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The Real Meaning of the Brexit Debate

Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism
By Fintan O’Toole

How did they get to be like this? The English think of themselves as a tolerant, imperturbable people, given to self-deprecation and understatement. To outsiders, they can appear chilly and stuck-up. Now, almost overnight, they (or we, to cast off my thin disguise) seem to have become a bunch of hysterical, self-pitying paranoiacs. Brexit has knocked us off our trolleys, depriving at least half the nation of any sense of proportion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who wears antique three-piece suits and is now leader of the House of Commons, told the Tory Party conference that Brexit “is so important in the history of our country. … It’s Waterloo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!” The veteran Brexiteer Max Gammon claims that “we are in fact at war” — with Germany, of course, as usual. For it is a commonplace among those of a Brexotic temperament that the European Union is simply a replay of earlier devilish plots to take over poor little Britain. As Boris Johnson told The Daily Telegraph a month before the E.U. referendum: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this, and it ends tragically. The E.U. is an attempt to do this by different methods.”

It is breathtaking that a people renowned, even infamous, for its phlegm should swallow this hogwash. There could be no better guide to the murky labyrinth that has brought us here than “The Politics of Pain,” by Fintan O’Toole, a quizzical, acerbic Irishman who bears a passing physical resemblance to Samuel Beckett and who deploys more than a little of Beckett’s frosty irony. For O’Toole, “Brexit is at heart an English nationalist project.” Opinion polls have shown that Scotland and Ireland can go hang, as far as Brexotics are concerned. They are devout believers in English exceptionalism. It was embarrassingly obvious that they never had a plan for what was to happen after Brexit, because they weren’t really interested in the E.U. They were interested only in England. These were the people who never stopped resenting that, despite its heroics in World War II, England should have come down in the world, while remaining convinced that in some indefinable but ineradicable way it was still superior, and deserved better than to be submerged as one ordinary middle-sized nation among 27 others.

Out of this weird mind-set (which has possessed somewhere between a third and a half of English voters all through Britain’s membership in the E.U.) arose an even weirder politics, led by the weirdest character ever to reach Downing Street. Among the many other sources that O’Toole ransacks so delightfully, from “The Italian Job” to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” he recalls from Yeats’s “The Fisherman”: “The clever man who cries / The catch cries of the clown.”

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