The author of the extraordinarily awful Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain is a weekly columnist with the Irish Times who tells us that as a child he devoured the British comics Beano and Dandy. In his current enthusiasm to denounce the English generally, Fintan O’Toole seems unaware that these publications were produced in Dundee, which, he might have heard, is in Scotland. Nonetheless, these comics provide him with Lord Snooty and the Bash Street Kids as a template for modern England, with arrogant toffs lording it over incoherent, bigoted plebs. This view is clearly enhanced by his immersion in the comics’ modern adult equivalent, the Guardian, written by North London toffs who despise their own country. Thus, as Quislingtons, they enjoy a postcode exemption from the witless class-generalisations upon which this book depends.
This review appears in May’s Quadrant.
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These generalisations do not feature the affable and benign creatures who populated O’Toole’s childhood, but semi-racist caricatures which if employed about the Irish would be roundly denounced by his chums in the Guardian. A staple upon which O’Toole depends is that the English, as a defining characteristic, usually hate not merely foreigners and black people, but also, when occasion suits, Jews.
Writing about the appalling state of the 1960s British economy, he declares: “There was a ready and visible target for those looking for someone to blame for the country’s economic and social ills—black people, who had themselves replaced Jews in the role. (It is not coincidental that the last anti-Semitic riots took place in 1947, just ten months before the arrival of post-war immigrants from the Caribbean.)”
That grotesque series of non-sequiturs typifies O’Toole’s way of arguing: presenting one factoid before unblinkingly linking it with another, unrelated in any way, other than by his own Beano-informed imagination. Thus, the parenthetic conclusion to the paragraph might lead the unsuspecting to believe it is informed by some deep historical knowledge. It is not.
There were anti-Jewish riots in several English towns that summer of 1947, and inexcusable though they were, they were not in any way representative of how the English usually thought or behaved. Britain had just endured the longest, coldest winter of the entire twentieth century, with power cuts for five hours a day, almost no coal, soap, petrol or fuel, and grave food shortages. British morale was rock-bottom. Then two captured British Army sergeants were hanged by Zionist terrorists in Palestine, leading to anti-Jewish disturbances in which much property was damaged, but no one was killed or seriously hurt. These deplorable events soon passed from public memory, and why should they not? The larger truth was that by 1947, Jews had become an indispensable part of British life; there were twenty-two Jewish MPs, including the Minister for Fuel and Supply, Emmanuel Shinwell, with two Jewish-founded companies, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, opening Britain’s first self-service shops.
The arrival of the Windrush into an impoverished society did cause some concern, but mostly among Labour MPs. Only an idiot would deny that mass-immigration was followed by widespread racism. Yet the fact remains that few racists have ever won, and none has ever retained, a seat in the House of Commons, proving how relatively little explicit xenophobia has poisoned national British national politics. Leaping from 1947 to 1968 and Enoch Powell’s much-misunderstood but undeniably idiotic “Rivers of Blood” speech, O’Toole opines that “no senior figure with credible designs on power would again so explicitly blame blacks and Asians for England’s failings … This left a vacancy, which was filled by the European Union.”
Putting aside this allegedly chronic English need to hate, one has to ask: failings? What failings? Not merely have thousands of immigrants poured lawfully into Britain from the EU since the Brexit vote, in 2018 alone 534 illegal immigrants in small boats were intercepted leaving France—a very anchor of the EU—bound for England. Nonetheless, O’Toole next declares that there was a “large overlap between pro-Brexit and anti-immigrant sentiment … The black and brown Other fused with the European Other.”
Oh please, spare us these wearisome, pretentious clichés about The Other. The Home Secretary and Mayor of London are brown, and nearly seventy black or brown MPs have been elected this century. Yet O’Toole’s many falsehoods are a weird admixture of self-hating Guardian columnar effusions and the alcoholic ramblings of a sociology student at a third-rate, third-level college: a Polly Toynbee meeting a Polytech. And perhaps suitably, for it was another Toynbee—Arnold, her often foolish great-uncle—to whom O’Toole turns in another grandiloquent assessment of the English character: “They [the English] stopped grieving over their defeat in the Hundred Years War in the exhilaration of discovering and colonising a new world.”
