Saturday 21 September 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Brexit is too complex to be explained by Brit-bashing'

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Yes, the United Kingdom is in a bit of a pickle over the ‘deal or no deal’ Brexit. But not to worry. The noted Irish intellectual and commentator is on hand to dispense his analysis of the whole problem: the root cause of Brexit, Fintan O’Toole avers, is the fatal British nostalgia for empire.

The Brits can’t cope, psychologically, with the fact that they’ve lost an empire. Obsessing about Nazis and World War II is another exercise in nostalgia – my God, haven’t we heard enough about Dunkirk? In his latest publication, ‘Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain’, O’Toole constructs a fanciful “psychodrama” in which the UK is playing out a ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ scenario: enjoying the masochism and the ritual humiliation of being a loser.

Everything about Brexit is “fuelled by fantasies of empire”, and the absurd political figures of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg yearning for old-time imperialism: while the spectre of Enoch Powell, who raised immigration in an inflammatory way in 1968, “hovers unacknowledged”.

Fintan’s reductionist view of a complex political picture does a disservice to furthering the understanding of a hugely important issue – as important, in its outcome, for Ireland as for the UK.

But worse than that: as a journalist, his “aren’t-the-leading-Brexiteers-just-stupid-upper-class-twits” is a much less interesting story than the detailed and diverse reality. Okay, so Nigel Farage is a parodic example of the golf club loudmouth asking “what’s your poison, squire?” But examine the wider cast of Brexiteers. Is Dennis Skinner, the ex-miner and the last remaining MP to have worked with his hands, nostalgic for empire? Is Kwasi Kwarteng, the promising Conservative MP, born in England to Ghanaian parents, a closet imperialist? Is the gifted Priti Patel, daughter of Ugandan Asian immigrants to Britain, a secret right-wing Powellite?

Is Gisela Stuart, the German-born former Labour MP for Birmingham, just yearning for the good old days of the Raj? Is Dominic Raab, son of a Czech Jewish immigrant, of the same ilk? Is Michael Gove, adopted child of an Aberdeen fisherman, or Liam Fox, son of Irish Catholic migrants to Scotland, or David Davis, who grew up in a single-parent family in south London – are they all to be dismissed, in Fintan’s words, as a category of “upper-class twittery”? No. Like the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit, they come from a range of different backgrounds. Nor were all 17 million stupid, under-informed Brits who were taken in by the antics of Boris Johnson.

It’s easy to make fun of Boris: there’s a clownish and reckless side to his character, but he is popular with voters because he is different from the carefully spun politicians who never stray off-message. For all Boris’s faults, it would be ludicrous to paint him as an insular Brit nostalgic for empire: born in New York, he’s partly Turkish, partly Russian, and has an educated cosmopolitan background.

In conversation with Sean O’Rourke, Fintan once again emphasised the influence of Enoch Powell on the Brexit project. But it is ill-informed not to mention in the same context that Michael Foot, the left-wing leader of the Labour Party, and Tony Benn, also a radical left-winger, were every bit as opposed to Britain entering the European Community as Powell. And for similar reasons: they believed that a nation should be able to adhere to its own constitution, make its own laws, and uphold its own parliamentary rule.

As it happens, President Michael D Higgins held exactly the same view, back in the day.

Yes, Brits did vote for Brexit because they felt that a half-a-million migrants every year is too much – my own GP, far from being a racist, felt the burden of that on the health service. But if I look around at my circle of friends in Britain, I can discern a variety of reasons: one did so because she comes from Grimsby and has seen the fishing industry destroyed; one Labour Leave business friend believes that a weaker pound is better for business and global trade can offer opportunities; others had various motives ranging from dislike of the European Court of Justice to a vague feeling, as one old friend put it, that she “doesn’t want England to be concreted over into something unrecognisable”, to registering a kind of protest vote against the establishment.

True, the Northern Ireland question was largely ignored, but it is also occluded in Fintan’s book, since the DUP doesn’t really fit into his fanciful thesis linking Brexit with everything from Scott of the Antarctic to the Falklands and the writings of rather obscure commentators like the British existentialist Colin Wilson.

It is true, as O’Toole says (as many other analysts have said) that Britain never really fitted into the EU, and has been semi-detached from many of its aspects. De Gaulle always said as much. It’s also true that there has been an ongoing fear of German power, which Fintan sees as a form of hysteria, and World War II nostalgia. He should read – as should anyone interested in the future of the EU – Paul Lever’s ‘Berlin Rules’, recently out in paperback.

Lever was British Ambassador to Berlin, loves Germany, worked well with German officials, and is knowledgeable about German politics and culture. Nevertheless, he writes, the EU is dominated by Germany, its structure mirroring German structures, its officials nearly always, in the end, subservient to German interests. The Germans are lovely people, but the EU will be run their way.

This has profound implications for Ireland’s future, especially in terms of tax and VAT harmonisation, and the growing conversation about an EU army.

The migration problem is not going away, and the Swiss are the latest to question the free movement of people. As an Irish intellectual of stature, revered in New York as well as in London, Fintan O’Toole could have written a much more subtle and sophisticated work about the complexities that have triggered Brexit, rather than churning out a weary old trope of simplistic Brit-bashing.

Irish Independent

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