Fintan O’Toole on “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”

Time for a tea break and a quick post about a very interesting event this afternoon at Maynooth featuring renowned Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole (whose regular columns in the Irish Times I read with great interest).

This event saw John O’Brennan, Director of the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies in Maynooth in conversation with Fintan on his new book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. The book deals with the Brexit referendum, the chaos it unleashed in British politics and the challenges posed to the island of Ireland by a ‘No Deal Brexit’. In particular the book examines how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatization that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name. He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

The discussion was so interesting – and Fintan O’Toole was so eloquent and amusing –  that I bought the book. The author was kind enough to sign it for me too!

There’s an extract printed on the cover that will give you a taste, but if you want more you’ll have to buy the book:

Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be on our own…Only alone can we surrender completely to it and immerse ourselves in the steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves. Brexit therefore makes sense of a nation that feels sorry for itself. The mystery, though, is how Britain, or more precisely England, came not to just experience this delightful sentiment but to define itself through it.

I only bought the book today so haven’t read it yet, but I will endeavour to write a review when I have.

Now back to the writing of lecture notes…

25 Responses to “Fintan O’Toole on “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain””

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name

    I’m not very happy that people like O’Toole assume my motives (inaccurately) as on the back cover. Since ‘nationalism’ is a word that means different things to different people, it is best avoided, but I do question the tacit assumption that if you love your country then you must dislike others, and I hope to live my life as a counter-example to that view. Also, by symmetry, if it is right for (say) Sikhs to have a homeland in the Punjab wherein Sikh identity is expressed, and Ireland for the Irish (I’m very flexible about the North), why not the same for England?

    • telescoper Says:

      In the discussion, Fintan said quite clearly that he had no objection at all to the English having a sense of national identity. England, after all, has been a nation for a very long time. What he takes issue with in the book is the form that English nationalism has often assumed in the post-imperial era.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I took pains to avoid the word nationalism because of precisely that kind of ambiguity! I object to *anybody* whose love of their own country implies a dislike of others, although I consider that it is proper for me only to argue that objection out with English xenophobes, as I am English. I remain unconvinced about O’Toole’s self-pity thesis, and he could hardly object if his own motives in writing were to be put in play.

  2. … but history shows that ethnic/religious “homeland” states do not solve problems; [in my opinion] two reasons are that it builds in an assumption that populations are geographically stable – so do not move out of the “homeland” – and that marriages (or equivalent) do not occur between different ethic groups. States need to be secular – not that I claim that solves all problems either, but at least it means that the problem is not insoluble.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Let me put it like this: any political State needs some kind of dominant belief system that informs its values, otherwise it will not be stable. Secularism is a belief system, simply not a theistic one; I can point out its tenets quite easily (although not in the next 36 hours). I do not mean that as any kind of negative comment on secularism.

      The other thing is that the dominant culture and belief system is always subject to change – no problem – but if that change occurs too rapidly for the taste of a significant proportion of the populace, then serious social unrest is liable to occur.

      • telescoper Says:

        I disagree with both of these points.

        First I don’t think a dominant `belief system’ is either necessary or desirable. Monocultures are profoundly unhealthy and inevitably lead to conflict when the world is so interconnected.

        Second, it seems to me that what’s at least likely and probably more unlikely to cause social unrest is a failure of the socioeconomic system to change rapidly enough or changes too rapidly in a direction that does not benefit the populace at large. I think that we’re finding out that there’s a fundamental incompatibility between capitalism (at least in its current form) liberal democracy. Where it will end, I couldn’t say, but it is clear at the moment which side is in the ascendancy, and it’s not democracy.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’d like to clarify some terms before responding to this comment.

        I think you are implicitly comparing a monoculture with multiculturalism. But there is an umbrella over multiculturalism in Britain, and it is British parliamentary democracy and its (British) conventions. So what exactly *is* multiculturalism and what is a monoculture? I’ve never seen this question addressed by people who say they are in favour of multiculturalism, and until it is cleared up I don’t think that any constructive debate can move forward very much.

        I’d add that the dominant belief system in Britain has shifted during my life from materialist secular humanism, aka ‘modernism’, to secular postmodernism. This change has been constructively debated at this blog before. Most people who identify as Left have a foot in each camp, and I recall that you (Peter) once spoke of the Left’s “broken moral compass” here, a comment I interpreted as due to the tension between modernism and postmodernism.

        Re my comment about stability, I do wonder if the sort of society that people who “advocate multiculturalism” has the internal cohesion to do what Britain did in 1940 and fight the great evil that blotted Europe at that time.

        I said that “the dominant culture and belief system is always subject to change… but if that change occurs too rapidly for the taste of a significant proportion of the populace, then serious social unrest is liable to occur.” As you take a different view, I need to give a reason. It is because this proportion of the populace feels culturally disenfranchised – a feeling which has unfortunately started civil wars in many times and places.

        The relation between capitalism and liberal democracy is a seriously complex issue and has been debated by many fine intellectuals. It seems to me that, observationally speaking, the correlation is strong and positive. But I note your caveat about capitalism in its current form and I share your concerns. The single biggest reason that the rich have got richer relative to the poor in this century is nothing to do with tax and welfare policies swinging between Left and Right but the fact that governments have printed money (or its electronic equivalent) in enormous quantities, and the rich get first dibs at it because they have more collateral to borrow it against. I detest this process and wish that people would look more closely at monetary policy rather than at fiscal policy. Some friends have described my fiscal views as Right and my monetary views as Left. I don’t care to categorise myself as either but I can see why they say that.

