Fin­tan O’Toole

In an ex­clu­sive ex­tract from his new book, Fin­tan O’Toole con­sid­ers the par­al­lels be­tween 1970s punk and Bri­tain’s 2016 de­ci­sion to leave the EU

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who ac­tu­ally adopted it, punk was a way of re­claim­ing dig­nity by de­fi­antly cel­e­brat­ing their own fail­ure to get on in the ap­proved man­ner. Its style was the play­ing up of wretched­ness, the cre­ation of fash­ion from the de­tri­tus of con­sumerism – wear­ing bin lin­ers and ripped T-shirts, turn­ing the safety pin, shame­ful em­blem of poverty, into a form of dec­o­ra­tion. It was the ul­ti­mate tri­umph of fail­ure – and of treat­ing tri­umph and fail­ure as twin im­posters. It is not far as it seems from the stiff up­per lip to the curled lip, from the heroic not car­ing of Capt Scott to the great snarl of Rot­ten’s “And we don’t care” at the end of Pretty Va­cant.

But punk also cre­ated the most pow­er­ful para­dox in the deep neu­ro­sis of Brexit: the strange psy­chic mash-up of re­volt and pain, of bondage and free­dom, of lib­er­a­tion and self-harm. McLaren and Vivi­enne West­wood’s clothes shop, Sex, sold “fetish wear – rub­ber and leather gear – that would at once ap­peal to a spe­cialised mar­ket and be adopted by teenagers”. The idea, as West­wood ex­plained, “was to take these taboo gar­ments out of the bed­room and into the streets: now that would be re­ally revo­lu­tion­ary!”

It is strik­ing that this idea of sado­masochism as “re­ally revo­lu­tion­ary” dove­tailed with the more main­stream masochis­tic fan­tasy in the English re­ac­tionary mind­set that Eng­land had re­ally lost the se­cond World War be­cause Ger­many had sub­se­quently taken it over by stealth through the EU. Punk had its own ver­sion of the Nazi in­va­sion of Eng­land.

One of Johnny Rot­ten’s sig­na­ture West­wood-de­signed shirts, worn with bondage-style leather gear, has the slo­gan “De­stroy”, an al­tered im­age of a penny postage stamp in which Queen El­iz­a­beth’s head is be­ing cut off, and a huge name on your arm with a foun­tain pen. This means you re­ally love me.” For some, mark­ing Leave on the bal­lot pa­per in June 2016 was a way of scratch­ing the name of Eng­land on their arms to prove their love.

The dis­tress is real. And Brexit gives the pain a name and a lo­ca­tion – im­mi­grants, and Brus­sels bu­reau­crats. It coun­ters their sense of pow­er­less­ness with a mo­ment of real power – Brexit is, after all, a very big thing to do.

But it’s still self-harm. For the cyn­i­cal lead­ers of the Brexit cam­paign, the free­dom they de­sire is the free­dom to dis­man­tle the en­vi­ron­men­tal, so­cial and labour pro­tec­tions that they call “red tape”. They want to sever the last re­straints on the very mar­ket forces that have caused the pain. They of­fer a jagged ra­zor of in­co­her­ent English na­tion­al­ism to dis­tressed and ex­cluded com­mu­ni­ties and say “Go on, cut your­self, it feels good.”

It does feel good. It is ex­hil­a­rat­ing and em­pow­er­ing. It makes English hearts beat faster and the blood flow more quickly – even if it’s their own blood that’s flow­ing. But the cru­cial twist is that this self-harm is po­lit­i­cally bear­able only if some­one else is be­ing harmed more. The masochism doesn’t work with­out a com­pen­satory el­e­ment of sadism.

Brexit is of­ten ex­plained as pop­ulism, but it is driven more by what Tim­o­thy Sny­der in The Road to Un­free­dom calls “sadopop­ulism” in which peo­ple are will­ing to in­flict pain on them­selves so long as they can be­lieve that, in the same mo­ment, they are mak­ing their en­e­mies hurt more: “Such a voter is chang­ing the cur­rency of pol­i­tics from achieve­ment to pain, help­ing a leader of choice cre­ate sadopop­ulism. Such a voter can be­lieve that he or she has cho­sen who ad­min­is­ters their pain, and can fan­ta­sise that this leader will hurt en­e­mies still more. [This] con­verts pain to mean­ing, and then mean­ing back into more pain.”

This def­i­ni­tion il­lu­mi­nates much of what is go­ing on in Brexit, but it also high­lights the project’s short-term prob­lems and long-term con­tra­dic­tions. The most ob­vi­ous short-term prob­lem is the “Leader of choice”. Sny­der is think­ing of Vladimir Putin, Don­ald Trump and their var­i­ous im­i­ta­tors in Europe and else­where. Brexit did have a leader of choice – Boris John­son – but he was too in­com­pe­tent to ac­tu­ally ef­fect the trans­fer of power that this revo­lu­tion­ary mo­ment needed.

