Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

Before Christmas I attended a very enjoyable event here in Maynooth featuring journalist, historian and literary critic Fintan O’Toole talking his book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. I bought the book and had it signed by the author. Sadly, as I do far too often these days, I put the book on my shelf and promptly forgot about it as I got distracted by a myriad of other things.

This week I finally got round to reading it and very enjoyable it is too, though I expect people who voted Leave won’t like it, as it is probably a bit close to the bone for them.

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.

It’s a very witty book which is at its best picking apart some of the some-contradictory rhetoric deployed by Leave campaigners, such as how the UK can be both grandiosely jingoistic and bullied by the EU at the same time, pulling in references from historical events and literature as well as contemporary culture (including Fifty Shades of Grey, the references to which were lost on me because I haven’t read it). It’s also very perceptive in its observation of how strongly the legacy of World War 2 pervades attitudes towards Brexit, especially the silly references to `Dunkirk Spirit’ and the rest that are the stock-in-trade of many Leavers.

Anyway, I heartily recommend this book to both Leavers and Remainers but it might induce a sense of humour failure in the former.


10 Responses to “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    One point is that everybody who will be adversely affected by Brexit knows who they are, whereas the people who will benefit don’t – so the debate is skewed. I must say that it is not often that politics is more entertaining in fact than fiction.

    • I think the disaster capitalists and hedge fund vultures who have already made billions from the falling pound know very well who will benefit.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You do dislike the financial system as much as I do! It has little to do with Brexit, though: Brexit could equally well have come to a head under some kind of Bretton Woods system which precludes speculation on exchange rates.

  2. I agree with Peter, the people who will benefit know exactly who they are. They are the ones who have short sold the pound and British companies. And the ones who will profit from removal of regulations put in place to protect workers and consumers. The US health and agrochemical companies. All of the rest of us will suffer in one way or another.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Given that the EU tried to prescribe the curve on cucumbers or bananas a while ago, I don’t think that worker protection is its main motivation.

      • telescoper Says:

        Oh no, not that myth again.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Several dozen equally crazy ‘myths’ were fully documented in the book “The Mad Officials” by Christopher Booker and Richard North.

      • David Carter Says:

        Christopher Booker??? And you think we should take you seriously?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        If you play the ball rather than the man, you lose. Do the work and come back when you have falsified a single incident recorded in that book.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        O great, I’ve got my first sentence exactly backwards! Like the England rugby team. I mean the second sentence though.

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