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Should England be embarrassed by Brexit? How a national identity crisis became the subject of international ridicule

Credit: Tolga Akmen / AFP / Getty

December 11, 2019   8 mins

I’ve lived in London now for 25 years, but only recently have I heard the word “embarrassing” being used by my English friends and family to describe the current state of British politics, and how it reflects on England abroad. This is a new development, the word “embarrassing”, and it appears to be a painful one. England is not used to feeling embarrassed about its own appearance on the world stage, in part because — in terms of the four elements of the United Kingdom, at least — it is the eldest, wealthiest sibling, living in the largest house.

Throughout England’s history, it has been loved, respected and admired, as well as feared, loathed and resented. It has, however, rarely been ridiculed. And now it worries that — in its very public contortions, its prolonged inability to make up its mind or forge a course of action — it may at last be appearing ridiculous.

I was, admittedly, slow to register the emotional impact of English embarrassment, partly because I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and had no experience of belonging to somewhere that might quietly congratulate itself on a landscape of stability, tolerance and common sense. I loved home, but our society had leapfrogged well beyond loss of face and into spectacular dysfunction.

At the risk of seeming pious, I also thought that — if the Westminster government was going to be embarrassed by anything — there was plenty to trigger that emotion before the 2016 EU vote. England had a rising number of working people who — despite being in employment — could not afford adequate housing or make it to the end of the month without using food banks. It was — and is — steadily wrecking the world-famous British criminal justice system for the sake of a relatively small investment. It has continued to ingratiate itself heavily with repressive states such as Saudi Arabia, while talking on the international stage about the importance of human rights.

And despite these and many other issues becoming glaringly apparent, over a number of years, it seemed oddly impossible for anything to change course. It was as though the state had become a kind of smiling somnambulist, oblivious to the obvious. But these things, I suppose, were primarily regarded as internal, domestic matters, and few abroad had recognised or cared about the extent to which Britain now wasn’t working for so many of its citizens. The moment of globally visible chaos had not yet arrived.

It has now, in the three years of wrangling that have followed the vote for Britain to leave the EU — an outcome that took even its ‘Leave’ supporters by surprise. The long-held international belief in British competence has been steadily eroding ever since June 2016, as first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson proved unable to get their EU deals through Parliament.

Having at first, perhaps, hoped that the UK would change its mind, the EU now seems eager to see us off. The Brexit argument has exposed polarities of class, age, income, education and geography which grew unchecked and largely unseen over many decades, and have accelerated since 2010.

As anyone who has been through a personal and public crisis knows, one of the most difficult things about it is that it opens a space for other people to begin openly discussing your problems and personality. Often, along the way, they will characterise you in a way in which you would never choose to see or characterise yourself. It’s uncomfortable, and certainly embarrassing.

The most obvious literary manifestation of this was Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure, Brexit and the Politics of Painwhich has just been published in America as The Politics of Pain: Postwar Britain and the Rise of Nationalism. It’s a long and often caustic look at the national psychology of England and where it has led. He accepts, of course, that the Brexit vote was part of a global phenomenon partly triggered by “budgetary austerity”, rising inequality and anxieties over immigration — but argues that it was also brought about by “a drilling-down into the half-buried layers of a very distinctive English mindset. It hit pay-dirt, and out gushed a flow of feelings highly specific to the mental terrain of post-war England.”

According to the author, one of these is England’s belief that it is, by its very nature, exceptional, rendering it unhappy at being just one part of an organisation that included 27 other member states. Another is that the open expression of racism gradually became more unacceptable in Britain throughout the Eighties and Nineties, and that “this left a vacancy which was filled by the European Union”.

In rather an odd flight of fancy, O’Toole likens the appeal of Brexit to that of Fifty Shades of Grey “a fantasy of submission and dominance” with the EU playing the role of Christian Grey tying Anastasia Steele — the United Kingdom — up in acres of bureaucracy and red tape (I’m not sure to what extent this analogy works, since the point of the book, surely, was that Steele rather liked it). He argues that the belief that the UK was oppressed by Europe was a kind of false consciousness, a fantasy of humiliation, which has now resulted in the reality of humiliation — a post-Brexit Britain that must operate in the economic orbit of the EU without playing an active role in it. Play-acting has generated its own reality: “Brexit is a strange hybrid – a genuine national revolution against a phoney oppressor.”

The author — an extremely readable writer — is, with his outsider’s eye, incisive on the peculiarly English combination of camp, class, and parody that characterises the personae and popular appeal of Conservative politicians such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The anecdote that struck me most forcefully about Johnson is the one about the speech that he made as a prospective parliamentary candidate in 2001 to the selection committee for the seat of Henley-on-Thames. In it, Johnson described how his wife was brought tea and toast in an NHS hospital after giving birth to one of their children.

Since she was asleep at the time, Johnson ate all the toast, and when she woke up and asked for it he was then dismayed that the system did not allow him to pay for a second batch. There is something telling about the fact that Johnson not only ate his wife’s toast in such circumstances, but then subsequently used the anecdote to advance his career.

As O’Toole’s broader psychological dissection continues, however, the English psyche is sketched as ever more unlikeable and dysfunctional: wounded by loss of Empire, infused with self-pity, dogged by a superiority complex and subliminally racist. Historically, England can do little right.

