Brexit blindness

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 2019

Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles

Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 2020

KEN BELL says a prominent Remainer still doesn’t comprehend Brexit

I have just finished reading Heroic Failure and Three Years In Hell, both by Fintan O’Toole, which is good for you as it means you don’t have to. I was attracted to these volumes by the fact that O’Toole as an Irishman might bring something new to the pro-EU debate, but unfortunately all he does is regurgitate lines British writers have already done to death.

Three Years In Hell is the lesser volume, and the easiest to dismiss, since it is essentially a diary covering dates in the years 2016 to 2019. Most of the entries became moot once Boris Johnson took over, so the entries that deal with Theresa May are little more than space fillers. Much is made in both books of the supposed fact that Brexit was an ‘English revolution’ – an engagingly off-the-wall line the Guardian emits regularly.

In the first place, the Brexit plebiscite was specifically set up as an all-UK vote. That is why Nicola Sturgeon could scamper off to campaign for ‘Remain’ in southern England. Now, you cannot have an all-UK vote and then dismiss its results because you come from an area that ended up on the losing side. Well, you can, if you are Nicola Sturgeon, but that does not mean that the rest of us have to take your whining seriously. That applies to writers as well as politicians, by the way.

Secondly, and this is where the much longer Heroic Failure takes over, to dismiss the Brexit vote as being a purely English victory when proportionally as many Welsh voters supported Brexit is to dismiss the people of Wales with an airy wave of the hand, which is what O’Toole does repeatedly. Not just Wales, either – pretty much anyone who is not part of the Guardian-reading metropolitan bubble is only referred to in passing. Thus, when discussing the makeup of the Brexit vote, he makes great play of the English middle class component and tries to slight the much larger working class element by saying that a majority of them were working class Conservative voters already! That may be the case, but it only leads us to a question of why did people who had historically voted Labour decide to switch parties, something which started to happen in 1997? It may be that Labour has changed and they haven’t. O’Toole does not even raise that theme in his books, being content to dismiss working class Brexiteers as people engaged in an act of self-harm.

A whole chapter of Heroic Failure is devoted to Boris Johnson’s journalistic pieces devoted to mocking the EU, with O’Toole then pointing out the errors and, by implication, the stupidity of the plebs who believed those tales.  This theme is not original to O’Toole, but it is what his readers believe, just as Boris’s believed his lines about prawn-flavoured crisps. Actually, Boris was on fairly solid ground with his EU reports, because even if he got some details wrong, there was a greater truth that he got right. When we joined the European Economic Community we were told that it was a big trading bloc and nothing that it did would ever affect us in any way. It was all about trade, nothing more.

Then we noticed that local council jobsworths were giving grief to market traders who wanted to sell their produce in pounds and ounces. We noticed that our children were coming home from school and talking about heat in Celsius and distance in metres. We battled to keep beer and milk in pints and road markings in miles, but in our hearts we knew that all we had bought was time, and that the jobsworths were just licking their lips at the thought of earning a tasty butty as they forced us to think the European way.

This brings me close to the end, with O’Toole convinced that the Brexit vote was due in no small measure to a desire to recreate the British Empire. It wasn’t, of course. It was a desire by millions of people, many of whom had never voted before and probably haven’t since, to be allowed to live their lives as they wanted under the jurisdiction of politicians who may be dubious characters – but they are our dubious characters and we can get rid of them every four or five years if we are bored with their faces. The EU may not really have instructed its provincial legislatures to enact laws against prawn-flavoured crisps, but the story illustrated a great truth that Brussels did order Westminster around on many issues, and Westminster did duly enact the legislation as instructed.

One day a pro-Brussels writer will investigate the mindset of the British people who voted freedom’s way, and a light will come on in his mind. He can then pass this information on to his readers, and his side will finally start to come to terms with the reasons for their defeat. Alas, Fintan O’Toole is not that writer.