The Strange Passions of Brexit

What has got into the English? Lesley Riddoch asks why have they vented their spleen on Europe instead of Westminster.

Fintan O’Toole in conversation with Anthony Barnett, chaired by Lesley Riddoch.

An Irishman, an Englishman and a Scotswoman. 

Perhaps the single most impactful session of the day, certainly from the Northern Umbrella perspective, but also in terms of audience engagement, was the question of what has got into the English.  The immediate political practicalities of stopping Brexit were swapped for an overdue delve into the national soul.

Both Fintan O’Toole and Anthony Barnett have written brilliant and insightful books on this: O’Toole Heroic Failure: Brexit and the politics of pain and Barnett The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump.  Both locate Brexit in the damaged national psychology of the English.  After the session, copies of both flew off the bookstall.

Chair Lesley Riddoch is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the remarkable political and intellectual renaissance that swept Scotland during the independence referendum of 2014.  Reproducing the thinking in her book Blossom: what Scotland needs to flourish in a way appropriate for the North of England, is essentially Northern Umbrella’s mission.

Fintan O’Toole is every inch the Dublin literary figure, a worthy successor to a long line of such intellectuals.  Lyrical, urbane, he might have swallowed the Blarney stone, not just kissed it.  But his message for the English is brutal, as getting the hard truth from an old friend can be.

Basically, he has perfectly diagnosed the psychology behind the support for Brexit.  In his book, arrow after arrow hits bullseye, and an exposed nerve.  His central thesis is that Brexit is essentially the result of the English overindulging in self-pity, taking a perverse pleasure in imagining themselves oppressed.  The babyboomer generation have taken a bad turn in response to their guilt at their own failure to maintain and develop the welfare state established after the war by their own parents’ heroic generation.

Engaging a keen Brexiter in argument cannot the same again after grasping O’Toole’s ideas, as was experienced by Northern Umbrella immediately after the conference when chatting to a Brexiteer couple in the Marquis of Granby pub.

Anthony Barnett is a gentleman and a scholar, who separately alighted on the same essential insight.  The English must drop their delusions of grandeur before they can move forward to the real destiny, to take their place amongst equals as one of the nations of Europe.

Their nerves jangled, the audience woke up and responded well to Riddoch’s keen appetite to pin down new insight in the best Q&A session of the day.  Can the English move forward without having to live through a painful and humiliating Brexit disaster?  Must every generation crucify its own Christ? answered Fintan O’Toole, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

From Northern Umbrella blog.

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