Airport, among many other issues. In 2006, he spent six months in China reporting for The Irish Times. In his weekly columns in The Irish Times, O'Toole opposed the IRA's campaign during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

information from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fintan_O...

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
691 (36%)
4 stars
848 (44%)
3 stars
298 (15%)
2 stars
56 (2%)
1 star
18 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 233 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
October 24, 2020
This book is written by an Irishman about Brexit – I don’t know if Gaelic has its own version of the German ‘Schadenfreude’, but if not ‘Brexit’ would be as good a contender as any other. “I won’t lie to you, I was delighted when Mary fall on her arse – it was a total Brexit”.

I had thought that this book was going to be a history of Brexit. For the past five years or so two stories have dominated the world but at the same time seemed so bizarre that I’ve come very close to not believing the news. One of the problems with living in Australia is that sometimes it seems we are so far away from everywhere that ‘they’ could just make up characters like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and we would have to believe they were real. There have been times when I would be quite happy to believe we are actually living through some crappy remake of Truman Show set in the world’s parliaments.

I thought it might be a good idea to read a book that tracked the twists and turns of Brexit, mostly because I’ve been finding that so much of recent politics makes so little sense to me it is hard to keep up with the narrative.

It feels like we have woken from a collective nightmare and are struggling to tell people the twists and turns of the dream, struggling over which bits are real-ish and which bits are just crazy – “and that was when Trump said to May she should send Farage over as her ambassador to the US.”

This book isn’t a chronology of our collective hallucination at all. If anything, it is a kind of cultural studies investigation into the English character in an attempt at a collective psychoanalysis – although, amusingly enough, a psychoanalysis that does not end up blaming Mother, at least, not Mother England.

That’s actually what I found the most interesting part of this book. The author says that what has been mostly misread throughout Brexit is that it isn’t about ‘Britain’ at all. Brexit was only successful in the referendum in England and Wales – leave only won 44.2% of the vote in Northern Ireland and 38% in Scotland. This wasn’t a British thing, it was much more an English thing. But many in England have been uncomfortable with English nationalism – and who wouldn’t be? Given it is associated with the National Front, skinheads and violent soccer fans. But since English nationalism is often associated with the far-right, it isn’t something that is generally discussed in polite conversation. And this is part of what the author says has been fundamental to Brexit. The English have felt left out of the growing nationalism that other bits of Britain enjoy – England sees itself as virtually the only part of Britain not allowed its own local nationality. Part of me suspects you can’t push this idea nearly as far as the author does here, but then, I have troubles with Irish nationalism, so English nationalism is always going to be beyond the pale to me. That said, it is an interesting idea.

The author points out that by far the most popular book written by an English author recently has been Fifty Shades of Grey – as he says, a fantasy where the main character is the victim of submission and dominance. And this is a major theme throughout the book. The fantasy of England being dominated by the EU. And fantasy pretty well sums it up. There is a long discussion on prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, a story more or less made up from scratch by Tory MPs and pushed by Boris Johnson when he was the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph newspaper. Boris liked to keep a respectful distance between himself and the truth. I know revolutions can have strange catalysts, but never was so much owed by so many over so little.

I have to quote this bit in full:

“Johnson had no strategy, no tactics, no serious intent at all. And for a very good reason – Leave was not supposed to win. Johnson told David Cameron when he informed him of his decision to back Brexit that ‘he doesn’t expect to win, believing Brexit will be “crushed”’. He also had no idea of the actual consequences of leaving the EU. As Cameron reported the phone call to his communications director Craig Oliver: ‘He actually said he thought we could leave and still have a seat on the European Council – still making decisions.’ (This would be simply unbelievable in any other context, but Johnson, after all, was the author of a book about Churchill which mentioned in passing that the Germans took Stalingrad.)”

I mentioned this to someone today, that saying the Germans took Stalingrad is about the same as saying the US defeated Japan at Pearl Harbour. I have to say that Johnson doesn’t come out of this looking terribly good, or even a wee-bit smart. But a lot of people – English celebrities – I’ve sort of quite liked over the years (and then assumed because I’ve liked their celebrity persona, I would agree with them on other things too) have ended up being Brexiteers. Ringo Starr, say, or, as is mentioned here, Michael Caine. There is a large section of this book comparing Brexit to his film The Italian Job. Again, an English, rather than British film. A film, like so much else discussed here, that was a ‘glorious failure’ film. In fact, Michael Gove’s wife is supposed to have woken him the morning after the Brexit referendum by imitating Caine from the film, “You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!” Brexit is constantly framed as having been intended as a ‘stuff-you-lot’ that just went a bit too far.

O’Toole mentions Shakespeare throughout this too – not least as someone who did his bit to invent the English national identity and character. But the seriously interesting thing is that Shakespeare lived and wrote across two key English periods – the Elizabethan and the Jacobean. James the First of England, of course, had also been James the Sixth of Scotland. The author gives some interesting stats about this. In Elizabeth’s England, Shakespeare’s plays use the word England 224 times, English 132 times. In James’s England, Shakespeare uses England 29 times, and English 18 times. Before James, Shakespeare didn’t use the word British at all, and Britain only twice. After James, Britain is used three times, but British is used 29 times. The England/Britain thing has a long history.

The big theme of this – and perhaps one it takes someone from Ireland to notice – is the very strange way England is positioning itself as a kind of latter-day Eire. You know, Irish folk music is full of references to our struggle for independence – thank God we’re surrounded by water, since our geography will one day guarantee we’ll be free; Ireland her own, from sod to sky; “I have four green fields, one of them in bondage, in strangers’ hands, that tried to take them from me – but my sons they’ve had sons, as brave as were their fathers, and my four green fields, will bloom once again said she…”

The problem is that, well, Ireland actually was in bondage, and to England. You know, we had our language suppressed, we were starved to death during the famine, we remain the only nation in Europe with a smaller population today than we had in 1840. The gross indignities enforced on England by the EU are mostly made up. Honestly, if the worse that is going to happen to you is that you will be made to feel bad about eating prawn cocktail flavoured crisps – I really am struggling to feel sorry for you. But the author even goes further than this and says that you can’t actually be liberated from pretend oppression. So, Brexit changes everything, except the stuff it was designed to change, since none of those things were real. A case in point being another example given by Johnson, that the EU was passing a regulation to not allow the English to recycle teabags. It wasn’t that this regulation didn’t exist – it’s just that it wasn’t an EU one – but rather one passed by the Cardiff City Council. The Brexit revolution won’t liberate the English, because most of what it was to be liberated from had been lies.

The author ties Brexit into the end of the welfare state and the triumph of neoliberalism – a kind of revolution of misrecognition of enemies. Watching the train-wreck of Brexit at the same time as the train-wreck of Trump has been something of a challenge over the last few years. I wish I could be convinced the dual nightmares were about to come to an end.

This wasn’t the book I was expecting, it was much, much better than that.
Profile Image for Rory Harden.
Author 5 books8 followers
December 17, 2018
If you are, say, a liberal-leaning American, and you want to know what the heck is the matter with England, then this is the book to which you should turn.

The writer is, happily and necessarily, Irish.

Here you will find the disease known as ‘Brexit’ fully described and diagnosed. The prospect of a cure, however, remains contingent and – dare one say? – nebulous, having to do with the downfall of neo-liberalism. Wish us all luck with that one.