Really? The length of time between the end of that war and the voyage of the Mayflower, that is, 170 years, is about the same as that between the erection of Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square and the Brexit vote. What sane person, in the absence of a tab of LSD, two joints and a half-bottle of whisky, could connect the two, other than someone deranged by an astounding ignorance of history or the demented dogmas of Eurology?
These two qualities are most evident in O’Toole’s endless contemplations upon the Hundred Years War, as if that calamity—begun and continued by “English” kings, apparently—embodies a typically violent form of Englishness. Neither observation is remotely true. The war was a ferocious, almost genocidal, dynastic struggle between two French-speaking noble families, the Angevins and Plantagenets, to whom both Englishness and the English language would have been as mystifying as moonrock and McDonald’s. Not even Henry V, the first king of England since 1066 able to speak the tongue of the English people, was English: in Shakespeare’s play, from which O’Toole quotes but clearly does not know particularly well, the king twice-over, and quite pointedly, declares that he is Welsh.
Observing the futility of the war’s endless “English” victories, O’Toole continues: “Its solution was one that would appeal to most of the free-market ultras behind Brexit: the war was privatised and out-sourced to gangsters … The contemporary English knight Sir Thomas Gray called them ‘a horde of yobs’ … raping and murdering … all in the name of the English ‘king of France’.”
So, by extension—and not a long one—both Brexiteers and privatisation are comparable to gangsters, rapists and murderers, while the nineteenth-century term yob (a back formation from boy) rather miraculously makes a guest-appearance in the mouth of a medieval knight.
“Even the worst Brexit will be nothing like the catastrophe of the Hundred Years War,” he muses with the bathos of Adrian Mole, aged thirteen and a half, before concluding with an even more vertiginous fatuity: “But there are perhaps meaningful parallels …” No, no, there aren’t.
O’Toole does not confine his comparisons of Brexiteers to medieval rapists and twentieth-century racists. Hence the following: “When Thomas Mair, the far-right fanatic who murdered Joe Cox during the referendum campaign, told his trial that his name was ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom to Britain’, he was at the extreme end of a spectrum that stretched into respectable mainstream opinion.”
Given that logic, and based on comparable evidence, would O’Toole argue—and would his publishers even allow him to say—that the murderers who beheaded Lee Rigby and the 7/7 bombers who slaughtered fifty-two people in London were merely at the extreme end of a spectrum that reaches into respectable mainstream Islamic opinion, and would include the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan? Such an observation would not merely be utterly foul and wrong, it could only be uttered by a certifiable lunatic: so how were such outrageous and inflammatory calumnies about constitutional Brexiteers such as Gove and Farage accepted by O’Toole’s publishers?
Even the hapless Theresa May is comparably apostrophised alongside Nazism, communism and anti-Semitism. O’Toole accuses her of employing “volkish rhetoric” when she said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” thereby, he declares, “openly evoking the far-right (and Stalinist) trope of rootless cosmopolitans who did not deserve citizenship”.
This is quite a feat, a sort of rhetorical revival of the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, but now in the service of the EU; hence, “volkish” “far-right” and even “rootless-cosmopolitans” (which was how Stalin described Jews in the 1950s). Thus a single sentence manages to declare genocidal imputations, not merely for the millions of UK voters who voted to leave the EU, but also for the sorry woman who later became Prime Minister and who, after all, had voted to remain. So, who will be spared O’Toole’s sanctimonious calumnies?
Obviously, not the Iron Lady. With all the well-informed acuity of Adrian Mole at his most indignant, he observes that “Thatcher’s governments did more damage to Britain’s industrial cities than the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign.” Nice try, but not really. The German air force killed 67,000 British civilians and destroyed half a million houses. He also speaks of “the gradual erosion of the welfare state after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979” then continues, “when the welfare state starts to slip away … it is regarded nostalgically as an aspect of a golden age … England began to be viewed in the rear-view mirror.”
In 1979, when Thatcher came to power, there were 55,000 doctors in the UK National Health Service. In 2017, there were 113,508 doctors in the English National Health Service alone. The UK National Health Service today employs 1.7 million people and is the fifth-biggest employer in the world. This figure does not include the UK’s 50,000 self-employed NHS-funded GPs; that is, one for every 1200 people, as compared to, say, Sweden, which has one GP per 1588 people.
