The British right wing press are crowing. The COVID vaccine rollout, says the Express, is Brexit’s “finest hour”, a fete which even Angela Merkel is envious, apparently. The Mail quotes the doyen of Brexit, Nigel Farage, who says Britain’s decision to unshackle from the European Medicines Agency has allowed it to launch its “brilliantly successful vaccine program.” And the Telegraph has warned Europe to “stop sulking” at Brexit.
It is true Britain is vaccinating a lot faster than Europe, some 21 million Britons have received the first jab as at March 7. It success is thanks to its early approvals of the Pfizer and AstroZeneca vaccines and a January decision to prioritise the first dose. However the British Medical Association has criticised that latter decision as “unreasonable and totally unfair” and said it could cause “huge logistical problems” for general practices and vaccination centres, something Fleet St has been less keen to publicise. And it is no surprise that Britain and Israel lead the vaccine charge with both prime ministers using vaccine nationalism (and a big chequebook) to bolster their political credentials after completely botching the pandemic response pre-vaccine.
The vaccine has become yet another front in the war caused by Brexit. Leavers claim Britain’s speedy approval was proof of the case for Leave, Remainers pointed out the drug was made in part by a German company and will be produced in Belgium. It is a war forensically analysed by Irish writer Fintan O’Toole in his book Heroic Failure (2019). Heroic Failure was written before COVID took over our lives but its lessons will outlive the pandemic. O’Toole writes as a friend of Britain but one who notes the country’s open and tolerant reputation has taken a battering since the Brexit referendum result in 2016.
Brexit, he says, is a largely English phenomenon built on a sense of imaginary oppression and the pleasures of self-pity. O’Toole says self-pity is a form of self-regard as if they deserve to be pitied. It promotes a feeling of implied superiority. Brexit’s internal incoherence is that it wants to be two things simultaneously, a sort of mercantilist Empire 2.0 connecting the old white colonies, while it is also an insurgency revolting against intolerable oppression.
O’Toole looks back to the period after the Second World War when England developed a “national grudge”. Despite being on the winning side in both major wars, it was bankrupt, Empire-less and suffering stagnation while the economies of defeated enemies were surging. Britain’s own arrogance played a role. It was invited to the 1955 Treaty of Rome discussions and sent its under-secretary of trade who found the whole discussion distasteful. “You speak of agriculture which we don’t like, of power over customs which we take exception to, and institutions which frighten us,” he told the Europeans. Even when finally accepted into Europe, England oscillated between feelings of happy supremacy and a web of inferiority. The Daily Mail’s 1973 announcement of the EEC decision was that of Europe lucky to have them. “To know the British will be Europe’s privilege,” it wrote.
It was a doubtful privilege but it showed the marked reluctance of many in England who felt membership was marginally less worse than staying out. Joining was framed as a sovereign remedy for economic ills but there was a collective loss of will from “Little Englander” intellectuals amid airy haughtiness and dejected resignation. The allure of Brexit was of ending the uncertainty. But O’Toole said, all it did was to fuse the two emotions into self-pity.
England could only imagine two fates: the coloniser and the colonised. If it was no longer the one, it had to be the other. And almost from the beginning, the Common Market was a scapegoat for everything from inadequacies in the health service to the rise of xenophobia. There was always Germany. O’Toole said the English missed the chance to finally put the war behind them with the reunification of Germany in 1990 as the finally vindication of their repudiation of Nazism. Germany’s triumph should have been Britain’s triumph as well. But there were no handshakes at the Brandenburg Gate because conservatives could not transcend their mental map of Britain imprisoned in Europe. That year trade secretary Nicholas Ridley called the EMS a “German racket” and though he had to resign for it, the idea germinated. In 2018 UKIP MEP Roger Helmer complained he was not born a European citizen and his father’s generation fought to ensure they would not be German citizens. “I am determined I shall not die as a European citizen,” Helmer said. The EU remained in the imagination as an insidious form of Nazism.
The role of the media was crucial. When Germany banned British beef (also in 1990) due to BSE, the media kept up its idea of a German “mad cow” war for 10 years, twice as long as the actual war, with the Mail still urging British government retaliation in 1999. They posted a photo of fake Nazis from ‘Allo ‘Allo along with a statement why it was “a good week to be beastly with the Germans” while audaciously claiming it was Germans who were “keeping the feud alive”. In 2016 the Mail ignored its own history of appeasement to slam David Cameron’s visit to Brussels ahead of the Brexit vote as “Who will speak for England?” drawing parallels again between the EU and Nazi Germany. It was the British media who were keeping the feud alive and fighting the war again though evidence of the “invasion” was hard to find beyond British beef missing from German shops.
The book title comes from Stephanie Barczewski’s book Heroic Failure and the British with British heroes drawn from failures such as Scott of the Antarctic, Dunkirk, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Franklin expedition, Gordon of Khartoum and the Somme. Heroic failure is transference, re-imagining British conquest of the world as an epic of suffering not for the victims but for the victors. But its currency is deeply debased in the Brexit debate, no longer disguising colonialism but wallowing in self-pity for a “plucky little nation annexed by a European superstate”. Its 2012 manifesto “Britannia Unchained” evoked slavery though it was black man Beau Isagba who represented the worst of what some elements of Britain have become” for punching a Malaysian student in the 2011 London Riots. Emotionally Brexit was fed by anxiety and the campaign slogan was “Take Back Control”. It put together two fears – Britain’s loss of status since 1945 and the erosion of white privilege – to provide re-assurance to righteous anger.
The Irishman O’Toole notes the complete absence of Ireland from the 2016 Brexit debate. The only concession at the time to what has proved an intractable problem of dealing with the Irish border was Nigel Lawson’s arrogant suggestion that Ireland would be welcomed back into an independent UK. But Brexit is the result of fissures in the existing kingdom. Englishness had been sublimated into Britishness since the 17th century but Scottish and Welsh devolution has forced attention again on what it means to be English. Previously the domain of skinheads, football hooligans and drunken squaddies, English nationalism reared up in 2016 as a new force. Opinion polls noted how the population was increasing calling itself English not British – especially outside London (mirrored by the Brexit result). But while the English want an English parliament, the Brexit victors took the opposite track claiming it as a win for the union.
That union looks increasingly broken. The SNP wants to put “Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands“. The Unionists are saying the Northern Irish Protocol (which places the EU border back in the Irish Sea) is “doing untold damage“. And in Wales even the pro-Brexit fishers are unhappy with the continued French access to fishing rights untl 2026. The Mail and co may delight in an apparently speedy vaccine rollout. But otherwise Brexit is careering out of control with matters only like to get worse with full customs checks due to begin on July 1.
For many who voted leave, the intention was to blow the doors off and give the Establishment a good kicking, which as O’Toole said was richly deserved. But instead of being a controlled explosion of anger it blew up the whole vehicle of state. There was too much gelignite and misplaced energy in it. Brexit was a crisis of belonging. “The self-pity at its heart,” O’Toole wrote, “will sour into a toxic sludge of imagined treachery that will be hard to drain from the groundwater of British politics.”