Brexit—and one nation’s bewildering battle to wake from the nightmare of history
By Fintan O’Toole
In an early chapter of Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, goes to collect the wages he is due for some part-time teaching in a Dublin school. The opinionated headmaster Deasy talks to him of history.
“History,” Stephen replies, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Then, from Stephen’s perspective, we read: “From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?”
The great difficulty of Brexit was always going to be Ireland. Not just because of the enormous practical problems of a border that was never properly drawn—a temporary solution that became a semi-permanent fixture, with 208 official crossing-points and countless unofficial ones. But because of something that goes deeper: two incompatible ways of escaping history.
We all, in some way, desire to escape history, to imagine a future untrammeled by the uncertainties we have inherited from the past. Stephen’s expression of this desire raises two questions, one implicit, the other explicit. Firstly, what do you awake from the nightmare into? Secondly, what if the nightmare of history kicks back? Do you awake to reality or do you merely escape into a kind of dreamtime, and—if so—with what consequences? The deeper problem raised is not just that Ireland and the border are the great spoke in the Brexit wheel. It is that there is another kind of border, a line separating one way of thinking about the trajectory of history from another, very different one.
In Ireland, we have been trying to awake from the epic into the ordinary, from the gloriously simple into the fluidly complex, from the once-and-for-all moment of national destiny into the openness and contingency of actual existence, with all its uncertainties and contradictions. In the England of Brexit, on the other hand, this process is working in reverse. The imagined movement has been from the ordinary into the epic, from the complex to the gloriously simple, from the openness and contingency of real life into a once-and-for all moment of destiny: 23rd June 2016 as Independence Day, a day from which a new history begins, a day you can never turn back from.
This is a thing that emerging nationalisms do. Since recent history is always full of compromises, complexities and contradictions, they seek out a past that is not history but myth. Irish nationalism did this for well over a century: for English nationalism’s June 2016, there is Irish nationalism’s Easter 1916. But Irish nationalism was eventually forced by suffering to return from the land of myth to those compromises, complexities and contradictions. The question for England is: how much suffering do you want to endure before you make the same journey from pursuing epic dreams to making peace with complex realities?
The promise of Brexit is, to borrow from TS Eliot, that: “History is now and England.” But this promise turns out to be false. The moment of the referendum does not have a clear meaning—it is lost in contention and confusion. Neither does “England.” It emerges as a divided thing, bitterly split, not just between Leavers and Remainers but between the England of the big multicultural cities on the one side and the England of the villages and towns on the other. Perhaps this is always so with national revolutions—they are premised on the sacred unity of “the people” but have a habit (as in Ireland) of morphing into civil wars.
Brexit must thus find a way to exit its own (messy) historical condition, into mythological time. This escape from history can be achieved by three mental manoeuvres.
The first of them is Year Zero. Brexit—with the exception of the murder of Jo Cox—is a bloodless revolution. In this it could claim to be both characteristic of English and British history. It could, in principle, be imagined as the fourth in a series: the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the replacement of the Stuarts by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (catastrophically violent in Ireland but largely peaceful in England) and the creation of the Welfare State after 1945. These first three each had different distinctive characters—respectively a restoration of a previous regime and polity, the replacement of a governing elite, and a redistribution from elites to the masses.
So which of these does Brexit most resemble? All of them and none of them. It wants to be a restoration—of Britain as a great power, of England as it used to be. But neither of these things is possible. It is a kind of elite transfer of power, but on a negligible level. The replacement of James II by William of Orange was more than a swapping of kings—it ended the threat of a Catholic monarchy and guaranteed that Protestantism would underpin Britishness for centuries. David Cameron being replaced by his own home secretary (who, like him, had voted Remain) doesn’t have those epic reverberations. Brexit has rhetorically hinted at a re-commitment to the welfare state—with the infamous claim that £350m a week would be taken from Brussels and given to the NHS, and then May’s inaugural “burning injustices” speech on the steps of Downing Street. But the £350m was a lie, and there was no chance that May was going to be the new Attlee.
