Monday, 21 January 2019

Heroic Failure

According to Sellars and Yeatman, the English Civil War was the Central Period of English History. While some academic historians might demur, the 111 years between the deaths of Queen Elizabeth I of England and Queen Anne of Great Britain were certainly pivotal in the formation of the modern state and can still justifiably be called The Century of Revolution. Its current topicality owes less to the corporeal drama of monarchy in the films Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, and more to the struggle of Crown (i.e. the executive) and Parliament over Brexit. An irony is that the modern parallels drawn with the Civil War reflect a view of history that is as antique as 1066 And All That: anglocentric, focused on high politics and prone to dividing the population into irreconcilable camps. The historiography of the 17th century has evolved since that comic classic of the 1930s, first through a focus on class and culture, notably the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and then through a shift in perspective from the geographical core to the periphery, notably to Ireland and Scotland. The 17th century is now defined as a more complex but integrated story of "the wars of the three kingdoms" or the British Civil Wars (plural).

The lesson I'd draw from this is that the future histories of Brexit will be quite different to the contemporary narrative. One element of this that we can predict with some certainty will be the realisation that the population at large was motivated by a host of different, often contradictory motives and that the degree of engagement was generally quite shallow outside of a small minority of the politically-engaged. Far from being divided into culturally coherent tribes with views as unyielding as a Scottish Covenanter, most people struggle to identify strongly with either "side". In this regard, polemical cod-sociology of the "somewheres and anywheres" type is no more accurate or meaningful than the idea that Cavaliers were "wrong but wromantic" and Roundheads were "right but repulsive". Similarly, the simplification of "take back control" may have been great marketing, but it isn't an adequate explanation of why 52% of the voters in 2016 opted for leave. From the perspective of an 80 year-old working class woman in Burnley, the last 100 years of politics has largely been a struggle to gain control.

Contemporary interpretations for the leave vote often focus on immigration or the impact of deindustrialisation, but the anxieties of the "left behind" over the damage done to community, and their associated contempt for politicians, clearly pre-date the Empire Windrush, let alone the accession of Poland to the EU. There is a line that can be traced back from 2016 via the Jarrow March of 1936 all the way to Peterloo in 1819. This is not to suggest that we should see this history exclusively through the prism of material concerns (though that has been underplayed), or "culture" (which has been overplayed), but that it fits into a much longer story of disadvantaged classes and territories in which the demand is for voice. What links these three dates is the belief of ordinary people that they weren't being listened to generally, not just ignored on a particular topic. Brexit can't be reduced to a single issue, such as immigration or sovereignty, no matter how convenient or congenial it is for the media to do so. In thinking about the contemporary narrative we should therefore keep the treatment of voice front and centre.

For example, a feature of the TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War was that while it recognised the struggle of ordinary people to articulate their feelings in the face of disinterest and dismissal, it accorded this strand only a tiny fraction of the time devoted to elite backbiting and conspiracy. Likewise, the call for a citizens' assembly currently being pushed by the Guardian is not just motivated by the expectation that such a mechanism would favour remain, because that is the rational position that any fact-based discussion would surely lead to, but also by the belief that the voice of others must be managed by the articulate to be effective. This is the essence of representative democracy, but it is here being promoted as a solution to the apparent failings of representative democracy. The difference is that we can dispense with the need for political parties, with their unhelpful focus on class interests, and instead rely on conventional expertise and a curated people. Fundamentally, there is no difference between a citizens' assembly and the BBC's Question Time.

Another notable aspect of the narrative, at least the version consumed by the liberal middle-class, is the idea that Brexit is a pathology of the country's confused personality and dysfunctional state. One of the leading proponents of this framing is Fintan O'Toole, whose new book, Heroic Failure: The Delusions of Brexit, has more than a whiff of Sellars and Yeatman about it. O'Toole made his name with Ship of Fools, a forensic analysis of the political corruption of the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland. But that was an inside job (as a columnist for the Irish Times he is very much part of the Dublin elite), whereas his new book is of the outsider-looking-in genre. Its central premise is that Brexit is "Britain's reckoning with itself", which strikes me as nothing if not optimistic. According to O'Toole, summarising his case in the Guardian (naturally), "Brexit plays out a conflict between Them and Us, but it is surely obvious after this week that the problem is not with Them on the continent. It’s with the British Us, the unravelling of an imagined community. The visible collapse of the Westminster polity this week may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over recent decades."