O’Toole doesn’t have much to say about Trump, but one suspects that the MAGA crowd get the ‘politics of pain’ pretty well – especially the bit about it hurting your enemies, real or perceived, more than you.

If the book falls just a little short of magnificent, it still bears comparison with Orwell. The writing is of the highest quality, and the pop-culture references – Fifty Shades of Grey; The Italian Job – are most entertaining, and on the mark too.

If only, O’Toole says, in effect, the great liberal and socialist tradition in English letters and politics could wrest back control over the meaning of English nationalism from the chancers and rogues who have taken it for a joy ride, then things might mend.

But there are still the overhanging myths of Empire and Dunkirk; and there are still the “British” tabloids, which are, of course, not British but English (foreign or offshore ownership notwithstanding). What about the BBC? Let’s just say it’s no CNN.

But despite the book’s many virtues and its essential place in the current “debate”, I can’t say I feel much consolation.

Rather, I feel my own sense of identity, the one I started the book with, reinforced: I am a Londoner and a European. England is another country which happens to surround London.

It is a pleasant place to visit, occasionally.
Profile Image for Astrid.
263 reviews15 followers
February 6, 2019
I have to admit that at times the book was hard for me to understand, as the author's target group seems to be readers from either within GB or the Commonwealth. I haven't heard about a lot of books or movies he mentioned. Nevertheless, I understood what he was bringing across and gosh, things are much clearer for me now. Nationalism and Sado-Populism (the later a word I never heard before), are two of the major roots for Brexit... and if I was living in Scotland or Norther-Ireland I would hate what happened with Brexit even more. As it is I (German living in Germany) just feel betrayed from a nation I loved ever since I was a teenager - and that's a long time ago.

It never stops to amaze me how many documentaries or movies about the 1st and 2nd World War are shown on English TV. Things are clearer for me now.

I can't say that I enjoyed this book. It kind of plunged a knife a bit deeper into my heart but at least I understand more about what happened.

A very good book that I don't want to read again. But it was well worth my time.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,906 reviews38 followers
November 10, 2022
I listened to the audiobook with Simon which was ably narrated by Sam Devereaux. We have experienced Brexit vicariously as expats living America and we're curious to learn more from another perspective.

Here are some meaningful quotes:

"An Englishman will burn his bed to catch a flea" Turkish proverb.

"Brexit makes sense for a nation that feels sorry for itself."

"Self pity contains thus combines two things that may seem incompatible, a deep sense of grievance and a high sense of superiority. It is this doubleness that makes it so important to the understanding of Brexit."
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
276 reviews63 followers
August 7, 2022
Irish Times Journalist and author of many books on current affairs, O'Toole has written a timely, and at times laugh out loud funny book on the self-imposed episode known to all as Brexit. O'Toole uses metaphor to explain the British (or English) road to the disaster that is Brexit. As an Irishman with relatives in Britain, and a great deal of knowledge on the country, the book is a sympathetic depiction of the English that severely criticizes the insanity that has occurred there over the last several years.

Heroic failure is the disease that for O'Toole, has afflicted the English since time immemorial. Losing is desirable because it can be heroic, a bit like the Lost Cause but without any possible future benefit to be attained. The Charge of the Light Brigade is used as an example to explain this attitude. They were directed to charge in the wrong direction to a catastrophic result but that is okay because it was done in a heroic manner.

O'Toole exposes the wealthy right wing "thinkers" who were so instrumental in the result of the referendum. Boris Johnson himself expected it to fail and said as much on the eve of the vote. The consequences of a leave vote were never thought out, leading to the mess that has resulted today- particularly with Ireland. If they ever sort it out, I am sure that Britain will be welcomed back into the adult world.

I highly recommend this book as it presents a well researched explanation of the topic. It is well written and humorous in its metaphors.
Profile Image for Brendan Monroe.
569 reviews149 followers
June 8, 2019
This is a great primer on Brexit for those who may not know very much about it. By "those", I mean me.

While I've tried my best to keep up with what's been happening with our neighbors across the pond, the view from the New World has of late been obscured by our own social and political crisis, for which I blame ... English nationalism.

Did I say English? I meant American. Although anyone who reads Fintan O'Toole's "Heroic Failure" will likely be struck by the astonishing similarity between the two.

America and England have always been rather similar but they have perhaps never been more alike than they were in the run-up to 2016's twin tragedies. The result of the Brexit referendum eerily mirrored that of Trump's electoral college victory and it seems the figures behind both — Boris, Nigel, and Co. in the UK and Bannon and Trump in the U.S. — were united in their certainty that their movements would fail.

You're likely to recall in the months leading up to the U.S. Presidential election Donald Trump's message to his supporters, repeated at every rally, that the election was rigged. Does that sound like a man confident of victory?

Similarly, in the still-early days of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson called then-Prime Minister David Cameron to inform him he was supporting the "Leave" side. Boris then added, as if to give Cameron some measure of solace, that he firmly expected Leave to be "crushed".

I think it's safe to say that both sides weren't just operating what they viewed to be long-shot insurgency campaigns but campaigns that they believed, and maybe even hoped, would fail. To lose would, after all, be "heroic", in that truly English fashion that has seen failures like Sirs John Franklin, John Moore, Gordon of Khartoum, and "The Light Brigade" memorialized in poetry and pillars of stone. The English tradition of stoicism in the face of defeat appears, in England anyway, superior to actual victory — especially when that victory is a political one accompanied by responsibility.

That's why when Donald Trump goes on about hating "losers" and people who "were captured", you shouldn't believe him. What Trump and his ilk desire above all are to be victims, martyrs to a greater cause. Of course, in Trump's case, there is no cause he finds greater than himself, which is why I take the rumors of his wanting to lose in order to secure a more lucrative contract with NBC for future seasons of "The Apprentice" to be all-too-believable.

One thing that Trump voters did have over Brexit voters, which O'Toole writes on here, is the ability to elect a man who would actually be able to deliver the promised pain to their enemies, as well as to themselves.

Brexit voters had no such luck. They got as PM a woman who openly campaigned to remain and who ultimately never delivered the promised pain of Brexit (though, it seems to me, not for lack of trying). Nevermind that enacting Brexit — the realities of which seems a different thing to different people — is far more complicated than merely electing an authoritarian figure.

Boris, Nigel, and Co. made all kinds of promises on what an actual "Brexit" would mean, but what does it actually mean? Nobody seems sure because, nearly three years after the vote, nothing has happened yet aside from Britain's joining the world stage along with America.

The world stage of mockery, that is.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we have company, as right-wing movements across the globe have meant that political masochism is far from a solely Anglo-American phenomenon.

When and how will it all end?

The light at the end of the tunnel appears to be more visible for those of us in America since ousting Trump in 2020 would be something of a cure to what ails us (although rising inequality and systemic injustice — ironically, the two very things that allowed for the election of a grotesque Republican billionaire in the first place — will prove far more difficult to solve).

The solution for our friends in the UK appears far less certain.

Certain Remainers (or "Remoaners", as they are derisively called), have pinned their hopes on a second Brexit referendum. I'm highly skeptical that throwing out the results of a democratic vote in favor of a second vote simply because you didn't like the results of the first would solve the problem (indeed, it would likely create far more).

