Wednesday, 31 October 2018

“It's like having had some sort of terrible disease, and having your neighbour injecting themselves with the virus”: Interview with Fintan O’Toole

Anya Pearson

In your theory of the mythology of Brexit, you suggest that “Britain has to imagine the greatest colonial power in modern history as if it was a colony”, with the EU as a great oppressor. Do you find this particularly galling given the fact that Ireland, as the first English colony, has found a new lease of life with a European identity and trade deals?

Yes, it’s a very strange psychological turn for history to take. It doesn't have any historical parallels. A political culture has imagined itself into being the victim of oppression.

Objectively you can despise the EU for all sorts out reasons, but it's not the Nazis. And yet the psychology of Brexit requires it to be so. You have to get yourself into a position whereby in order to be liberated, which is the basic story of Brexit, you have to have had a tyrannical power.

I don’t want to play up the Irish thing, but I don’t think any citizen of a society that has been colonised would ever want to go there. It's bad enough being colonised and trying to get over it without having to imagine yourself into all of the psychosis of colonisation. It's taken us a long time to get over it. It's like having had some sort of terrible disease, and having your neighbour injecting themselves with the virus.

Could you say a bit more about Ireland's relationship with the EU?

It's very interesting. When Ireland joined the EU in 1973 we had a referendum on entry. Almost nobody is left who is not in favour of being a EU member. And with good reason: membership of the EU validated Irish independence.

Now the Scots would rather be in Ireland's position. Ireland has diversified its economy, modernised its society, and it has a seat at the European table. In retrospect, it’s better to be an independent country.

You couldn't overstate the extent to which Ireland hopes to get over the postcolonial legacy by being an equal member of the European Union alongside Britain. Of course, this is also part of what made the peace process in Northern Ireland possible; it became possible for Irish and British governments to work together as equals.

So the Irish are on the opposite side of the fence to the Brexiteers; defining national identity within membership of the European Union.

Yes, and I'm not suggesting it's because we're wiser. It's just that we never thought we were the centre of the world. This is why you'll find 80-85 per cent support for the European Union in the Republic of Ireland.

I’m interested in hearing more about your distinction between simple myth and complex ordinariness, and its implication for political strategies. Towards the end of your talk, you castigated remainers for failing to develop their myth – a positive story of engagement with Europe. Arguably, their failure was to focus on complex ordinariness, particularly the economic. So my question is: is politics a matter of who presents the best myth; or, to put it another way, is there a place in politics for honest complex ordinariness?

Great question. Where we’re stuck, I suppose, is the fact that progressive, civilised aspects of contemporary life lie in the unheroic, the un-epic. Most of us are very good at getting on with the business of having very complex identities at all sorts of levels – in terms of our sexuality, our place in the world, our ethnicity, politics and national identity.

In some ways you could say our social brains have developed this capacity to a remarkable degree. But the problem is that a little bit of our brains is still drawn to the mythological. The epic is a nice place to go to escape something.

The challenge is: how can we tell a story about the complexity of the ordinary that actually has that sense of the epic? One example we have is the Belfast peace agreements. It is epic. It is historic. Hundreds of years of history went into its making. But at the same time, it also says it's okay not to have a single heroic narrative. Maybe the heroic thing we’re looking for is just an acceptance of ambiguity and complexity that we can live with.

I'll jump in with a related question. You’re a strong advocate for postcolonial concepts such as hybridity and fluidity, embracing the ambiguity and complexity of multiple identities that will not resolve but are dependent on contexts. But you do feel any identities are more immutable, such as socioeconomic class?

That's a good question. There's no question that we're back with a horrendous divide in society, where the division between the interests of the many versus the interests of the few is starkly evident. How have progressives not been able to get real political purchase on that evident divide?

Brexit, certainly in its own confused way, articulated the idea that national independence is something that can unite victims of globalisation in Sunderland with proponents of extreme globalisation at the heart of the Brexit project; the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world.

The thing we know from history is that these nationalist appeals are bloody powerful. But you have to look at where fault lines are and attempt to come up with answers to those anxieties that are more progressive. We need an umbrella under which we can shelter ourselves; that's perfectly human and rational. But the umbrella could also be the welfare state, social security, a national project.