Of course, O’Toole tars today’s Brexiteers with the same false brush with which he paints so much, particularly his bugbear. “[Enoch] Powell didn’t believe in the welfare state, and most of the leading Brexiteers don’t either …” Every assertion here is wrong. First, no Brexiteer seeks to privatise the NHS; even the most extreme seek merely to introduce elements of competition. Second, after being appointed the Minister for Health in 1960, and after a ferocious fight with the Treasury, Powell put £100 million into rehabilitating run-down hospitals, before next embarking upon a £500 million hospital-building program, the first in the history of the NHS. Though he believed in free markets, pragmatically he recognised—rather like today’s Brexiteers—that the NHS had become a key ingredient of British identity across party boundaries. Moreover, he himself had long before argued, in his paper Needs and Means, that “health and education should be comprehensive and universally available services”.
Do historical facts have any relevance to O’Toole? Do his leftist spleen and ideological frenzies blind him to simple, easily ascertainable truths? Or are some other forces at work? Certainly petty-bourgeois nationalism bubbles through his text like lava breaking through mosaic. “Opposition to Irish independence,” he writes, “even in the anodyne form of Home Rule, is utterly constitutive of modern conservatism.”
What? The Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath signed the Sunningdale Agreement that created a power-sharing executive in Belfast and gave the Irish Republic a say over the governance of Northern Ireland. This influence over a constituent part of the UK was later extended by Margaret Thatcher to include a secretariat of civil servants from the republic, with offices in Belfast to monitor events and advise on policy. Next came the Belfast Agreement, an early architect of which was the Tory Prime Minister John Major, which ultimately installed in the Northern Ireland government the very party whose terrorist wing had twice-over tried to exterminate Tory cabinets, including Major’s. And having overlooked those truths of Tory policy towards Ireland, O’Toole’s swivel-eyed purview of Anglo-Irish relations manages to include the Black and Tans—the infamous police recruited to combat IRA terrorism in 1920-21—and, of course, Oliver Cromwell.
On immigration, he writes: “31% of Leave voters want a sharp reduction in EU migration and a big part of the anti-immigration mood flowed from an entirely false belief [my italics] that hundreds of thousands of EU nationals, especially from eastern Europe, regarded the UK as a soft touch and arrived as welfare tourists.”
This was largely lifted from a report in the Guardian by the highly respected pollster Peter Kellner—but that word largely is decisive. Because what Kellner actually wrote was this: “many voters … believe that far more immigrants are receiving out-of-work welfare benefits than those reported in government statistics” (again, my italics). Kellner did not say “entirely false belief”, a term which O’Toole invented, though his footnoted confection confers a wholly unwarranted authority upon it.
O’Toole continues: “Precisely because this belief was unfounded, the expectations of those who voted Leave in the belief that all the immigrants would immediately go home were not and cannot be fulfilled. There is here the downside of the mendacity that fuelled Brexit.”
Mendacity is a useful word here, for no one who was faintly literate in the meaning of the referendum believed for a second that a Leave vote would result in the immediate departure of all immigrants. The only legal consequence of the referendum would be that Parliament would either continue to legislate as before or would begin proceedings to leave. It was that simple.
Equally simple is what the EU and the European Bank have done to O’Toole’s native country: namely saddled it with multigenerational debts to cover German banking losses in the Irish property market in the mid-2000s. Incredibly, this gets no mention here. Indeed, wherever ascertainable facts are either ignored or twisted but still do not sustain O’Toole’s arguments, he introduces an even greater level of fiction: novels. O’Toole’s literary recruits include Len Deighton’s absurd SS GB, in which a navy-less Germany (with no battleships or landing craft, about ten destroyers and just two cruisers, one with a wonky engine) is in 1940 able to invade and defeat a Britain whose army had in fact just been extensively re-equipped by the USA and whose navy still ruled the waves, Robert Harris’s rather more believable Fatherland, the fantastical Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, and most troublingly and even tremblingly, the sado-masochistic fantasies of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The manly relish with which O’Toole deploys the imagery of this last book, and the feverishness with which he so often returns to its themes, including nipple-clamps, suggest a more avid study of such erotica than the issue of Brexit would normally command. Nonetheless, his devotion does him credit, even if sometimes he seems to have been typing one-handed. Perhaps that is why he sometimes gets confused as to the difference between the two geographical concepts of England and Britain, as in his words, Brexit wanting “to be a restoration—of Britain as a great power, of England as it used to be”, when in fact it is a third entity, the United Kingdom, which is leaving the EU.
