Past winner of the Orwell Prize, a noted and sometimes eloquent theatre critic, a longstanding byline both in the London left wing press and the reviews of American liberalism, Fintan O’Toole’s denunciations of the Brexit project were always destined for an appreciative Remainer readership for as long as Brexit could be delayed.
For while the role of Irish journalistic courtier to liberal English opinion has been well known for a century or more, only a voice from Ireland, laden with the ostensible authority of grim historical experience, could quite so usefully have detailed the allegedly toxic nationalism underlying the Brexit cause.
Yet it is safe to say that even the most assiduous reader of O’Toole’s newspaper columns in London would have little inkling of the sheer hallucinatory Anglophobic vitriol, intellectual fraudulence and moral complicity with the political heirs of the IRA that saturate his Brexit commentary for Irish consumption.
Heroic failure and the dangers of nationalism are the theme of O’Toole’s critique of Brexit when writing for “the English” (by which, he explains in one of the introductions to his books, he sometimes — but not always — has the Welsh and the Scots in mind as well).
In choosing heroic failure as a paradigm with which to frame Brexit for English consumption, O’Toole superficially taps into one of those plausible and familiar archetypes of British national identity, aligning the Brexiteers with the noble failures of the past generation, from the explorers of the north-west passage to redundant empire-builders, so as then to add two twists. These are that Brexit was always intended to fail and that this heroic failure was intended, on some level, to be painful. While this might now seem a little idiosyncratic, two things make all this slightly less incomprehensible.
The first is that O’Toole’s tone of self-certainty was no stylistic flourish. He literally believed that it was impossible for Brexit to occur in the way that has transpired. Re-reading his journalism from 2019 already feels like reading some form of counter-factual history.
The second is that O’Toole is immersed, without attribution, in the rhetorical tics of Lacanian political analysis. Not coincidentally, this is where we start to go through the looking-glass. “In the Brexit negotiations, the idea of national humiliation moved from fiction to reality. There was a strange ecstasy of shame.” So reads one of the milder statements in his 2018 book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. “In the bondage games playing out in the English reactionary imagination,” he adds, “Britain has spent 45 years hanging from the ceiling in the Red Room of Pain, with clamps on its nipples and a gag in its mouth.” This thought, more striking than it is persuasive, is developed and restated in different ways throughout the book.
Even readers for whom this psychologising of political events is not entirely novel might blanch when O’Toole writes of the United Kingdom: “Without the collective anguish of forced penetration, it would have no underlying collective life at all.”
While it falls to those who believe that serious Lacanian political analysis is not a contradiction in terms to make the point, it can be said that this sort of nonsense is not licensed by Lacan’s texts, or the current gatekeepers of that tradition. Indeed, a seminar on Lacan and politics at the Freud Museum in London in January 2019 dealing specifically with the “political” volume of his almost two dozen volumes of seminars and referencing Brexit explicitly went out of the way to say that the sort of strategies in which O’Toole engages are a misuse of the material.
He stands truly with those complicit journalists of communism in the 1930s who toured Moscow without noticing the show trials
It would be simplest and most accurate to say that this stuff is intellectual fraudulence. It goes without saying that in a work laden with footnotes, O’Toole rarely has any when it would be useful — when what he has to say is most preposterous.
This goes on for chapter after chapter, including digressions on the alleged Third Reich fantasies festering in the collective imagination of the electorate. In support of this thesis, an extensive sequence of sometimes obscure novels is produced detailing life in a Britain occupied by Nazi Germany.
The justification for this unseemly conflation of Third Reich fantasies with the alleged mindset of Brexit electorate is O’Toole’s supposition that it illustrates a paranoid mass psychology at the heart of an emerging toxic nationalism.
Yet remarkably, and apparently without any concern for having cut the ground from under his own argument, he goes on himself to quote data showing exactly the reverse, writing: “In 1990, while Germany was being reunified, there was very little depth to anti-German feeling in Britain — surveys at the time showed that most British people were in favour of German unity and trusted the Germans a lot or somewhat”. The reader is left wondering whether it was really necessary for O’Toole to have volunteered a tour of his ample collection of fiction in which the Third Reich never ended.
Elsewhere the reader is informed that “the only stiff upper lips on display in England now belong to the victims of botched Botox jobs” before learning, a few paragraphs later, that “most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups”. When he says something that can be checked for accuracy as opposed to being pure polemic or pseudo-psychological verbiage, it is sometimes jaw-droppingly false. He places Leo Amery’s famous April 1940 “speak for England” intervention in the House of Commons in September 1939, which of course is also completely impossible for anyone who understands the history of the Second World War. A few pages later, he accuses Boris Johnson of making an error of detail in his Churchill biography.
Where farce turns to tragedy is not in the Brexit Britain he said could never happen, but in the O’Toole Ireland which has now emerged. It is here that this mediocre journalistic vaudeville may yet prove calamitous. Locating the evils of the world in the cause he most wishes to denigrate, Brexit, O’Toole’s rhetoric has clearly potentiated a living force for political violence on the island of Ireland. The toxic nationalism of the IRA is now sung in Irish election count centres as its unrepentant apologists in Sinn Fein are elected, the party surging to first place in February’s election. No prominent journalist in Ireland has had more influence on the country’s Brexit strategy in recent years and none has so vituperatively and so deliberatively fed the ancestral hatreds and the dormant furies of the island than has O’Toole. “The kind of discourse from which Brexit emerged, a peculiar cocktail of raw xenophobic hysteria, cool intellectual glibness and pure pantomime,” he writes, of Brexit of course — yet is this not precisely and to the letter a description of O’Toole’s journalistic way-clearing for the rise of a party controlled by the IRA Army Council in Ireland?
Very late in the day, shortly before Ireland voted and perhaps beginning dimly to intuit the approach of that new degeneration of Irish politics to which he contributed so much, O’Toole wrote that while, of course, one might not actually vote for Sinn Fein, “a real democratic alternative has to include the biggest party of radical change”.
No doubt O’Toole’s preposterous psychobabble was intended simply to situate him within today’s fashionable conversations on psychoanalysis and politics, perhaps with a commissioning editor here or there in mind. But whatever his intentions, pathologising Brexit and Provo-washing the Republic, he stands most truly not with Orwell, in whose name the prize he holds is named, but with those complicit journalists of communism in the 1930s who toured Moscow without noticing the show trials, the Ukraine without noticing the famine, and the whole country without noticing the secret police.
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