So the historical models of peaceful transformation didn’t work. The only recourse was to a great as if: to behave as if the bloodless revolution had in fact been bloody. This meant, in a delicious irony, imagining this English revolution as if it were the French revolution. A month before the referendum, Nigel Farage told the BBC that “it’s legitimate to say that if people feel they have lost control completely—and we have lost control… then violence is the next step.” But the EU is not the ancien regime, so the next step in the overthrow of its imaginary oppression had to be imaginaryviolence. It is another costume drama, in which the May government pretended to be the Committee of Public Safety, guardians of the people’s will against traitors and fifth columnists.
To take power in place of the actual leader of the revolution—Boris Johnson—May had to embrace a literal but entirely phoney populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit must be reimagined as “the people.” This is not English conservatism—it is pure Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the people express the General Will freely in a majority vote, but after that dissent is treason. Within a few months of the vote on a radio phone-in, Farage was cheerfully trashing the only real principle of the British constitution, arguing “Sovereignty does not lie with parliament, sovereignty lies with the people.” The General Will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned.
Hence, May’s allies (or should that be masters?) in the Expressand (at least until Paul Dacre stepped down from the editor’s chair) the Daily Mail used the language of the French revolutionary terror—recalcitrant parliamentarians were heretics, judges who ruled on the procedure by which Brexit could be effected were “Enemies of the People.” The accompanying article to that infamous headline quoted Farage’s dark warning that “I now fear that every attempt will be made to block or delay the triggering of Article 50. If this is so, they have no idea of the public anger they will provoke.” Given his earlier warnings of violence, the meaning was clear. As Farage boasted to a cheering audience at Southampton’s Concorde Club, he would personally “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines.” Aux armes, citoyens! With a pint of IPA in one hand and an Armalite in the other.
The next logical step, voiced by Frederick Forsyth, was to call for loyalty tests for public servants: “Those pro-EU fanatics now seeking to frustrate the clear public will are almost entirely on the public payroll.” They “should be the subject of a huge clear-out… To know that every penny entering your bank account comes from the British taxpayer is a privilege. It is to be repaid with loyalty…” He later went the whole hog and labelled any public servants with any scepticism about Brexit a “traitorous fifth column.” When Thomas Mair, the far-right fanatic who murdered Cox during the referendum campaign told his trial that his name was “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain,” he was at the extreme end of a spectrum that stretched into respectable mainstream opinion. Much of the rhetoric of Brexit springs from a long reactionary history of imagining an invaded Britain.
May’s decision to call a general election in 2017—when she had a working majority in parliament—was not pure vanity. It was the inevitable result of the rhetoric she had adopted when in her first flush as leader she told her party conference that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” evoking the far-right trope of “rootless cosmopolitans” who did not deserve citizenship. A working majority is not enough when such ideas are in the air—in a revolutionary war, the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader: one people, one parliament, one ring to rule them all. The election was to ensure that the opposition would be reduced to a token smattering of old socialist cranks and self-evidently traitorous Scots—“Crush the Saboteurs” screamed the Mail’s front page when the surprise poll was announced. Britain would become in effect a one-party Tory state. An overawed Europe would bow before this display of British staunchness and concede a Brexit deal in which cake supplies would be infinitely renewed.
May was woefully miscast as the Madame Defarge of the Brexit revolution, the embodiment of the popular will sending saboteurs to the guillotine. But her wavering embodied deeper contradictions. The idea of a single British people united by the Brexit vote is ludicrous. Not only do Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London have large anti-Brexit majorities, but many of those who did vote for Brexit were deeply unhappy about the social effects of the Conservative austerity policies. So it didn’t work. The Committee of Public Safety phase of the Brexit revolution finished less than a year after the referendum, ending when the Tories squandered their majority on 8th June 2017. The attempt to evoke “the people” as a single entity—and to mobilise it against traitors—had simply failed.
Once the French revolutionary fantasies were done with, the next escape hatch from history was heroic failure. The grand cock-up is not new, and in English historical memory it is not shameful. Most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups. Retreats or disasters have loomed large in England’s story since at least the 19th century: John Moore’s evacuation of Corunna in the Peninsular Wars, the Charge of the Light Brigade, “Scott of the Antarctic,” the “last stand” against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk.
