Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole
“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts […]”
– ancient British proverb
“The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. […] In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement.” (Orwell 17)
I know that everyone’s a bit sick of talking about Brexit at this point and that reviewing a book on this topic might not be the most fun, fresh and sexy article idea. But here’s the thing: I haven’t spent this much money on a book in a while – this being due to the simple fact that Heroic Failure is a relatively recent release and I was unable to buy this book second hand. Since I had to pay more for this book than I can realistically afford (Mum, I’ve you’re reading this: please send me money. I’m hungry.), I might as well get my money’s worth and squeeze a mediocre review out of this book. (If I sound like an asshole here, it’s because I am one.)
First Things First (I’m the Realest)
Heroic Failure is not meant to provide a general overview of the timeline of Brexit, let alone an account of everything that falls under this term. It merely attempts to do what the title suggest: offer one possible explanation for the referendum result, the focus for this being notions of pain and self-pity, interwoven into both Britain’s perception of itself and accordingly its politics. I’d previously read other texts which briefly touched on this idea (Yes, this is me trying to show off my half-knowledge, please let me have this.) and was intrigued by an entire book – albeit a short one – dedicated to examining Brexit from this particular angle. O’Toole’s book is primarily concerned with England, though he more frequently uses the term Britain.
“As people to live under, and looking at them merely from a liberal, negative standpoint, the British ruling class had their points. They were preferable to the truly modern men, the Nazis and Fascists. But it has long been obvious that they would be helpless against any serious attack from the outside. They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them.” (Orwell 34–35)
Quick Fun and Fresh Summary
What struck me as interesting right from the beginning of the book is the way the author links self-pity to an underlying feeling of superiority and self-regard: if you feel bad for yourself, it’s because of an underlying feeling that you deserve better (cf. O’Toole 2). His claim that England is in a deep state of self-pity is relevant to the motivations behind Brexit, since with self-pity there also comes a desire to blame others. According to O’Toole, the English have made a habit of “scapegoating […] the EU as the eternal source of England’s ills” (O’Toole 17). After making this claim, the author spends the majority of the book proposing and meticulously explaining the various reasons behind Britain’s – imagined – feeling of victimhood and its eagerness to portray the EU as the perpetrator.
“[The English] have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy – their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance – is bound up with this.” (Orwell 14–15)
One of the main reasons described by the author is the fact that: “In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, colonizer and colonized. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony.” (O’Toole 30) This, in combination with the fact that Britain emerged from the second World War with a feeling of defeat, despite literally not being defeated, and feeling unable to move on from the war (O’Toole 31), has resulted in the fear that the EU is a German ploy to dominate Britain (O’Toole 58–59). Britain has thus been able to imagine itself as a victim of colonization, leading to a form of self-pity that has been enabling Brexit (O’Toole 66). With the necessary role of the colonizer easily pinned onto the EU, Britain is not only able to feel sorry for itself, it is simultaneously also able to view itself as “an exceptionally fine people” (O’Toole 21) facing colonization and humiliation at the hands of the EU (O’Toole 21). Whilst this “began as an imaginary indulgence[, it] would ultimately try to make itself a reality.” (O’Toole 21) In connection to this, O’Toole points out that this act of viewing itself as a colony can also be seen as a way of appropriating the suffering of former British colonies: “Well, perhaps Empires don’t quite end when you think they do. Perhaps they have a final moment of zombie existence. This may be the last of imperialism – having appropriated everything else from its colonies, the dead empire appropriates the pain of those it has oppressed.” (O’Toole 21)
“England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income.” (Orwell 30)
This British self-portrayal as a colony is, however, not rooted in reality: “In reality, Britain went from being an imperial power to being a reasonably ordinary but privileged Western European country” (O’Toole 74). It is instead an expression of Britain’s inability to accept its gradual decline in power. Further, it also serves a distraction from the actual issues in Britain and instead shifts the blame for most of Britain’s ailments onto immigrants (O’Toole 92). After all, if the EU is the force colonising Britain, then, following this logic, immigrants fulfil the role of “unarmed invaders” (O’Toole 92). Accordingly, Brexit becomes the solution to so many of Britain’s problems – real and imaginary – since, according to this worldview, Britain leaving the EU can then be equated to a colony breaking its chains (O’Toole 82). According to the author, this concept of “Britain portraying itself as the victim despite being the baddie” (this is not a direct quote from the book, but it should be) can be traced back to the days of the British Empire: myths of suffering were used to cover up the oppression and pain inflicted onto others by the Empire and the fact that “it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.“ (O’Toole 72).
“Do I mean by all this that England is a genuine democracy? No, not even a reader of the Daily Telegraph could quite swallow that.” (Orwell 28)
Another reason for Britain’s strong feeling of victimhood can be found in British politicians, particularly Brexiteers, blowing trivial things completely out of proportion and making them appear like a serious threat, whilst also downplaying actual serious issues (O’Toole 99). The author uses the example of prawn cocktail crisps being portrayed as an essential part of British life which is being threatened by EU regulations – at least according to people such as Boris Johnson, who is definitely a reliable source – to expand on this idea.