The Falklands War, for example, was “a last hurrah for Britain’s imperial pretensions” which “played out the invasion fantasy of SS-GB…but at a safe distance of 8,000 miles.” Furthermore, it helped that “the tiny Falklands population” was “almost entirely white” because it therefore served “as a kind of make-believe England with no black or brown immigrants”. The war itself is therefore depicted as a kind of communal exercise in emotional fraudulence.

But the Falklands crisis — although certainly played with echoes of WW2 by Margaret Thatcher, who had a popular instinct for such showmanship — was not of the British government’s making, nor primarily conceived as a kind of national drama. Argentinian forces under General Galtieri’s military junta — one which ruthlessly presided over the torture and disappearances of thousands of leftists and dissidents — had invaded British sovereign territory, an action condemned by the UN Security Council. The British government’s choices were to oppose this action or to acquiesce in it; if the latter, England might reasonably have been accused of a Little Englander mentality by simply abandoning to a fascist regime a faraway population which, while small, overwhelmingly supported British sovereignty.

In this, and other passages, I kept getting the worrying feeling that the author’s pleasure in metaphor and analysis were running away with themselves, beyond blunter historical realities. And sometimes the argument seemed to contradict itself. On page 128, for example, a striking passage begins “Being angry about the European Union isn’t a psychosis — it’s a mark of sanity. Indeed, anyone who is not disillusioned with the EU is suffering from delusions.”

He goes on to describe its “slow torturing” of Greece — and also Ireland, Portugal and Spain – under the auspices of “fiscal discipline”. “There is a European technocratic elite (especially in unaccountable institutions like the European Central Bank) that has lost its memory.” It has forgotten, he says, that “poverty, inequality, insecurity and a sense of powerlessness have drastic political repercussions”. Instead, “the project became arrogant, complacent and obsessed with grand schemes like the ill-designed euro”.

That is a powerful and frank indictment of how the European project has played out in recent years. And surely it is possible to believe that quite a number of voters who shared O’Toole’s analysis were led in 2016 to vote ‘Leave’ by very similar conclusions, without being spurred to do so by nostalgia for empire, latent racism or the irrational embrace of nationalism.

To consider that, it is worth rewinding from the current garish national panto of UK politics to the period just before the 2016 EU referendum. The UK did indeed differ from other countries in one important respect: it put the question of EU membership directly to its people. Since the then prime minister David Cameron so clearly thought ‘Leave’ a highly undesirable option, that was an unwise move on his part.

Aside from a small minority of voters for whom the EU question was historically of paramount importance, for the vast majority it sat well below those of housing, education and the NHS. But the trouble with asking a national question via a simplistic referendum is that the very act of answering arrives with politics of its own. Many voters who felt — just as O’Toole argues — that aspects of the EU had fostered economic inequality, and were instinctively uncomfortable with the dynamic and undemocratic nature of its grand projects, also felt that to vote ‘Remain’ was to give an active endorsement of both these things. It is one thing to rub along somewhat irritably with a flawed status quo, quite another to give it the thumbs-up.

Binaries were forced upon us — although the ‘Leave’ vote originally came in many shades and intensities, as did that for ‘Remain’. With time, the identities of ‘Leaver’ or ‘Remainer’ have hardened into tribes, a situation not helped by the ambivalence and obfuscation of the Labour leadership — including that of Corbyn and McDonnell, both lifelong Eurosceptics — which have in part permitted Brexit to become a project of the Conservative Right.

I enjoyed reading The Politics of Pain, even if I disagreed with significant elements of its tone and analysis: it is stylishly written and seethes with ideas. And its warm reception in large swathes of London literary circles confirms at least one stereotype: that the English upper middle-class are more amenable to flagellation than many other nationalities would be.

Every country, as with Tolstoy’s definition of unhappy families, is unhappy in its own way. I have difficulty, however, with the argument that England was predisposed to Brexit — and its attendant political convulsions — by a uniquely English combination of historical arrogance and contemporary hang-ups. Despite England’s long-term ambivalence about EU membership, the argument seems partly designed to make non-English onlookers feel better about themselves.

Yet, beyond that, any sense of complacency would be unwise, because right across the EU — including in Ireland — many of the same internal stresses that led to Brexit are apparent, and erupting in a politically unpredictable manner.

A rapacious form of capitalism has taken root in much of Ireland, with Dublin in particular experiencing an acute housing crisis. Ireland itself now has its highest homelessness figures since its records began. Reliance on food banks has gone up, and for many Irish people, the nature of employment has become more insecure. There are public anxieties around higher levels of immigration which are beginning to express themselves in troubling and complex ways, such as local protests at the opening of large “direct provision” centres offering accommodation for asylum seekers in rural areas (centres in which it is also alleged that residents are sometimes subjected to tough and dispiriting treatment).

The knotty question “what does it mean to be British?” — including a widespread loss of faith in the protective power of the state — has thrummed through the Brexit debate. Something in the UK’s current nervous breakdown is attempting to puzzle that out, and I hope that, somewhere down the line, it might end up in the acceptance that we badly need a country that is closely and strategically planned to function better and more equally for everyone in it.

The question “what does it mean to be Irish?” has yet to bubble up with quite the same intensity, and the authorities are highly unlikely to give it an EU hook to hang itself on. But it would be reckless for Ireland to follow the example of the UK’s somnambulist state before June 2016 — and to believe that just because Ireland isn’t England, the painful fall-out from such a question is inevitably very far away.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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Jonathan Blakeborough
Jonathan Blakeborough
3 years ago

An excellent article