John­son’s in­abil­ity to take power (or to use it when he got some of it as for­eign sec­re­tary) meant that the English rev­o­lu­tion im­me­di­ately be­came more like a me­dieval car­ni­val in which the crowd sweeps up the vil­lage id­iot and pro­claims him king for the week. John­son was in fact King Brexit for slightly less than a week, from the morn­ing of the ref­er­en­dum re­sult on June 24th, 2016 to his ig­no­min­ious with­drawal from the race to suc­ceed David Cameron as prime min­is­ter on June 30th.

If John­son was the only great leader who could save the Brexit project, it was in­evitably doomed. The man­ner of his fail­ure may have been spec­tac­u­larly in­ept, but in fact John­son was bound to fail. He em­bod­ied a fa­tal flaw in the Brexit project: the self-pity­ing griev­ances that it was de­signed to ad­dress could not in fact be ad­dressed. Why? Be­cause they did not ex­ist. A rev­o­lu­tion must cloak it­self in an idea of jus­tice: the wrongs done by our op­pres­sors will now be righted. Po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers will be freed, ex­iles re­turned, land re­dis­tributed, col­lab­o­ra­tors pun­ished, he­roes re­warded. But there were no EU dun­geons to be thrown open. There were only triv­ial fic­tions.

The revo­lu­tion­ary regime that John­son was sup­posed to lead could not re­store the right to give don­key rides on beaches, or bring curved ba­nanas back to the shops, or stop dic­tat­ing the pre­cise size and shape of a Christ­mas tree, or lib­er­ate British trawler­men from the ig­nominy of hav­ing to wear hair­nets. All of these had been re­ported in British tabloids as op­pres­sive re­al­i­ties but they were just vivid sto­ries. Prawn-cock­tail flavour crisps – whose al­leged ban­ning by the EU was John­son’s first great Brus­sels-bash­ing fic­tion – could not be re­stored to the mil­lions of chil­dren crav­ing them for the sim­ple rea­son that they had never ceased to be avail­able.

The point about the whole Boriso­vian Brus­sels-bash­ing project was that it could sur­vive any­thing ex­cept suc­cess. Its great strengths were its ap­par­ent tan­gi­bil­ity – it took the vast, te­dious odyssey of the EU and re­duced it to things that peo­ple could touch and feel and, more im­por­tantly, con­sume: beer, crisps, ba­nanas – and its camp­ness, the know­ing way that these things were hy­per-ex­ag­ger­ated into icons of iden­tity. It took Europe down to mi­cro­cos­mic minu­tiae and then blew them up again into a macro­cos­mic tale of op­pres­sion.

But these very strengths turned against them­selves at the mo­ment of “lib­er­a­tion”. The tan­gi­bles crum­bled at a touch – they no longer had any po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. And the ex­ag­ger­a­tions were in­stantly de­flated when the con­text sud­denly changed. They only meant any­thing when they were stones be­ing thrown glee­fully over the neigh­bour’s gar­den wall.

The camp, ironic dis­course that un­der­pinned Brexit was an in-joke that could not live out­side the very thing it sought to sub­vert, the EU. It was an elab­o­rate form of courtier’s hu­mour – it had mean­ing only while there was a court to mock and fel­low-courtiers to get the jokes. It worked only when Bri­tain was in Europe – the whole joke was de­pen­dent on liv­ing a dou­ble ex­is­tence, be­ing part of the union but pre­tend­ing to be on the out­side, be­ing ac­tu­ally in but imag­i­na­tively not of the EU. It was a drag act that sud­denly had to ap­pear in street clothes.

In Boris’s camp per­for­mance, ev­ery state­ment came with in-built quo­ta­tion marks. It was a co­me­dian’s catch­phrase. But on June 23rd, 2016, all the quo­ta­tion marks fell off. This was now sup­posed to be about some­thing. The aw­ful truth was that it sim­ply wasn’t.

This is an edited ex­tract from Fin­tan O’Toole’s Heroic Fail­ure: Brexit and the Pol­i­tics of Pain, pub­lished by Head of Zeus

Jonathan Coe re­views Fin­tan O’Toole’s new book Heroic Fail­ure, Ticket, page 28

Be­low: Up­per-class twit­tery from the likes of Boris John­son may de­fine Brexit but in pop­u­lar cul­ture terms, it is pure punk – John Ly­don of the Sex Pis­tols hav­ing iden­ti­fied him­self with it. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: CHARLES MCQUIL­LAN/GETTY & MICHAEL OCHS AR­CHIVES/GETTY

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