BoM May 2019

Our May book of the month is Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure – The Delusions of Brexit.

Fintan O’Toole’s book appeared some months ago and is an analysis of some of the myths surrounding Brexit and the deep hold it had on the English psyche. This was in the context of the Brexit referendum. With the European Election campaign ramping up, many of these myths are being used by, in particular, the Brexit Party to whip England into a state of patriotic duty.

It is not a total picture as it does not go into the malaise of austerity. For that John Harris of the Guardian is well worth reading – the recent article on Maidenhead particularly revealing. It is also well worth reading Anthony Barnett’s Lure of Greatness.

Nevertheless it is a very valuable addition to understanding Brexit. Ann Widdecombe for example is ramping up the WWII rhetoric. Rationally this is nonsense, but why does this fantasy have such an effect? Farage, very much in the playbook of Trump, is holding rallies of a style not seen in England since the time of Oswald Mosley, using arguments which should not stand up to a moments scrutiny. My father, who was at the 1938 Nuremberg rally, described Hitler’s oratory as a frightening form of mass hypnosis and the parallels are all too obvious.

Fintan’s book is more relevant than ever, as exactly the same myths are being used to appeal to the “people” and convince them that leaving the EU means the return of “sovereignty” and, even if they are poorer, they will be free from the shackles of the “Fourth Reich”.

The book consists of a series of essays and examines various myths.

In exploring the answers to the question: “why did Britain vote leave?”, Fintan finds himself discovering how trivial journalistic lies became far from trivial national obsessions; how the masquerade of indifference to truth and historical fact has come to define the style of an entire political elite; how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the strange gastronomic and political significance of prawn-flavoured crisps, and their role in the rise of Boris Johnson; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatisation that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farrage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name.

He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

The book finishes with a stand alone essay The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella: Brexit and the Crisis of Nationalism which is also available in lecture form in this video.

A Guardian interview with Fintan is available here.

‘A quite brilliant dissection of the cultural roots of the Brexit narrative’ David Miliband.
‘Hugely entertaining and engrossing’ Roddy Doyle.
‘Best book about the English that I’ve read for ages’ Billy Bragg.
‘A wildly entertaining but uncomfortable read … Pitilessly brilliant‘ Jonathan Coe.


  1. Graham -

    Burns: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as others see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion.”

    I can recommend both this book and Anthony Barnett’s earlier one as giving a different view to the usual British Exceptionalism we have been getting recently.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks Graham. I fear the world is laughing at the English Nationalists rather than admiring them. An Irish friend describes them as bullet-headed – they simply will not listen to friendly advice.

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