Moving beyond the breaking point

Moving beyond the breaking point
Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus, £11.99)



In writing his latest book, leading commentator Fintan O’Toole set himself a task: “What I have attempted here is simply one possible answer to the most obvious question: how did a great nation bring itself to the point of such wilful self-harm?” His ambitious book offers many answers.

Wanting to leave the EU is entirely reasonable, he argues at one point, and being angry with it is an “expression of sanity”, for it is an increasingly unappealing polity. Poverty and inequality are rising across the Union.

The austerity the EU forced on Greece demonstrated how far it has moved from its origins in social democracy and Christian democracy. The EU “has lost its memory”.

The EU’s shortcomings are obvious enough. The Brexiteers simply talked them up. They ran the best campaign, told the best lies, had the best slogan. Although many of them couldn’t care less about it, the Brexiteers were careful to hymn the NHS, England’s greatest institutions, making the spurious connection between voting for Brexit and getting a better health service.

Future historians will stress the importance of 2016, but also of 1999, the year the Scottish parliament was established. In reaction to modern Scotland’s assertiveness, and unsettledness, national feeling is on the rise in England: English nationalism is the son of Scottish nationalism.

In survey after survey in recent years increasing numbers of English people have said that they now identify more with England than Britain. With the UK facing an uncertain future English people are seeking solace in national identity. The vote to leave was an expression of English nationalism – unable to exit Britain, the English did the next-best thing and told the EU to get off their backs.

The vote to secede was also an English expression of disappointment with Europe, from which England has never got ‘it’s just deserts’ for resisting the Nazis.

The decision to join the EEC in 1973 was pragmatic and unenthusiastic. England has not been able to exert its influence over the Union to the extent that it wanted, and anyway has never felt a strong sense of belonging to it. The vote to leave the EU was perhaps inevitable.

The title refers to the English cultural trope of celebrating heroic disasters, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

To focus on English bravery and suffering is to appropriate the pain of others: when you concentrate on what others have inflicted on you, you don’t pay attention to what you have done, or can do to them, or their likely reaction.


Obsessed as they were with freeing themselves from the oppressive EU, the Leavers never gave serious consideration to the effect Brexit might have on trade, or on the political stability of the UK.

The EU has chosen to defend its interests, and has largely refused to make the concessions demanded of it.

The great patriotic project is turning chaotic. Is England in the thick of another heroic failure? The next few weeks will surely tell.