The answer, then, as far as I can see it, would be trying to negotiate the best Brexit deal possible, given the circumstances. With the team likely to be heading that effort, this appears most unlikely. But who knows? Every step in this process so far has been impossible to predict.

The other crucial thing that must change in both our countries — and indeed in countries around the world that have seen the rise of the Far Right — is that the opposition has to be smarter. That means not nominating someone like Hillary Clinton who clearly doesn't know how to relate or even speak to ordinary people, and it probably means not making the decision to even hold a referendum on Brexit in the first place (which David Cameron did to try and assuage a troublesome part of his Conservative base).

I doubt I'll ever read another book solely on Brexit and, since Fintan O'Toole has done such a great job here, I doubt I'll ever need to. Instead, I'll be busy keeping my fingers crossed that we all get out of this alive.
Profile Image for Tom Richards.
103 reviews7 followers
May 25, 2019
Having lived with Brexit for three years, I never really understood it until now. There seemed to be literally no benefit to leaving the EU. All the supposed advantages: taking back control of our borders; repatriating powers from the ECJ; £350 million per week for the NHS; signing free trade deals with other countries- these all vanished upon closer inspection. As a rational individual, I couldn’t understand why we would participate in such an enormous act of national self-harm.

Fintan O’Toole has written a remarkably erudite analysis which looks into the decidedly non-rational reasons for Brexit, drawing on countless historical examples to illustrate the mindset of a Brexiteer. Paradoxically, it has taken an Irishman to explain the deep-seated elements of the English psyche (and they are English, rather than British) which are impelling us. Or perhaps not so paradoxically, for the answer has its roots partly in the politics of Empire, and the Irish have recent experience of being an oppressed nation. Having lost a great Empire, we are trying to assuage our historic guilt by putting ourselves in the position of the colony, the vassal state of the EU, which forces its hordes of migrants upon us against our will. The oppressor becomes the oppressed; the sadist becomes the masochist. We are able to revel in self-pity while harking back to past glories, dreaming of re-creating the Empire through a succession of free-trade agreements with the Commonwealth.

Except that this is all a myth. We are not, in fact, being oppressed. No-one is actually invading us, bombing us or occupying the country. The best examples of oppression we have been able to find have been Boris Johnson’s mendacious examples of straight bananas, and prohibitions on prawn cocktail crisps and the recycling of teabags. But it suits us to believe this, because it allows us to evoke a feeling of solidarity against the external threat, and indulge a national love of the eponymous ‘Heroic Failure’ of the book. We celebrate historic disasters as long as they have been prosecuted with the requisite amount of enthusiasm, brio, and self-sacrifice. Forethought and preparation are anathema, since the point is to guarantee failure in as difficult circumstances as possible. Hence we have Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, the imbecility of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Scott of the Antarctic lauded as national treasure rather than second-rate loser.

Brexit is merely the latest incarnation of this national passion for glorious disaster. We can see this in the entirely superficial way in which we have tried to execute leaving the EU. First, a referendum blithely given to the public for trivial political reasons, with no clear idea or explanation of what a vote to leave would mean in practice. Then, after exhortations to ‘just get on with it’ and to believe in the ‘sunlit uplands’ afforded by Brexit, a similarly blithe triggering of article 50, again without any semblance of a plan. For three years, no real effort has been made to explain the difficult trade-offs involved, except perhaps by Ivan Rogers, one of the derided ‘experts’, who got the sack for his trouble. When the negotiations with the EU27 became difficult, we got more insistence that we just needed to try harder and believe in Brexit- as if Michel Barnier and the Irish border could be made to disappear if only we squeezed our eyes tight and found some new resource within ourselves.

So that explains it. We are not self-harming for any rational purpose, instead fulfilling a psychological need for victimhood. Somehow I feel much better for knowing this, for at least now I have a framework, albeit a topsy-turvy one, on which to hang my understanding. Amplifying her travails with a disastrous and unnecessary election, Theresa May is channeling Scott of the Antarctic. Brexit? It’s the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Profile Image for Peter Beck.
112 reviews34 followers
February 1, 2020
I am still trying to understand why the Brits would inflict so much economic harm on themselves by leaving the EU. In this quick and insightful read, Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole argues that we must look to literary greats like Orwell and Kipling, the British psyche, and a latent English nationalism that has blossomed since Scottish devolution in 1999.

O’Toole writes as a friendly but concerned neighbor rather than a historic enemy of Great Britain. He notes, “When a neighbor is going mad, it is only reasonable to understand the source of their distress” (xxii). O’Toole’s diagnosis: a superiority complex coupled with delusions of oppression.

That the U.K. won World War II but lost an empire never sat well with many Brits, according to O’Toole. This has led to visions of “Empire 2.0” consisting of the Anglosphere--the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even if this were possible, O’Toole points out that in this Anglo-Saxon Union the U.K. would become subservient to the U.S. rather than the EU. Ironically, leaving the EU could easily lead to the final step in decolonization--the loss of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland has already been cut adrift in the eyes of Unionists.

Brexit advocates managed to convince enough voters that the UK had become a “vassal state” or “colony” of the EU. Politicians and thought leaders frequently likened the EU to Hitler and Nazi Germany. The best salesman for Brexit turned out to also be the biggest liar: Boris Johnson (BoJo). Thus, even though BoJo became prime minister a year after O’Toole wrote his book, BoJo is the individual O’Toole spends the most time on. It is no coincidence that BoJo’s only book published during the decade was a shoddy Churchill biography. He wanted the public to think of him as the reincarnation of Britain's most revered leader. BoJo used his perch as a “Guardian” columnist to hone his lies about EU red tape. He discovered that imaginary EU food regulations (most famously shrimp-flavored potato chips) resonated with the public. As O’Toole puts it, “The British had an insatiable appetite for every kind of Euro-menace to their food and drink” (p. 103). Parliament’s Treasury Committee confronted BoJo with his lies, but “you cannot expose a naked man” (p. 137). Sadly, BoJo “had no strategy, no tactics, no serious intent at all. And for very good reason-- Leave was not supposed to win” (132).

O’Toole’s arguments about the role of the “cult of heroic failure” (the paradigmatic example being the “Charge of the Light Brigade” blunder) and “sadopopulism” (Bexiters were former Punks prone to self-mutilation) veered into psychobabble for me.

I wish O’Toole had spent more time discussing yawning income inequality and the fraying of the social safety net in the U.K. as I think this has great explanatory power both in the U.K. and the U.S (the Midlands = West Virginia; London = NY/DC/Boston/LA?). O’Toole argues that “Working-class communities in England, like their counterparts in most of the EU, are absolutely right to feel they have been abandoned” (p. 130). Unfortunately, he does not develop this point. Also, this book is written for a British audience--I had to look up the meaning of "naffness" and I still have only a hazy idea of what "Turkey Twizzlers" are.

O’Toole doesn’t address English nationalism until the final substantive chapter (skip the Postscript chapter--when has one ever done more than summarize the months since the manuscript was written without adding to the preceding narrative?). Since Scotland gained greater self-rule in 1999, surveys show that the English are growing more conscious of their identity. O’Toole never really explains what this identity is, other than a vague preference for St. George over St. Patrick. Is it anything more than soccer hooligans waving the white flag with the red cross through it? Perhaps the English themselves haven’t figured this out yet.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews404 followers
September 13, 2019
109th book for 2019.