From the opening reference to Lewis Carroll to the in-jokes about the tabloid press ("Drop the dead dodo") this synopsis is a distorting mirror that produces a caricature rather than a sharp image, but a caricature is what the audience wants. O'Toole's popularity owes much to the belief that he is telling home truths not about "Us", the British as a whole, but about the "clownish ruling class" and the intellectually-stunted working class. Very much "Them". He stands in a long tradition, going back to Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke, of privileged Irishmen servicing the needs of British navel-gazing: close enough to understand the peculiarities and distant enough to appraise them clearly. While this tradition has been politically broad, including both Tories like Swift and Burke and soi-disant socialists like Wilde and Shaw, its common features have been a tendency to personalise Britain (or more precisely England) and an appreciation of absurdity. The result is that modern exponents like O'Toole still place great emphasis on understanding the peculiarities of the "national character".

An example of this is his emphasis on the hackneyed trope of heroic failure (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Scott of the Antarctic, Dunkirk etc). O'Toole is intelligent enough to develop this cliché in interesting directions, pointing up both the irony of "the fever-dream of an English Resistance" (fictionalised in Len Deighton's SS-GB), with the EU substituted for the Nazis, and the bad faith of the trope of the UK as a colonial subject, which serves to occlude its actual history as the colonial oppressor. He also acknowledges that "the lure of self-pity" (a nod to Anthony Barnett's The Lure of Greatness) is largely an English failing. For O'Toole (like Barnett), "Brexit is essentially an English phenomenon". But this allows him to all too easily ignore the majority vote for leave in Wales and the complexity of the vote in Scotland where Brexit and Scottish independence are not mutually exclusive. The commercial reality is that the audience for this type of work is predominantly English, indeed metropolitan, so why would you bother with the periphery of Britain when discussing the thing called Brexit?

No analysis of the English character would be complete without a reference to le vice Anglais. Indeed, O'Toole's central claim is that Brexit is a psychosexual act of self-flagellation. Bizarrely he attributes this to punk rather than public schools, largely to provide a wider social setting: "For it is in punk that we find not just the nihilistic energy that helped to drive the Brexit impulse but, more to the point, the popularisation of masochism. What heroic failure and fantasies of Nazi invasion did for the middle and upper classes, punk did for the young and the working class." This is both demographic balls (punks were a small minority: most kids in the late-70s were into heavy metal or disco) and a misreading of the semiotics. O'Toole may be familiar with bondage trousers but it doesn't sound like he ever heard X-Ray Spex's Oh Bondage, Up Yours, a song that employs masochism as a metaphor for consumerism. He also casts punk as an organic and native production, forgetting the international influences, from the New York scene to the Situationists, along with the continuities with the counterculture of the 60s and 70s and the intersections with black British culture (dub, the later ska revival). To serve his idea of punk as a reactionary howl he ignores the DIY ethos and foregrounds the gobbing, much as the tabloids did in 1976.

Key to O'Toole's reading of punk is the vulnerability of the working class to "sadopopulism", though the word itself, coined by Timothy Snyder in his critique of the global growth of illiberalism, suggests a tendency that is isn't specifically English. Insofar as O'Toole ventures a class analysis of Brexit, it doesn't proceed beyond the linked ideas of a mendacious, camp upper class, typified by Boris Johnson, and a self-harming working class: "You can hurt yourself for someone or something. 'So,' sings the great balladeer of English self-pity Morrissey, 'scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen. This means you really love me.' For some, marking Leave on the ballot paper in June 2016 was a way of scratching the name of England on their arms to prove their love." The overheated imagery here (not to mention Morrissey's own political baggage) evokes tattoos and the Cross of St George, and so the vexed issue of English nationalism. In a review of Kevin O'Rourke's A Short History of Brexit, O'Toole flips the author's idea that the EU was a conscious attempt to preserve the European nation state: "if the EU was about rescuing the nation state, might the great structural problem of Britain’s attitudes to it be precisely that the UK is not a nation state?"

This gets to the heart of the matter for O'Toole, which is not about the pathologies of the English working class or the legacy of punk but the viability of the United Kingdom: "An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change." In fact, the Scottish independence referendum result was the opposite of fissiparous - a decision to stick together - and there remains no majority for unification in Ireland, North or South, despite growing dismay at the behaviour of the DUP. That the UK's political system is archaic is obvious, but it is still capable of evolving, as the recent fuss over the Speaker's willingness to update process has shown, so announcing its imminent death is likely to be fake news.