But categorical and verbal confusions abound here, as conjoined “Englishness” and “privilege” are portrayed as being intrinsically vile: thus the Brexiteer Michael Gove “evokes the idea that English nationalism can be seen as an oppressed sub-culture analogous to that of homosexuality … Here again we see the urge of those within a privileged Tory elite to take on the mantle of oppression.”
Putting aside yet more sexual references, be it remembered that Michael Gove is a Scot and the son of a single mother. He was adopted by working-class parents in Aberdeen, heroic people who later fostered a completely deaf stepdaughter. Truly, the very personification of the “privileged Tory elite”.
O’Toole is on rather surer ground when dealing with Boris Johnson. A three-way cross between Toad of Toad Hall, Burlington Bertie and Harry Flashman, Johnson will surely soon be able to star in his own film-bio, Carrion Stinker. But, despite O’Toole’s argument that Britons are so gullible as to be cheated of their patrimony by a manifestly unprincipled and priapic buffoon like Johnson, the latter was not the reason why the people of England voted to leave, as did 2,222,336 people in other parts of the United Kingdom. For most traditional Britons, Johnson is the very embodiment of metropolitan immorality and connubial betrayal: they voted Brexit despite, not because of, him.
The referendum was about the future—and I admit, this judgment is as much based on guesswork as it is about those other forms of prediction, now about as efficacious as steaming chicken-entrails, namely opinion polls. Just as they underestimated the Trump turn-out, they got one vital aspect of the Brexit vote wrong, namely immigration. Quite simply, the taboo on acknowledging that immigration was a factor in their decision to vote Leave caused many people to disavow it when questioned by pollsters.
Nonetheless, I rather suspect that the Leave voters contemplated the future rather as a conveyancing solicitor might do after he spots in the small-print a public right of way into the house, through the dining-room and into the master-bedroom, bathroom and toilet. And not just for a week or so, but sine die, in perpetuity, for ever thereafter, until judgment day. Might that solicitor not crack his fingers in perturbation at such a clause, before urgently counselling in the negative?
Membership of the EU constitutes a permanent contract that can punish the diligent by allowing any of the hundreds of millions of people, from the Hebrides to the Aegean, and from Roaring Water Bay to the Black Sea, to avail of the fruits of their efficiency. How can the frugal, the prudent and the industrious plan for hospitals, schools, roads and prisons, if any and all from the hundreds of millions within the EU, as a matter of legal right, may then enjoy the rewards of their virtues? Let the town of Wisbech (naturally, unmentioned here) speak for England. Between 2003 and 2016 its proportion of Poles and Lithuanians went from virtually zero to 40 per cent.
Such demographic transformations—repeated to a lesser degree across the UK—were one powerful reason why the plain people of Britain voted to Leave, and also why the EU has chosen to torture them for doing so, both to punish their heresy and to deter others from behaving similarly. Nonetheless, island peoples usually have a geographically definable identity that is hard to repress, as the British have shown, and I hope (though not optimistically) that their example will be followed by other countries that have reasonably clear boundaries—such as Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
In the meantime, those on the bridge of the RMS EUtanic have spotted the iceberg yet continue to sail full-steam towards it. So will the crew mutiny before impact, and steer the vessel away from disaster? Or will the ruthless, unelected despots in the Council of Europe remain with their malevolent fake-benignity at the helm calling “Steady as she goes” while ordering the master-at-arms to unlock the gun-cabinet and shoot any opposition?
That is in the future: as to what was in the past and how the British vetoed the rights of way of strangers into their bedroom, this wretched encomium to a failing union is absolutely not an explanation. But it is, nonetheless, a useful (if unintended) guide to the cosmic scale of the intellectual deceit and moral misprisions which underlie that Great European Fraud, the EU.
Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
by Fintan O’Toole
Head of Zeus, 2019, 240 pages, $29.99
Kevin Myers lives in Ireland. Among his books is the memoir Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast. He wrote “A Casualty of an Age of Character Assassination” in the December 2018 issue.