Written by a prominent Irish theater critic this analysis of the cultural background motivations for Brexit—think lost empire, the nightmare of the colonizer being colonized, a white England forever—is excellent.

The book—published in late 2018—is perhaps a little dated now but the analysis remains very much on point. For anyone who is mystified by why Britain—or more accurately England minus London— wants to leave the EU this book offers a useful set of frames by which to view the whole messed up slow motion car crash.

Well worth a read.

Profile Image for Siria.
1,748 reviews1,264 followers
November 3, 2019
In Heroic Failure, Fintan O'Toole undertakes a kind of cultural history of Brexit, arguing that the roots of this ongoing fiasco are far more complex and thoroughly embedded in the English national psyche than has generally been appreciated. I use the term 'English' here deliberately, since O'Toole argues that Brexit is essentially an English phenomenon. It's driven by a thwarted sense of English superiority in a post-Empire age and by the increasing failure of 'English' to remain an easy default synonym for 'British' in an age of devolved government, and shaped by a masochistic tendency to cling to the idea of failure and defeat as romantic proof of character.

In his introduction, O'Toole writes that he intends Heroic Failure to be neither unfriendly, gleeful, or superior in his look at what "zero-sum nationalism", as he terms it, has done to British politics and to English society. Yet I confess, as a fellow Irish person, to feeling more than a bit of schadenfreude while reading. What I'm saying is: come for the cultural analysis, stay for the surgical dissection of the feckless, racist Boris Johnson and his cronies.
Profile Image for Thomas Harte.
115 reviews5 followers
March 24, 2019
What I particularly liked about this book is that firstly it was written by an Irishman who very eloquently tore asunder the misinformation and warped thinking at the heart of Brexit. It was also a book that touches on the collateral damage Brexit will cause to Ireland. It is also a book that examines Englishness and delves into the psychology of Brexit and the thinking of those behind this process. A very welcome addition to the debate.
Profile Image for Neil Fox.
213 reviews8 followers
January 4, 2019
Fintan O'Toole, Ireland's premier political and social commentator who wickedly satirized the ludicrous excesses of the Celtic Tiger for years and most memorably compiled his writings on that subject in 'Ship of fools', has in recent times made commentary on Brexit his forte. In 'Heroic failure' he pointedly turns his sharp intellect and razor wit onto that great topic of our times.

Heroic Failure is no political commentary or analysis of Brexit, nor is it a chronological detailing of the events that led Britain down that road, it is about the National psychology rather than the politics that led to Brexit.

O'Toole explores the mindset that gave us Brexit - a National self-pity fueled by a sense of grievance and superiority. He argues that Brexit follows the tradition of heroic failure - the last stand, the doomed expedition, the suicidal cavalry charge - of which British history is replete. The charge of the light brigade, Gordon of Khartoum, the doomed expeditions of Franklin and Scott, the Somme, Ypres and Dunkirk come from an inexplicable urge to be glorious in defeat rather than endure the humiliation of face loss from admission of being wrong, or of needing to change direction - I'd rather be jolly well lost than have to ask directions, by Jove. Britain is somehow also trapped in an obsession about its finest moment which was a great success as opposed to a failure - World War 2, because of the decades' long anticlimax that followed - economic stagnation, the loss of Empire , the ignominy of watching the economic rise of former enemies Japan and Germany. The EU is the Nazi invasion that never came.

O'Toole brilliantly examines the counter cultural aspects of Brexit - traditional upper class twittery mixes with the popular culture forces that gave us Punk, Brexit as a nihilistic anarchy, equating 'take back control' with ' Never mind the bollix, here's Brexit'. The punk rocker of English Nationalism, unable to give the 2 fingers to the United Kingdom itself with its undesirable Scots, Welch and Norther Irish, instead tells Brussels to fuck off

Continuing the punk and rebellion theme, Brexit can be seen as a revolt against the ogress of a Nanny State carefully cultivated and conjured up by the likes of Farage, Johnson, Rees Mogg and Gove. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage carry themselves off as the man-in-the-pub, a slightly disheveled and sloppy-of-appearance ordinary bloke drinking his warm ale while munching on his prawn-flavored crisps, quick with a joke and a light up yer smoke, a common man just like you and me, the honest man in the street or pub. The opposite is of course true, as this is a cynical populist charade invented by elitist snobs who only see the common man as a vehicle for their political ambitions and couldn't give a hoot about him beyond this. One of the great political dupes of modern times is how the Conservative party, whose agenda is basically to further enrich the already wealthy, has managed to siphon off working and lower middle class voters whose interests they definitely do not represent. Jacob Rees-Mogg in his country estate with chauffeur driven cars and a Nanny who still wipes his arse for him won't be the one to suffer the economic consequences of Brexit - his investment funds safely berthed in EU-member Ireland's domain provides Brexit insurance for this. The same phenomenon can be seen in the US with how the Republican Party has attracted blue collar voters, and the explanation is the same. The right wing parties grab what should be the left-leaning economic demographic by making the hot-button social issues their own as they distract from their true economic agenda. In America it's abortion, guns, immigration and religion; in Britain it's also immigration plus interference in our traditional way of life from faceless Eurocrats, the Nazis who never invaded physically but who seek to take over by more covert perfidious means. The outcome of all this in America is Trump, in Britain it's Brexit.

Johnson & co, like Trump, never expected to actually win, and so were painfully unprepared for what came next - the leadership struggle, the exposure of their campaign lies ( all that money that was to flow back into the NHS from Brussels), the backfiring gamble of the 2017 General Election and the fiasco of the exit negotiations with the EU.

Brexit is a National disaster, a tragicomic farce and colossally unnecessary own-goal foisted on the Nation by the follies of the Conservative Party, the ultimate playing-out of old Etonian rivalry between Chum Boris and Friend David, naively swallowed by the Battle of Britain coffin-dodger brigade, little Englanders and knuckle-dragging Xenophobes and racists manipulated by the right-wing gutter press. It is quite literally a bus-wreck, as O'Toole hilariously points out in his use of the climatic scene from 'The Italian Job' as Brexit metaphor, with the gold at one end of the precariously perched bus representing the promises of Brexit whilst the hapless bank robbers whose grasping for it from the other end threaten to tilt the whole thing over the precipice are the Brexit gang. Unfortunately their actions have very much taken the Great out of Britain , and the Kingdom is now far from United. To paraphrase Scott's brave companion as he wandered out alone into the Antartic whiteout, we are going out now and we may be some time.
Profile Image for Domhnall.
435 reviews328 followers
January 27, 2019
Fintan O’Toole is a terrific journalist with the Irish Times and has a long record of penetrating and biting reporting. I became a fan on reading his account of the 2008 financial crash- “Ship of Fools” – and this exploration of the background to Brexit is no less insightful. He places the Brexit debate unequivocally in the context of the continuing progress of extreme neoliberalism: “It is not possible simultaneously to ask people to trust the state and to tell them that the state has no business in any part of their lives in which the market has free reign... the gross inequality produced by neoliberalism is increasingly incompatible with democracy and therefore, in liberal democracies, with political stability.” [p201] At the same time, he takes the position that the important debate in the Brexit referendum and its aftermath is neither economic nor rational, but rather emotional; cold blooded analysis of the objective factors will not expose either the nature of the problem or the options for its solution. This may be one key to appreciating why it is that those supporting Leave and those demanding Remain are so incapable of hearing each other’s arguments and why the principle lines of engagement have so little impact.