“It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of [the British ruling class] is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.” (Orwell 37)
I was, however, not fully convinced by this argument that the British wanting to preserve their preservative-filled food was one of the core motives behind Brexit. In order to achieve a deeper understanding of this theory, I promptly ordered a packet of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps online (turns out they’re vegan since they consist purely of artificial ingredients) which tells us that: a) I care deeply about investigative journalism and b) I should not be allowed to own a credit card. After bravely – braver than any marine – eating a packet of prawn cocktail flavour crisps, I can confidently say that… they’re not worth leaving the European Union for. I have no clue what the blooming hell prawn cocktail is meant to taste like, but these crisps just kind of taste like cheesy vinegar? Which (luckily) is not a thing, but it’s the best I can do to describe the flavour. But then again, as my parents always like to remind me: maybe my best is just not good enough. Haha!
I would personally rate these crisps 2.5 out of 5 Tokens of British Culture. I have no clue why Boris Johnson would choose to employ this particular flavour of crisps in order to rally up “patriotic” sentiments, but to be honest fuck knows what that guy is thinking most of the time. Though I’m not going to outright deny that little packets of crisps bursting with E numbers might be the high-point of British culture, Johnson could have at least chosen a better flavour to embody his frenzied nationalistic fantasies. Seriously, there are just so many better flavours! Furthermore, as this (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/pyramid-ranking-of-britains-favourite-crisps-sparks-outrage-a4100306.html) totally reliable source suggests, the British public doesn’t even seem to really give a half a shit about prawn cocktail crisps. So, what conclusion does this lead us to? I have no clue, but I definitely wasted a lot of time and money on this joke investigation of British crisp-eating habits. (This sentence sums up both this article and my year working as an au pair.)
“In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them.” (Orwell 25)
In addition to the two main reasons mentioned above, O’Toole also touches on other explanations, such as the legacy of the British punk movement with its “nihilistic energy that helped to drive the Brexit impulse but, more to the point, the popularization of masochism” (O’Toole 124). This theory of his is based on the fact that 60 % of people in the UK aged between fifty and sixty-four, the generation which was greatly shaped by punk, voted for Brexit and his impression that “[t]he English generation that was shaped by punk […] absorbed more than a renewed and radically re-energized idea of heroic failure” (O’Toole 129). This was reflected in the Brexit campaign: “any transgression is revolutionary even if it celebrates self-harm.” (O’Toole 129). Furthermore, the author briefly brings up other factors, such as that Britain’s way of portraying the past more closely resembles myth creation than an account of history (O’Toole 153) and an increase of the ‘English-only’ self-identification as opposed to people self-identifying as British (O’Toole 187).
“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” (Orwell 13)
Things I Liked (this means nothing, I have horrible taste)
Now that we’ve gotten the “short” and low-quality (Ed. Honestly, stop being so British and selling yourself short to evade some imaginary criticism that would honestly be unjustified because this article is great!) summary of the book’s main arguments out of the way, let’s look at the pros and cons of the book! Since I’m a terribly positive person, let’s start with the aspects of the book that I liked. First of all, O’Toole uses various well-known fictional texts in order to make it easier for the reader to understand the concepts he touches on, especially since some of them may seem rather abstract, even absurd, at first. Examples of the fictional texts referenced range from Hamlet (O’Toole 39), to J. R. R. Tolkien’s books (O’Toole 38), to – unfortunately – Fifty Shades of Grey (O’Toole 21). This does not only make the book more accessible, O’Toole also does a good job at linking the popularity of certain themes in popular literature to attitudes and ideas that can be found in ~real life~ Britain and may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum. An example of this is the success of various contemporary novels which reimagine a second World War in which Britain is defeated by Germany. O’Toole gives plenty of examples of such novels, including Owen Sheer’s Resistance and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (O’Toole 56–57). He then connects this obsession with being invaded and oppressed that is present in these reimaginations with the British paranoia that “the EU [is] really a front for a German plot to achieve by stealth what Hitler had failed to achieve by force” (O’Toole 58–59). Additionally, he doesn’t merely view this pop culture phenomenon as something that mirrors British fears, he contests that such fantasies of oppression in “books, films and tabloid fiction” (O’Toole 61) have resulted in a distorted view of the EU and are thus linked to attitudes towards Brexit. He clearly put a decent amount of effort into making his ideas more accessible, which is something that I personally greatly value.
“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.” (Orwell 29)
Another positive thing worth noting, which also ties in with the level of accessibility, is that whilst the book offers a lot of information, it still manages to not be too dry and the author’s often slightly ironic undertone and wit manage to keep things entertaining. Except for the Fifty Shades detours, those went too far. It does require a certain level of skill to add just enough humour to a text on politics to make it an easier and more enjoyable read, without taking away from the seriousness and urgency of the topic. I personally feel that he did an impressive job in regard to this. He also frequently references George Orwell’s essays and anyone who does this is a cool and fun person. We all know this, it’s simply a fact. (Please compliment me, I really need it. (Ed. Only if you promise to accept the compliment.))