      • Seeing as my late father fought in Burma in WWII, alongside Indian comrades, and as Captain of a company of Nigerian soldiers, yes I do think that a multicultural society has the internal cohesion to fight the evil which was blotting Europe at the time. I am horrified at your ascribing that fight to Britain alone.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Not me, Churchill ! Please see the extract from one of his speeches, below.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I consider Churchill to be good company in this context.

      • Well excuse me if I decline to defer to Churchill on the subject of multiculturalism.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        For the reasons explained in one of my posts here I don’t think that the word is well defined.

      • Well call it another word then, and I can decline to defer to Churchill on that.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’m not trying to fence. Multiculturalism within a single country is a policy that actively discourages the integration of immigrants. The result by definition is going to be a less cohesive society. I then proposed an acid test of cohesion. I consider the brave Nigerian and Indian solders to whom you refer to be a separate subject.

      • Well there’s another word which has different meanings to different people. Integration to me means living alongside each other and sharing each other’s experiences. Partaking in each other’s cultures. Being invited into each others’ places of worship. Integration does not mean assimilation. So, no, I don’t agree that multiculturalism discourages integration.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Here you disagree with Trevor Phillips, who probably knows more about it than both of us put together.

      • No, I don’t think I do Anton. Phillips is talking about equality of outcomes, and nowhere does he advocate assimilation.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillips went further ten years later:

        Click to access Race-and-Faith.pdf

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        I don’t endorse everything in that essay myself. When I cite a reference in a physics paper it is for the particular point I cite it for (it might help if journal editors required us to specify passages), and the same is true here. Incidentally I don’t know if you are aware who Trevor Phillips is: the son of West Indian immigrants to Britain, a former Chairman of the UK’s Equality And Human Rights Commission, the current Deputy Chairman of the Board of the National Equality Standard, and in the 1990s a Labour candidate to be Mayor of London.

        If he takes the view that he doesn’t care what colour people are, but does care what they believe because that influences how they behave, then he and I would have that view in common. Beliefs can change, of course.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’d be more specific than your last sentence: some people are frightened of criticising bad behaviour of certain types because it *correlates* with race in a particular place, and they are frightened of being labelled racist even though they are not. The correct response to feeling fear is reasoned argument and courage.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The motto of the USA was “E pluribus unum” and there was a clear vision around which people could unite. (Compare that with Cameron’s fatuous debate about “British values”.) The USSR was a dictatorship where people had to do what Stalin said or be shot.

    America entered the war late in 1941. Russia entered the war a few months before that, when Hitler repudiated the pact he had made with Stalin to carve Poland up. Many people remember Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches” phrase from his Commons speech of June 4th, 1940, but it included another memorable phrase: “If necessary, alone”. Of great powers of that era, Britain stood alone from September 1939 to June 1941. Here is the climax of Churchill’s speech:

    I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s government – every man of them. That is the will of parliament and the nation. The British empire and the French republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I should have said that Britain stood alone as a great power opposed to Nazi Germany from the fall of France in June 1940 to Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. Thank you for prompting the correction. From June 1940, France’s industry was turned to the German war effort.

      Widening the subject, the poor French performance in June 1940 was due, in my opinion, to the terrible shock France suffered in the First World War. Let those who make jokes about the French army’s performance remember that France lost twice the proportion of its male population as Britain in that first war, and suffered the devastation of its north-east. It is received wisdom that the Armistice terms led to World War 2, as only the strong Germany that France dreaded could afford the reparation it demanded. I do wonder if Germany in 1918 might have been better split north-south, roughly matching the 400-year-old protestant-Catholic divide, with differing industries assigned to the two halves. Could that have been worse than the Cold War division that came to pass? And I go with Jordan Peterson’s comment on the German street view of the interwar years: If you have been brutalised by four years in the trenches, then you return home to a defeated country and are unemployed, then your savings are wiped out by hyperinflation while communism is looming from the east, then a powerful orator rises who says he will make your nation great again and tells you that the people who were secretly responsible for it all are living among you, you are likely to fall for his views.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yet it seems to have come as more of a shock to the British, with the “Lost Generation” viewpoint that is absent in France. I think that this has two reasons: (1) the incredible death rate among junior officers almost straight out of the English ‘public’ schools, who led their men over the top of the trenches into a no-man’s land of barbed wire raked with machine gun fire; these young men, rather than the equally brave working class conscripts who from 1916 they led, were seen for reasons of class snobbery as the next generation; (2) the British held an unrealistically romantic view of war, because their island had not been successfully invaded for nine centuries, and since Napoleonic times the Brits had fought mainly victorious wars of empire using a volunteer army. Come 1914 they were reminded how dreadful war really is.

  4. Yes I wasn’t even thinking about them Philip. Anton is right that neither the USA or the USSR were involved in 1940. The Commonwealth/Empire was, including India, a more culturally diverse nation than any in the west, and of course Australia, New Zealand, and Canada which had a degree of diversity although nowhere near as much as they have today. Also of course there were many Polish servicemen in the British forces in 1940. And the French hadn’t all caved in.

  5. […] Christmas I attended a very enjoyable event here in Maynooth featuring journalist, historian and literary critic Fintan O’Toole talking […]

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