While Tim Shipman’s (as-yet unfinished) Brexit trilogy is the best history of Brexit, the most enjoyable analysis I’ve read is Finlan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure. O’Toole’s writing has the virtuosic enthusiasm of good literary criticism – his comparison of Britain’s EU membership to the bureaucracy in Fifty Shades of Grey is hilarious; and I loved his description of Boris Johnson being cross-examined in a select committee by Andrew Tyrie: “like watching a kitten bouncing into a combine harvester”. There are also considerations of Britain’s obsession with World War 2, punk and more.
The book’s main thrust is that post-Imperial Britain has become trapped by an ideal of ‘heroic failure’. “The English could afford to celebrate glorious failure because they were actually highly successful – the myths of suffering and endurance covered up the truth that it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.”
O’Toole is particularly good at showing how Englishness in particular is responsible for Brexit, and how England’s presence in the EU relates to its membership of the United Kingdom. O’Toole also puts forward the case the “gradual marginalisation of open racism” was one of the things that led to the EU being scapegoated instead. Ultimately, the problems that led to Brexit are too deep to be solved by so simplistic a solution:
Brexit is a crisis of belonging that was configured as merely a crisis of belonging to Europe. No outcome from it will really address that question of belonging – if anything it will become deeper and more urgent.
Towards the end of the book, O’Toole lays out the challenge for the English, particularly those on the ‘progressive’ side, to define what Englishness is:
If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list
One of the side effects of Brexit is to make progressives recoil even further from English nationalism, which they never trusted and now blame for the disaster. But they need to do what they mostly did not do in the pre-Brexit decade: take it seriously. Address it. Precisely because it remains so poorly articulated and self-contradictory, it is up for grabs. And there is surely enough in the English radical, socialist and liberal traditions – the traditions of John Ball and the Suffragettes, of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Maynard Keynes, of Stuart Hall and Thomas Paine, of Jo Cox and George Orwell and generations of fighters for dignity and equality – to inspire a more positive sense of national belonging. There is surely, in one of the world’s great cultures, enough wit and energy and creativity and humour to infuse Englishness with hope and joy instead of pain and self-pity.