An award-winning British journalist offers a straightforward view of the rise of English nationalism since World War II. A sympathetic yet unsparing observer, O’Toole asks: How did a great nation bring itself to the point of such willful self-harm?
... slyly brilliant ... searching and elegantly argued. O’Toole isn’t unsympathetic to those who voted in favor of Brexit, but makes abundantly clear that he believes they were suckered into a raw deal ... His tone is charmingly wry but never gleeful. He reserves his most withering indictments for elite politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson — the 'Brexit ultras' who successfully deployed the language of autonomy and wounded pride to cast Brexit 'simultaneously as a reconstitution of Empire and as an anti-imperial national liberation movement' ... This toggling between grandiosity and self-pity is a neat trick, and O’Toole says the absurd rhetoric has been so successful because England has never grappled properly with its experience of winning a world war while also losing an empire.
The English sense of humour, once allegedly admired all over the world, has been turned back against us and in recent years, instead of making the joke, we find that we are its butt ... And now, to add final insult to bitter injury, we have to endure Fintan O’Toole forensically exploring the psychopathology of Brexit in this wounding book-length essay, in which he excludes the Scottish and the Welsh from discussion almost entirely on the grounds that 'Brexit is essentially an English phenomenon' ... O’Toole of course is well known (even in England) as both a political and a cultural commentator, and what gives this book its distinction is the fact that, as a critic of drama and literature, he is as adept at analysing character (as revealed by language) as he is at marshalling statistics ... Besides our campy, irresponsible love of eccentricity - and our bathetic mythologizing of the second World War – the English have also been laid low, in O’Toole’s analysis, by our peculiar sexual pathologies ... it’s the contemporary English imagination which is the real subject of this book. O’Toole uncovers and dissects it with the deliberate, affectless skill of a virtuoso surgeon. The result, for me, is a wildly entertaining but uncomfortable read. In short, he has nailed us. He has nailed us to the floor with a nine-inch nail. It’s certainly not easy bein’ English these days, and O’Toole, with this pitilessly brilliant book, has just made it at least fifty shades harder.
There are minor flaws in this irresistible firecracker of a book. It was Madame Defarge, not Madame Lafarge, who sat by the guillotine, and Churchill, not Lloyd George, who decided to send the Black and Tans into Ireland. Nor was Enoch Powell opposed to the welfare state ... But O’Toole’s most luckless misstep has been his premature exultation in the failure of Boris Johnson to become prime minister. He wrote in the British edition of the book, published in November last year and appearing again in this American edition, that Johnson 'could not actually make himself leader of a country that had just effectively voted for him,' since he came from 'a decadent and dilettante political elite.' Well, as it turned out, in the end he could. The joke had gone so far that it overwhelmed all the sobersides who couldn’t see the joke. Marx was right about that at least: When history repeats itself, tragedy pops up again as farce.