The cult of heroic failure was, in many ways, the ultimate colonial appropriation. Britain took to itself, not just the resources of the conquered people, but their suffering and endurance. In its Brexit iteration, England audaciously dreams itself into the colony status it once so triumphantly imposed on others. In reality, Britain went from being an imperial power to being a reasonably ordinary but still privileged western European country. But in the apparition conjured by Brexit, the history of the last 45 years of EU membership is not so much to be awoken from as to be transformed into a masochistic fantasy of an oppression that must be thrown off. Then the moment of greatest triumph—the defeat of the Nazis—is re-imagined as the moment of greatest humiliation: defeat by a resurgent Germany that has achieved its Reich by stealth rather than by force.
Thrill yourself with these dark imaginings, and you might end up spying salvation in the insights they offer: the EU is a front for a German cabal and this will save Brexit. The whole plan for Brexit depended on the idea of who really runs the EU: German car manufacturers. David Davis said during the referendum that “the first calling point of the UK’s negotiator in the time immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin to strike the deal. Absolute access for German cars and industrial goods in exchange for a sensible deal on everything else.” A year after the referendum and, as Brexit Secretary, Davis was leading the negotiations. Andrew Marr put it to him: “You basically argued that the German car industry, and German industry generally, would put pressure on the German chancellor who would put pressure on the EU to ensure that we got a good deal. Is that still your view?” “Oh,” replied Davis, “that’s where it will end up, yeah.”
As it became plain we wouldn’t end up there, Davis and Johnson simply walked away from the field, huffing at May’s Chequers plan that proposed accepting a measure of EU influence was the price for certain trading privileges. In November came further outrage at the failure of the EU to accept even that plan wholesale, and then more resignations. Between the two waves of walk-outs, the Brexiteer MEP Daniel Hannan had written on Twitter: “No British government could go further to accommodate the EU. If Brussels holds out for more, dictating terms as if to a defeated enemy [my italics], a breakdown is inevitable.”
This idea Hannan aired of a defeated Britain having to rise again in a national rebirth dovetails with the third and strangest mental manouevre to escape history: the idea of Britain as Ireland.
Hannan directly compared the Chequers proposals to the approach of the pro-Treaty side in the early years of Irish independence: “When the Irish Free State left the UK, in 1921, there were all sorts of conditions about Treaty ports and oaths of supremacy and residual fiscal payments. And what very quickly became apparent was not just that those things were unenforceable once the split had been realised; it was that everyone in Britain kind of lost interest in enforcing them. And although there were some difficulties along the way in the 1920s, it turned out to have been better to have grabbed what looked like an imperfect independence and then build on it rather than risking the entire process.”
In this vertiginous analogy, interwar Britain is today’s EU and Ireland is, um, Britain now. When the room stops spinning, a breathtaking shift in self-image comes into focus. The British are now the people against whom they themselves once unleashed Oliver Cromwell and the Black and Tans, the gallant natives of a conquered territory rising up against their imperial overlords.
For those of us who are Irish it is tempting to take this as a compliment, but it has one flaw. Britain was not colonised by the EU. By no stretch of the imagination—and the elasticity of the Brexit imagination is astonishing—can the relationship between Brussels and London be credibly likened to that between London and Dublin before the Free State, let alone that between London and colonial Delhi or Nairobi. Forty-five years of modern history in which the UK has been deeply—and profitably—intertwined with the EU are here being evaded.
So too, and at the same time, is the actual living history of that part of the UK known as Northern Ireland. The latest “Future of England” survey reveals that a breathtaking 83 per cent of Leave voters agree that “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for a Brexit that allows them to “take back control.” This is surely not mere cruelty. It is a determination to escape the history of the Irish border as a creation of the British parliament, of the tolerance by that parliament of structural discrimination against Northern Irish Catholics, of the awfulness of the Troubles, and—most strangely—of a great modern British diplomatic success: the peace process.
Forget the endless bickering over the technicalities of the “Irish backstop.” These are the real briars on which Brexit’s coat is snagged. For here we come to another—very different—way of escaping the nightmare of history. The one that has been unfolding in Ireland over the last 25 years. History on our island really did seem nightmarish—we seemed to be stuck with incompatible notions of national identity, and indeed the sour dregs of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. And yet in 2011, for the first time in a century, it was possible for the British monarch and head of state to visit Britain’s closest neighbor, and there were no more than 200 people on Dublin’s streets to protest. The nightmare did appear to be over: Anglo-Irish relations were the best they had ever been, which is to say they were utterly normal. They had ceased to be epic and had become ordinary.