“[The English] have a certain power of acting without taking thought.” (Orwell 14)
Things I Didn’t Like Quite So Much
Now for the less positive – but way more fun for me because I’m awful and complaining is the only thing that makes me feel alive – part: the aspects that I didn’t like. One of the passages of the book that put me off slightly, is the one where he talks about working at a cinema when he was 17. According to O’Toole, most of the people working there were gay and due to this he feels that working there as a straight man “was a an important, if rather ironic, experience, a tiny taste of what it’s like to belong to a sexual minority” (O’Toole xiii). I think I know what he’s trying to say here, and he probably means well, but here’s an idea: maybe don’t. (I hope anyone reading this knows what I’m trying to say with “maybe don’t” and that I probably mean well.)
He also brings up a quote which is meant to illustrate how negatively the idea of joining the Common Market was at times framed. The quote compares the attitude towards this potential membership to that of not fighting getting raped because you’re unable to stop it anyway (cf. O’Toole 12). Whilst this does not appear to be the author’s opinion, I would have appreciated it if he would have properly addressed the (not particularly great… let’s put it that way) quote in question. O’Toole fails to do this and instead just moves on which didn’t sit quite right with me.
“England is a family with the wrong members in control.” (Orwell 54)
Furthermore, the author has managed to come up with the hot take that the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey is relevant to the Brexit discussion. According to O’Toole, some might imagine the relationship between the EU and Britain to be similar to the BDSM relationship depicted in Fifty Shades (cf. O’Toole 21). He then goes on to fill four pages with a bizarre mixture of Fifty Shades quotes and political commentary, briefly turning the book into a weird erotic Brexit fanfiction. This is a thing that actually happens in this book. I wish it wasn’t. I’m not going to lie, it was hilarious – I may have shed a few tears of laughter –, but it was also the weirdest take on Brexit that I’ve come across so far. Most of all, I just wish that my eyes had never been forced to read the words “Britain”, “gag” and “nipple clamps” (O’Toole 25) in one sentence. A small part of me died that day. O’Toole brings up the whole Fifty Shades shtick again a few chapters further into the book (O’Toole 95) and I was close to getting annoyed. He then, however, proceeds to drag the shit out for Boris Johnson for several pages for eating some toast that was meant for his post-partum wife and then trying to blame it on the NHS (O’Toole 99) which greatly appeased me. To add to this dumpster-fire of ‘hot takes’, O’Toole then goes on to make various claims about self-harm and the reasons behind it, without bothering to provide any sources (O’Toole 129–130).
“Socialism? Ha! ha! ha! Where’s the money to come from? Ha! ha! ha!” (Orwell 53)
My only real issue apart from the above mentioned failed ‘hot takes’ is with the structure – or at times lack thereof. Whilst the structure of the book is certainly not horrible and relatively easy to follow, there are points at which the author repeats himself and the book strays from following a clear path. O’Toole also tends to slip into just rambling on about things at times, which harms the quality of his arguments and robs them of some of their potential clarity. I mean, I definitely do this far too often myself, but I’m also not a published author and look about 15. (You’re very funny, Lena! Wow!)
“Throughout its entire history the English Socialist movement has never produced a song with a catchy tune […]” (Orwell 82) Accordingly, the creation of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” is arguably the greatest achievement in modern British politics.
Overall, despite my annoyance at some of the sentiments expressed in Heroic Failure, I still very much enjoyed the book. Some of the author’s theories concerning Britain’s feelings of self-pity and how this connects to Brexit are interesting and extremely well-articulated. And whilst some of the examples used by O’Toole might feel slightly over-the-top (for example his obsession with Fifty Shades of Grey and prawn cocktail flavour crisps), they still made for an incredibly entertaining read. I’d also like to express my deep admiration for the degree of passion with which he hates Boris Johnson. I mean, I’m definitely no fan of Johnson either, but I simply don’t posses the level of energy required to hate someone quite so strongly. It’s the kind of hatred and personal outrage that I dream of one day directing at an awful politician with an equally awful haircut.
All in all, I would rate Heroic Failure 4/5 unnecessary George Orwell references
(Ed. I sincerely apologize for delaying the readers’ enjoyment of this piece. It is a brilliant article that should not have been kept from the world as long as it has been and not prioritizing it on my to-do-list is one of the few regrets I have in life.)
Orwell, George. Why I Write. Penguin Books – Great Ideas: 2004.
O’Toole, Fintan. Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. Head of Zeus Ltd: 2018.
Lena was listening to a bunch of songs whilst writing this article because it took a very long time to write and was probably most definitely a massive waste of time. But anyways, stream Melodrama by Lorde!