He sets out in a few pages some profound criticisms of the European Union. “Being angry about the European Union isn’t a psychosis – it’s a mark of sanity.” [p130). ... “There is a European Technocratic elite (especially in unaccountable institutions like the European Central Bank) that has lost its memory. It has forgotten that poverty, inequality, insecurity and a sense of powerlessness have drastic political repercussions.” [p131] ... “Working class communities in England, like their counterparts in most of the EU, are absolutely right to feel that they have been abandoned.” [p132]

This being the case, Brexit seems an understandable choice. “Brexit gives the pain a name and a location – immigrants, and Brussels bureaucrats. It counters their sense of powerlessness with a moment of real power – Brexit is, after all, a very big thing to do.” [p132]

Regrettably, it is not the right solution to the stated problems. “But it is still self harm. For the cynical leaders of the campaign, the freedom they desire is the freedom to dismantle the environmental, social and labour protections that they call ‘red tape’. They want to sever the last restraints on the very market forces that have caused the pain.’[p132] “Perhaps the most brilliant linguistic manoeuvre of English neoliberalism was the renaming of the welfare state as the nanny state. ... The things that enabled people to be free of drudgery and want were redefined as barriers to their freedom.... [p117]

As regards their ideology, he references a key manifesto – Britannia Unchained – published in 2012 by five rising stars of the Tory Party, most of whom would end up in the cabinet, which includes the complaint that “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music...” [p82] The authors seemed to regret Britain’s loss of empire and fantasize about a new empire of the white, Anglo-Saxon nations, without quite acknowledging that this would not be a new British empire, but rather an American one.

Another ideological source cited is The Sovereign Individual by William Rees Mogg, Jacob’s father, published in 1997. “It is an avowedly apocalyptic mess of Ayn Rand-ish prognostications addressed quite explicitly to the super-rich. And what it argues is that the millennial year 2000 would mark the dawn of a new age, one in which sovereignty would pass to these super-rich individuals and nation states would die. While the rhetoric of Brexit attacked ‘citizens of nowhere’, Rees Mogg senior argued that this is precisely what the ultra-wealthy titans of the new age can and must be.” [p169]

A substantial part of this book is given over to accounts of the key leaders in question, exposing the extent to which their perfectly overt free market ideology is packaged by a tissue of deceptions and straightforward lies to establish an unbelievably weird alliance of a wealthy elite with the excluded working class around an appeal to English nationalism.

“Objectively, the great mystery of Brexit is the bond it created between working class revolt on the one side and upper-class self-indulgence on the other. ... Brexit depended on an ostensibly improbable alliance between Sunderland and Gloucestershire, between hard old steel towns and rolling Cotswold hills, between people with tattooed arms and golf-club buffers.” [p124]

Fintan does not imagine that exposing the lies of Brexiteers holds much promise in this political environment. He provides entertaining accounts of the systematic and creative lies that gave Boris Johnson an immense status in the lead up to the referendum, many of which were exposed in a humiliating interrogation of Johnson by a parliamentary select committee three months before the referendum, and points out that Johnson had clearly indicated that he did not expect the voters to be so stupid as to give Brexit the majority they did. Yet, when Boris failed to take the leadership of the Conservative Party – and hence to enter No 10 – after Cameron resigned, it was primarily because he shirked the challenge, despite having huge support.

“...if the British army on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys, Brexit is those who feel they have nothing to lose led by those who will lose nothing either way.” [p122] ... “Farage, in his book, The Purple Revolution, confessed, ‘I love a gamble, love stacking up the odds ... Not only did trading in the city help whet my appetite for taking a gamble, it taught me how to get out when the trade started to go wrong, and to brush yourself off when the losses started mounting up.’ Losses, that is, of other people’s money.” ... “Brexit is the irruption into politics of the risk culture of the city.” [p125] The people voting for Brexit imagine they are taking a gamble, when in reality it is they who are being gambled with.

So what is the formula that can induce so many ordinary people to vote to remove what remains of their economic security? Fintan points the finger at English nationalism and throughout the book, he explores the mystical language used by Brexiteers seeking to befuddle the population into supporting their cause; he demonstrates with impressive detail just how farcical and mistaken the right wing version of England’s history really is. [Much of his evidence relies on the four volume history of the 100 years war by Jonathen Sumption, which would seem to have become essential reading for the history buff: https://www.goodreads.com/series/146916 ]

But there is no benefit to pointing out these errors, any more than pointing out Boris Johnson’s many lies, unless there is also to be an alternative on offer. Perhaps it is appropriate to have an Irish journalist make the critical observation here: “There is surely, in one of the world’s great cultures, enough wit and energy and creativity and humour to infuse Englishness with hope and joy instead of pain and self pity.” [p200] He even suggests some useful resources: “ the traditions of John Ball and the Suffragettes, of Mary Woolstonecraft and John Maynard Keynes, of Stuart Hall and Thomas Paine, of Jo Cox and George Orwell and generations of fighters for dignity and equality.”

Of course, however well framed, the book culminates in a question rather than an answer. Hopefully the English Left will see this as a friendly challenge from one to another of the world’s great cultures to get its act together, for pity’s sake. Ideally, that needs to happen before 29th March, 2019, please.
93 reviews7 followers
December 3, 2018
Kinda rambles and is undirected. O'Toole has written many excellent OpEds about Brexit, but this form doesn't work.

The whole book can be summarised as "The English never got over winning the Second World War"
Profile Image for Sandro.
71 reviews6 followers
December 13, 2021
This book is a powerful dissection of how a culture of English nationalism without political substance has turned into one of the biggest political dramas of the 21st century. O’Tooles reading of Brexit is sensitive to how cultural signs such as the prawn cocktail crisp or a heightened interested in the relationship between domination and subservience as materialised in Fifty Shades of Grey are emblematic of the politics of pain. What will resonate for a long time and intensely is his analysis of contemporary British government officials who are “(f)igures who could have been enjoyably ridiculous in a Dickens novel [but] now get to determine a nation’s fate for a generation”. An absolute must-read for anyone working in contemporary British culture.
14 reviews
October 9, 2021
While this is an intelligent, well researched and well written book it comes too late to the party and arrives too early for the next party and so it just ends up getting the bus home on its own.
Published in twenty eighteen, well after the referendum, its function in highlighting the perils of Britain leaving the European Union sadly missed its deadline by a mile. Unaware of the global pandemic about to mingle with Brexit, O’Toole’s take on the prognosis for a non-EU UK is already missing a vital part of the picture. What we are left with is a one sided summary of the history of English identity by an Irish republican with an appetite for old school Brit bashing. No harm in that. Knowing the Brits, he claims, whatever happens as a result of the fictitious conflict known as Brexit, mostly pain and hardship for the many and little or no consequence for the few, it will sooner or later be hailed by the English as a mighty victory. A well written and intelligent book which as well as ideological matters focused on practical realities would help in the pursuit of brexit damage limitation. Nearly fifty percent of the electorate voted to remain in the EU.
Profile Image for James.
53 reviews5 followers
April 20, 2021
An entire book for people who think that "Hillary Clinton is a Real Life Hermione" is insightful political analysis. Very much padded with extensive sections from 50 Shades of Grey - O'Toole is particularly proud of this metaphor and not only focuses on it for a good 10% of the book but returns to it later, as well as other interminable comparisons to BDSM, self-harm, even a couple of sexual assault references.