The Irish radically revised their nationalism. Big things changed. The power of a Catholic church, tainted by child sex abuse allegations, collapsed in the 1990s. The Irish economy became a poster child for globalisation. And the search for peace in Northern Ireland forced a rethinking of ideas about identity, sovereignty and nationality—the questions that had tormented Ireland for centuries, and fuelled the stubborn Troubles that had burned in the North since 1968.
Resolving that seemingly-interminable conflict could not be done without being radical. Things that nation states do not like—ambiguity, contingency, multiplicity—would have to be lived with, even embraced. Irish people, for the most part, have come to terms with this necessity. The English, as the Brexit referendum suggested, have not. This is why the Irish border has such profound implications for Brexit—it is a physical token of a mental frontier that divides, not just territories, but ideas about national identity.
Strange as it may be to recall, the same Conservative Party which is now the driving force behind Brexit, was crucial to the conceptual revolution that led to the Belfast Agreement. Traditionally, the Conservative and Unionist Party had held to Thatcher’s 1981 line: “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—as much as my constituency is.” But Conservatives would soon enough articulate a very different position. It was (and is) inconceivable that any British government would state that Thatcher’s seat of Finchley was free to go its own way and join, say, France. In 1990, however, the Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, announced, in a carefully crafted phrase, that “The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”
This phrase, since embedded in international law through the Belfast Agreement, is remarkable: sovereign governments do not ordinarily declare themselves neutral on the question of whether a part of their own state should ultimately cease to be so. Even more remarkable, however, was the parallel shift in the Irish position. Since Ireland became independent in 1922, Dublin had always looked on Northern Ireland as a part of its national territory unjustly and temporarily amputated by partition. Now Ireland too withdrew its territorial claim—in 1998 its people voted overwhelmingly to drop it from their constitution and replace it with a stated desire “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.” Those plurals resonate: Irish nationalism rests itself now on notions of shared space and of multiple identities.
Within this shared space, national identity is to be understood in a radically new way. The Belfast Agreement recognises “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” It accepts, in other words, that national identity (and the citizenship that flows from it) is a matter of choice. Even more profoundly, it accepts that this choice is not binary. Those lovely little words “or both” stand as a rebuke to all absolutist nationalisms. Identities are fluid, contingent and multiple. This is how you awake from the nightmare of history—into an embrace of the complex and fluid identities that real people have.
When these ideas were framed and entrenched by referendums on both sides of the border, there was an assumption that there would always be a third and shared European identity. In the preamble to the agreement, the British and Irish governments evoked “the close co-operation… as partners in the European Union.” The two countries joined the then-EEC in 1973, and particularly after the creation of the single market in 1993, with the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, the Irish border had itself become much less of an irritant. Together with the demilitarisation which the peace process allowed, it created the position where—today—travellers are generally unaware as they cross it.
When all of this was being done, nobody was thinking about the emergence of another force: English nationalism. There were two nationalisms—Irish and “British”—and they had been reconciled in a creative and civilised way. But the UK contained (in every sense) other national identities: Scottish, Welsh and English. In Scotland, especially, a sense of difference was evident in the devolved parliament and growing demands for independence. But few foresaw that the decisive nationalist revolution would instead occur in England. Brexit is unmistakably a nationalist revolt, albeit one that is contradictory, incoherent and not fully articulated. It is England’s insurrection against the very ideas that animated the Belfast Agreement: the belief that contemporary nationality must be fluid, open and many-layered. It is so unsure of itself that it escapes from a nightmare into a strange and woozy dreamtime.
A shout in the street
In Ulysses, Deasy tries to insist, as utopians do, that: “All history moves towards one great goal,” which for him is also “the manifestation of God.” In response, “Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:—That is God. Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!— What? Mr Deasy asked.—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.”
History doesn’t move towards a single goal but it’s not a shout in the street either. It is not a moment of national destiny and it is not a sacred expression of the people’s will. It is an endless search for ways in which people in all the diversity of their traditions can share space. Perhaps, in that light, the Irish border might be thought of not as a problem to be overcome for Brexit, but as a frontier over which we might pass from a mythological history into an acceptance of the complex here-and-now that is the only place and moment from which we can move forward. Perhaps, to adapt that great Anglo-Irish thinker Johnny Rotten, Ireland might be the place in which there is a future in England’s dreaming. – The Prospect.