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
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