The introduction was good, and there were sections of the book which could have made a decent op-ed in a newspaper or something, but overall this kind of "making most of a book out of excruciatingly drawn out media references" thing was obnoxious enough to undermine any redemption that may otherwise have been obtained by some of the better passages.

I can't see who the target audience of this is, unless it is people who voted Remain and just want to feel smugly superior to those who didn't. While there is much I think I fundamentally agree with O'Toole on, the deceit of people like Farage, Rees-Mogg, and Johnson are common knowledge in all but the most devout believers in Brexit - and they aren't going to get to that point to find out more about their heroes, because no-one who doesn't already agree with at least some of the premise of this book is going to suffer through the self-indulgent waffling about SS-GB and 50 Shades and The Clash to get to the comparatively useful section of the book.

Also, an audiobook specific complaint - it was narrated by the author, who does a "stupid/caricatured voices for people he disagrees with" thing which was the final nail in the coffin for me.
Profile Image for Richard McGeough.
24 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2019
Where Fintan O’Toole is good, he’s very good: the concept of sado-populism, the Italian Job analogy, the brilliance of Boris Johnston at spinning trivial inconveniences into compelling narratives. Where he misses, he misses rather embarrassingly: I didn’t find the 50 Shades analogy convincing, while O’Toole’s thesis that if you’re an old punk, you’re up for a bit of anarchy in the name of Brexit was just cringeworthy. I’m glad I read it. The original appeal was to get a distinct Irish perspective, which ultimately I didn’t think it delivered. But it DID deliver interesting perspectives that hadn’t occurred to me before, and that made it well worth my time.
Profile Image for Carlos Martinez.
328 reviews193 followers
January 7, 2019
A well-written and insightful look at the social psychology of Brexit, and the politics underlying it. O'Toole argues that Brexit is in essence a neoliberal project, designed to free the ultra-rich from regulation, taxation and accountability. Since this isn't a project that people would ordinarily vote for, its proponents have tapped into some of the most vulnerable parts of the national psyche, in particular empire nostalgia, racism and xenophobia.

Repetitive at times, and some parts resonate more than others, but definitely a useful and thought-provoking read.
Profile Image for René.
32 reviews10 followers
May 25, 2019
Wollte die EU in Wirklichkeit bloß die besonders exotischen Geschmacksrichtungen britischer Krabbenchips verbieten, und genau deshalb musste das Vereinigte Königreich sich beinahe zwingend David Lynch als Regisseur seines dreijährigen nationalen Nervenzusammenbruchs einkaufen? Fintan O'Toole, ein renommierte Kommentator der Irish Times, Gewinner des Orwell Prize 2017 und mehrmaliger Literatur-Professor in Princeton, hat eine staunenswerte Obduktion des britischen Kollektiv-Harakiri geschrieben. Er analysiert das eigentlich auf der Hand liegende Paradox, dass Großbritannien selbst nie über seinen Sieg im letzten Weltkrieg und den eher kargen Dank der Geschichte dafür hinweggekommen ist. O'Toole leitet daraus eine noch sehr viel längere Tradition glorifizierten Selbstmitleids ab, die man sich zwar als Kolonialmacht leisten und für allerhand Verdrängungsarbeit funktionalisieren kann, aber die sich psychologisch gegen den Hegemon dreht, wenn dem das Weltreich abhanden kommt. Brexit, eine epische Opfergabe auf dem Altar eines nationalen Kults des heldenhaften Scheiterns? Man merkt diesem Autor die Tätigkeit als Theaterkritiker an, seine Dramaturgie ist vielleicht schon zu perfekt aufgespannt und durchgetaktet, aber umso höher liegt der düstere Unterhaltungswert dieser Analyse. O'Toole deutet eher erwartbare Kulturproduktionen wie die Churchill-Hagiografie "The Darkest Hour" oder die paranoide Dystopie-Hitlerei "Fatherland" aus, um die insgeheimen Kolonisierungsängste der Insel aufzuzeigen – aber er kriegt es auch überraschend stilgewandt und schlüssig hin, Brexit als Sado-Maso-Erfüllungsfantasie nach Machart von "Fifty Shades Of Grey" zu interpretieren. Nicht zuletzt demontiert der Ire auf bissige, schnittige Weise die unauslöschliche englische Regierungsklasse und ihre zynische, verschrobene Spiellust mit rhetorischen Kunstgriffen und einem Vokabular, wie es dafür sonst nur Edward St. Aubyn zur Verfügung hat.
Profile Image for Jake Goretzki.
716 reviews109 followers
October 28, 2019
A terrific, bracing, damning read.

Brexit is a nervous breakdown and - basically - the tragic, farcical end of Empire, repeating countless reheated tropes and delusions (we won WW2 but the EU was a German takeover; the coloniser became the colonised; bananas and prawn cocktail crisps) from British national mythology. First among those myths: the fetishism for heroic failure and pain that will cause immense damage and ultimately destroy the thing that Brexiteers purport to love. This, from a close observer of the UK who isn't triumphant but cannot help but feel appalled seeing a neighbour having a breakdown.

I'd personally reached a similar conclusion about Brexit: that it's the last throes of an Empire that never dealt with the end of empire. After spending most of my life as a republican, carrying inherited distrust of Britishness with me, I kind of warmed to them in a 'live and let live' kind of way around 2012 and stopped mouthing off about monarchy and Ingerland.

But today, observing Brexit, I'm much more triumphant and contemptuous than Fintan O'Toole; but amid the anger and bewilderment, I'm frankly finding it fucking funny watching England (for it is England) leaving its wife, buying a Harley and full leathers and crashing into a wall. 'You see what happens, Larry? You see what happens?'. The best bit: that the Britain the Brexiteers crow about won't even fucking exist in a few years.

Negatives? A few too many mentions of 'neoliberalism' for my liking (re Blair, etc). But that's a side issue. Oh, and while reading this on the tube, I got a thumbs up from a middle aged man in a keffiyeh, who said something like 'Looks like Jeremy's frustrated Brexit again tonight'. I didn't get time to replay that Jeremy had largely enabled Brexit and continues to do so. But that thumbs up was cause for concern. I don't read much popular politics, see.

Highly recommended though. Very good.
Profile Image for Tim Julian.
379 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2020
Superb dissection of the act of collective madness that is Brexit by one of the astutest political commentators writing today. O'Toole identifies the roots of Brexit in a peculiarly English masochistic fantasy that longs for domination by a cruel master. In the absence of a suitable candidate for the role of dominator, part of the political and media elite seized upon "Brussels" and, naturally, the evil Germans (who, annoyingly, kept refusing to be anything but eminently reasonable) as the cause and source of all ills. The paranoiac is convinced that everyone is out to get him. The question is, Why? Well, because we saved them in the War of course, and the blighters aren't even grateful. This leads to what O'Toole calls "a perfect circle of self-pity and self-love: we deserve to be loved but we are hated because we are so wonderful."
O'Toole brilliantly uses references from popular culture (Len Deighton's 1978 thriller SS-GB, 50 Shades of Grey, The Italian Job) to illuminate his thesis. He traces the connection between the fifty-something who voted for Brexit in 2016 back to that same individual's early life as a punk in the 1970s.