Though this kind of hyperbole plays well with a liberal audience, you know that "radical social and constitutional change" is likely to be no more than stale Blairism and proportional representation. Compare and contrast with Pankaj Mishra. In a New York Times essay entitled The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class, he foresees a violent break-up of Britain, essentially as payback for the suffering of India's rushed independence: "As partition comes home, threatening bloodshed in Ireland and secession in Scotland, and an unimaginable chaos of no-deal Brexit looms, ordinary British people stand to suffer from the untreatable exit wounds once inflicted by Britain’s bumbling chumocrats on millions of Asians and Africans. More ugly historical ironies may yet waylay Britain on its treacherous road to Brexit. But it is safe to say that a long-cossetted British ruling class has finally come to the end of itself as it was." Though more blood-curdling than O'Toole, Mishra's analysis is just as shallow and just as likely to be wrong. The upper-class fools who infest British politics and the media aren't about to disappear at the stroke of midnight on the 29th of March.

The problem with O'Toole is that he does not seek to understand the variety of Britain or to accord the neglected a voice, any more than Burke sought to understand the weavers of Manchester. It says something when an establishment figure like Philip Collins in the Times can see the shortcoming of a narrative that makes too few demands on its audience: "The strongest reservation about Heroic Failure is that it is a comforting and luxurious read for people who already agree. O’Toole tells you what you think already better than you could say it yourself. Unless, of course, you don’t think it already, in which case he is unlikely to persuade you." If O'Toole serves a useful purpose in the context of Brexit, it is in skilfully highlighting the delusion of the language deployed by the leave campaign and in particular the advocates of no-deal. But that still means a focus on the language of the social elite, albeit a different segment to the audience that will buy his book, and thus a failure to give voice to the bulk of those who voted leave, voted remain or simply didn't vote. Just as few critics thought fit to comment on the anti-democratic origins of the central trope of Ship of Fools, so I doubt many will note the irony of his new title.


  1. Sounds a bit like a liberal version of the old Nairn-Anderson thesis, which also sought to unconvincingly portray the UK's history as a 'sonderweg' that defied the 'ordinary' rules of capitalist development and nation-state formation. It's misleading to overstress how dysfunctional the UK is as a nation-state when you compare it to Belgium, say, or Spain.

    1. I think you're right about the influence of both Nairn and Anderson and the danger of exceptionalism. An irony of the current moment is that remainers never think of presenting the UK as just another boring European state but instead emphasise it's loss of status, which is the language of their opponents.

    2. But don't you think that there is some element of exceptionalism -- even if it is largely a perception of exceptionalism and a fondness of using a particular historical event as an analogy for everything?

  2. I always feel I've gained an IQ point after reading your posts. Do you think we'll ever get true socialism, or are we fucked?

    1. "True socialism" rather begs the question by implying that the reality may fall short of the ideal. I take both a pragmatic and a more optimistic view: socialism will arrive in fits and starts and it will be governed by material conditions, so we cannot accurately predict what it will look like because we cannot fully predict those conditions. I've always thought Marx was right to be vague on the subject.

      As regard the specifics of the contemporary situation, we're at the end of the long era of neoliberal reaction that started in the 1970s, so there are grounds to think that we will see a return to genuine progress in the 2020s. The right are on the defensive while the centre has revealed its conservative nature. The left has every reason to be hopeful.

  3. «we can dispense with the need for political parties, with their unhelpful focus on class interests, and instead rely on conventional expertise and a curated people.»

    C Murray has called "The Guardian" as a big "friend" of the security services (and I suspect that “conventional expertise” as "diverse" as C Betram and S Wren-Lewis are very good friends too), so I am not surprised that nearly all their advocacy is for what political scientists call "managed democracy", which is the other side of the coin from "limited sovereignty".

  4. «so there are grounds to think that we will see a return to genuine progress in the 2020s. The right are on the defensive while the centre has revealed its conservative nature. The left has every reason to be hopeful.»

    I wish I could be so optimistic, because my expectation for the 2020s is another severe "debt bubble" crisis; the behaviour of the political and economic ruling classes seems to me to have been post-2008 to double down on extractive policies through asset stripping, to salt away as much loot as they can before another deeper crisis strikes.

  5. On the leave vote in Wales, how much of it wasn't from native Welsh, but rather from English white-flighters who moved to Wales to escape from a rising Muslim presence in Birmingham and other Midland cities?