"It is not as far as it seems from the stiff upper lip to the curled lip, from the heroic not caring of Captain Scott to the great snarl of Rotten’s ‘And we don’t care’ at the end of ‘Pretty Vacant’. But punk also created the most powerful paradox in the deep neurosis of Brexit: the strange psychic mash-up of revolt and pain, of bondage and freedom, of liberation and self-harm."

Another brilliant parallel is with the Hundred Years War, another mad project led by the English elite which unleashed immeasurable suffering on the masses.
His conclusion, and one I agree with, is that Brexit has lifted the lid on the tensions inherent in the United Kingdom itself, and that if it leads to a new political ecosystem, with the four nations going their separate ways, it may ultimately prove to be no bad thing.
Profile Image for Ksenia Kulichik.
38 reviews7 followers
March 16, 2019
This book was like a crash course in British (English?) national identity over the past hundred years with Brexit as the sour culmination of the long dragged on grievances.

It is brief and incisive, digging into the cultural origins and underpinnings of Brexithink, rather than dissecting its political manifestations or charting the timeline. O’Toole attacks the issue from many angles and draws parallels with plenty of historical events and cultural works, painting a multi-dimensional and vivid portrait of the identity contortions of Brexiteers. The insights he presents are poignant and, surprisingly, not entirely UK-specific. One immediately starts to notice the traces of identity machinations and cultural trends he outlines elsewhere.

Eloquent, witty and timely, this is a recommended read for anyone trying to wrap their heads around the how we got to here of Brexit.
Profile Image for Jerry Smith.
734 reviews13 followers
March 3, 2023
As a Brit (notice I don't write Englishman) who has lived in the US for over 17 years, the Brexit self-harm has been embarrassing and distressing for me to watch from afar. I have tried to keep an eye on the catastrophe it was, is and will continue to be. I am extremely progressive and liberal even for my home country, but political affiliation, as pointed out by O'Toole, is no guarantee of a side in this fight. However, having said that, most of the ignorance, bigotry, racism, head-in-the-sand, refusal to see reality, evidence free thinking and general ridiculousness does emanate from the right. The right that have inexplicably been in power in the UK for 13 years, presided over austerity and proven to be one of the most corrupt and immoral governments to every foist their malfeasance on the UK public.

But I digress. This book is not so much an examination of the history of Brexit per se. I couldn't find it in the US but picked it up on a recent trip to my country of birth and was expecting more of a chronology but I wasn't disappointed. As one might guess from his name, FO'T is Irish, which gives him an interesting and somewhat third party view of the country across the Irish Sea.

He argues, fairly persuasively, that it is the history and the self-regard/self-loathing that afflicts England (not the rest of the UK, note) that made the population uniquely susceptible to the lies and con job perpetuated on it by unscrupulous politicians like Boris Johnson and his ilk. There is the persuasive argument here that Johnson took the position he did as a career move (of course he did), expecting Remain to win, so that when Cameron stood down as he promised at the end of his term, Johnson would be ideally placed to court the despicable anti-Europe wing of his fractured party by claiming to be a Brexiteer. This explains why "Leave" had no idea what to do when they won. They had no plan because they didn't think they would need one.

But this book is more about how it came to this and for that, we have to delve back into history. Why is England so vulnerable? The argument is persuasively made that Englanders are somehow convinced of their own special status, whilst at the same time suffering from self-pity and low esteem. This seems contradictory but I think he's right. Too many English people yearn for the days of Empire, they are enraged that, despite being on the winning side in WW2, the country is demonstrably worse off that those who suffered defeat. I see this all the time in the public discourse. We hold views of ourselves as bastions of fair play, tolerance and stoicism whereas we are really a bigoted, racist, intolerant angry nation.

So, we cast around for someone to blame because, after all, our general malaise must be caused by someone or something else because, well, damn it we're British. We still make the laughable claim to be a global power when in reality, most other nations are laughing at us now, especially post Brexit. So, the scapegoats we identify may have changed over the years but are basically the same: foreigners/immigrants (originally black people from the Caribbean, or the old Empire) and most recently, it must be the EU's fault.

So he pretty much lays it at the door of English nationalism and despite the cries I hear of "not ALL English people!" I think the case for a general zeitgeist along those lines is well made, and one I recognize especially in the clownish figures like Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Davis, Farage et al who essentially pandered to this feeling and still cling to it despite the obvious and increasing damage exiting the EU has caused to the country. O'Toole speculates, as do I, as to to who the English will blame now? At the moment the talking heads are still trying to blame the EU for their "intransigence" and "unreasonable positions" etc. when it was us who left the club.

The UK, and England in particular, will never be the same. We are a rump of a country that was always based on conquest and racism even when it was ostensibly "great". I am not proud to be English, I'm all too often embarrassed. On the downside of this narrative, the constant reference to cultural expressions on Englishness worked up to a point and I enjoyed them, but at times I found them a little strained - references to Shakespeare, the Italian Job movie etc. did serve to make his point but I wonder if some were a little cherry-picked. Still, not a major point I just felt the narrative sometimes became a little bogged down.

There is no doubt that England has a reverence for the "plucky loser" and much of our history does have great admiration for the titular "Heroic Failure" (Scott in the Antarctic, Charge of the Light Brigade etc.) and much of the book is weaved around that. It is strange we celebrate these failures as a nation, but perhaps, as mentioned here, this is only possible for a nation that sees itself as special and for which the heroic losses stand as a blip on overall greatness. This is an interesting take to me.

Brexit is likely to be fertile ground for authors, sociologists, historians etc. for decades to come. The story isn't fully written yet but this is an interesting take on it, and one with which I find much to agree.

Profile Image for C.A. A. Powell.
Author 12 books44 followers
April 20, 2020
The Pleasure of Self Pity? Fantasies of Empire in 2020? Please change the record, Mr O’Toole.

I decided to read a few things from the other side of the fence concerning Brexit. I’m searching for something I can accept. Why the UK is wrong to leave Europe? All you get here is another articulate academic that is looking out over lush fields of wheat with his pals. While beneath the crop is nothing but blighted soil. They refuse to wade into the wheat field and look beneath the crop for themselves. It's nice sitting on the raised platform with the gorgeous panoramic view.

Mr O'Toole has picked his viewpoint and writes very eloquently about the vein of his perceived perspective on English people only voting to leave the EU. I don’t doubt he is a learned and educated person. But street cleansers and public lavatory cleaners, like me, don’t see this panoramic English, Irish, British or EU view in quite the same way as he does. Don’t get me wrong. I like my toilet cleaning job and do other more gratifying things when not at work. My work is also very easy and I do not get fatigued or stressed out in any way. I’m a happy bloke who looks forward to leaving the EU. I want to see the outward-looking nation going for a better way of doing things while I look out over the fields and watch the glorious sunset holding my bucket and mop.

This so-called ‘Heroic Failure’ thing Mr O’Toole has written; I would say that some English lavatory cleaners might have voted to stay in the EU and others want to leave. Some might agree with him, but this easy-going none self-pitying lavatory cleaner does not. We're a rather mixed bunch with our English scientific and rationalist approach.

Put that into the more panoramic view of English and their varied professions and you will find the same division. Confining this to just English starts to get silly from the start. Mr O’Toole dropped the ball straight away.

I’m from London and now live in the Fenlands. My friend who lives in the same Fenland town is from Glasgow. We are both Brexit voters. My city of origin voted to Remain in the EU. I think much of my friend’s Glasgow did too.

I work in another small English Fenland village and remember a Scottish Brexit supporting MP (Ian Duncan Smith) coming to town to try and get support for the Vote Leave campaign during the build-up to the referendum. I can’t remember any of us feeling sore about the loss of empire. I don’t think this empire did much for the vast majority of us. In fact, we enthusiastic voters never even mentioned it. That was because it was in the past. Queen Boudicca came from nearby. We never spoke of her either. That is because we are at a different point in history now. Empire and Boudicca never turned up on our watch.

We Brexit voters (as in not self-pitying) were looking forward to being able to vote in politicians that could not be overruled by an unelected inner committee in the EU. We had wave after wave of irresponsible migration and it was a major factor in why many people voted to leave. We wanted control without ‘Fundamental Principles’ being imposed upon us. We wanted migration that our elected peers could control responsibly. If anyone wants to hang the racist label on us, fine. We will not feel the need to indulge in self-pity. We are a little more robust than that with our scientific and rationalist superpowers.

Being downtrodden or having self-pity is a complete and pathetic thing to label us with. It is something Mr O’Toole invented and decided to tarnish English people with. Many English and British thought scientifically and rationally (if you like Mr O’Toole) that the EU was not working properly via the unelected inner committee. Despite how well-intentioned this inner committee believed itself to be, it had no electoral threat and could implement and overrule whatever it wanted to. Therein lies the main problem that caused Brexit.

This inner committee is not run by a group of Nazis or bad people. But many British people (as in not just English) thought the institution was not working for us. We did not think we were victims but we saw an opportunity to be rid of such a restraining vessel of unelected government that was not working in our interests. We saw a federal-state forming from a trading block. Something we were constantly assured would not happen.

Academics like Mister O’Toole can paint a panoramic view exclusive to themselves (He is still on his deck chair looking at the beautiful wheat field.) They can expressively and cleverly write all sorts of analysis. They can inflate an economic truth and deflate or ignore one they do not care for. Then put such well-crafted and emotive things into their finished viewpoint. Convert into splendid prose and get a nicely targeted audience. This is just another one to chalk up for the record. An indulgence of Mr O’Toole’s once trendy left-wing panoramic view. He is just preaching to his already converted theatre. I’m one of the few hecklers making rude noises from the back of the stalls. I sneaked in.

Mr O’Toole used the introduction to say the Irish were mystical dreamers and we English were scientific rationalists. Ha bloody ha! Standing ovation for such cheaply acquired nobility. I’ll dwell on the scientific compounds and soil nutrients when I’m cleaning up the next piece of dog excrement in the high street. I’ll pick it up as a scientific rationalist while wearing my plaid suit and monocle. Good Lord! The English are a nation of scientific rationalists! Well, I’ve never met one! I don’t think they drink in my pub.

Let’s cut through all of the flowery words and get down to some nuts and bolts. Am I a hard done by English victim? No, of course, I’m not. Other people from somewhere else keep trying to tell me that I believe I am. They tell me I did not know what I was voting for as well. They tell me I long for a new empire and am sad about the loss of the old one. Please forgive me, but I feel this sudden urge to stick my fingers down my throat.

What about ‘Pleasure of Self Pity’ being replaced with ‘Pleasure of Self Belief?’

Is that not a more enthusiastic approach? After all, it is a mere play on words. There is more of an appetite and energy to get Brexit done and move on. It is not a Heroic Failure or classical tragedy. Many of us want the EU to become a better place despite its obvious and serious shortcomings. Why can't we be the dolphins saying, "So long and thanks for all the fish?"

If Mr O’Toole thinks self-belief is a good thing then we can just call it, ‘self-belief.’

If Mr O’Toole thinks it is bad, then we can indulge him and call it ‘English’ Self Belief.

Any English people who think this is a tad racist must be wrong because I think many English would be determined not to undergo this mythical dreamer thing of the ‘Pleasure of Self Pity.’

I shudder to think of an English romantic that would label any people as mythical dreamers. Fortunately, 'Great English Romantics' is probably the shortest book in history. Surely such people who indulge in self-pity are a nation of underachievers? And as such might continue to be a nation of mythical dreamers. A whole collective nation of mythical dreamers? A whole nation of underachievers wallowing in a history of self-pity? Somehow, Mr O’Toole thinks silly English people decided, "Hey, let's give this self-pity thing a bash!" I don’t think so, Mr O’Toole. Though your writing is very clear and you are precise in your belief, I can't help thinking you are coming from a place where mythical dreams might be two a penny.

If any people out there are Brexit voters, don't shy away from reading this. I'm certain you will enjoy some of the very patronising points of view and the completely misinterpreted ones too. It is written by a well-intentioned individual that thinks too deep and comes back at us with delusions of eloquence. Terrific fun.
Profile Image for Bert Bruins.
70 reviews
December 15, 2018
A timely book as they say. Fintan O'Toole is an Irish writer and columnist with other books to his name on Ireland and Irish identities. Here he turns his attention to the Brexit referendum and issues around English identity. To his mind anti-EU sentiment is predominantly a symptom of English (rather than British or UK) identity-insecurity that followed from the loss of empire, sharing decision making with equals within the EEC/EU, and the rise of nationalism in Wales and Scotland.

This long essay sometimes reads as psychoanalysis of a nation, like a modern day Erich Fromm writing about England rather than Germany, which no doubt will irritate some. There are plenty of lighter moments however, where O'Toole is not just pithy but also witty. Here he sees relevance in a recent TV advert for spectacles featuring John Cleese:

"Cleese gave the world an alternative image of Englishness that seems in retrospect more representative of the culture that produced Brexit: a hysterical Basil Fawlty giving a 'damn good thrashing' to his broken-down Austin 1100 Countryman Estate with the branch of a tree"

This I also found funny, yet to the point, talking about Tommy Robsinson followers:

"Victimhood has been seen to be the currency of power - women, people of colour, ethnic minorities appeal for equality by reference to their collective suffering. In this sense, the far-right is the white man's #MeToo movement. Not only am I not guilty, I am in fact the victim."

Boris Johnson, as the man who despite his history of lying and his comic flippancy,. is seen as the man who swung the referendum comes in for some special attention

Finding grievances against the EU largely fictitious, and therefore unfulfillable, O'Toole in his final words recommends dealing with English nationalism by taking it seriously, in other words thinking about the creation of an English parliament or something similar. I would add that political sciences professor David Runciman's viewpoint also deserves more attention. He has argued in recent years that the not-university-educated half of the population (the Somewheres rather than the Anywheres in David Goodhart's terms) deserve more respect (and that translates into more money and power) if we don't want to see more populist rebellions such as the Brexit vote or the elction of Trump.

I don't think the Boris Johnsons and Rees-Moggs of this world are the people to deliver such a thing though. Anybody out there who thinks they are?
Displaying 1 - 30 of 233 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.