I wonder if English nationalism has really become as important as you seem to imply. There are several reasons for supposing that it isn’t. None of the major parties has articulated any form of English nationalism in its rhetoric or platform; the occasional calls for an English parliament in recent years have been almost universally ignored; there has been no major change in recent years in surveys seeking to measure the extent of English versus British identity; the strongest correlate of populist attitudes across Europe is agreement with the statement: “There are so many foreigners around here it doesn’t feel like home any more”. Could it be the case that you are mistaking (negative) English fears about immigration for a heightened (positive) sense of English nationalism?

I think all of these things are interrelated. I'm not suggesting that English nationalism descended in the abstract from the real nitty gritty of peoples' lives: what's happening in their towns, streets and work places matters a lot. Nationalism is always available and always there. The question is why people grab onto it at certain points.

I'm also not suggesting that English nationalism is a coherent identity. There's no question that the survey data shows from the twentieth century a huge shift towards a much more English identity in England and a withdrawal of trust in the idea that Westminster and Whitehall are there to serve English interests. No political party is articulating English nationalism. There is very clearly a feeling which is emerging, but it is not being given ways in which it can articulate itself and argue itself out. UKIP contains at its core English nationalism, but it doesn’t call itself that.

Englishness folded itself into Britishness and folded itself into the empire. But now it has to disentangle itself. It’s a sort of molten wax which could be shaped in all sorts of different ways. Brexit doesn’t actually address English nationalism. Essentially what nationalism usually ends up doing is it starts by defining itself against what it is not. It's easy if you're a colonial society, but if you're a colonial power, you end up turning on immigrants once Europe is gone.

Related to the idea that Britishness and Empire are inextricably linked, in his book After Empire (2004), Paul Gilroy reminds us that “incomers [to Britain] may be unwanted and feared precisely because they are unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past”. Could you comment on this?

It's striking, thinking about that book, that funnily enough there is a kind of relationship between anti-immigrant sentiment and the post imperial malaise.

'Postcolonial melancholia' is the term that Gilroy uses, which is beautiful, as well as accurate.

It's not actually about "Oh, the European Union is letting in all these immigrants". Because of course, the primary source of immigration was from colonies. But amongst the self-pitying narratives that took hold from the 1970s onwards the idea is that the EU is basically 'the Nazis by stealth' and therefore there's a kind of invasion fantasy which dovetails perfectly then with the idea that immigrants are themselves invaders. Not only did we lose the empire, but they won, they came to invade us, to take over our country.

Actually, I think that Powell is a much bigger figure in the history of Brexit than is acknowledged. Powell is the one who makes this connection quite explicitly. It's all a process of loss of self, loss of identity, loss of control. This is the genius of the phrase "take back control".

You warn of the historical erasure of the violence suffered in Northern Ireland before the Belfast Agreement, quoting the latest Future of England survey where 83 per cent of leave voters agree with ‘the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland is a price worth paying to take back control’. What message do you have for those respondents?

I don't think these people are evil or cruel. I try to be as calm about this as possible. But I do think that there is a shocking irresponsibility.

Northern Ireland is not an Irish problem. The border was created by an act of British parliament. They have been the governing power for the entire existence of Northern Ireland. So psychologically, you get yourself into this state whereby you think: "This is nothing to do with us, and if the Irish want to start killing each other again, well, that's their business". You need to think through the logic of that. It suggests that you really don't care about this union at all; the relationships of these islands which have been very carefully put back together again.

There is a responsibility to at least think about what you’re doing. And then if this is the way you want to go, well, then let's try to limit the damage in a way that doesn’t involve more people having to die for it.

You said that history is not a moment of national destiny, but an endless search for ways diverse peoples can share space. You say that the EU is some attempt to achieve this. But does deciding how space is shared – whether international, national or at local level – always need to be so centralised and top down?

The answer is no, it doesn’t need to be so centralised and top down. Let's be absolutely clear that the EU is a necessary project, but not sufficient in its current form. We have not successfully made the democratic connections with citizens and member states. The EU remains the best shot we have at figuring out a way to share space. However, you can't ultimately share space in conditions of gross inequality. You don’t share a space by living in a super-rich gated community when others are living in a slum.

The degree to which the EU is and was a social project, I think, is what's been lost. The EU was founded on a certain kind of terror. We know from the 1930s, from the second world war, the holocaust and Stalinism, that if you allow both inequality and insecurity to take hold, then liberal democracy cannot survive. We’re at that point; this is the challenge for the EU.

The EU would love to see the great English traditions of egalitarianism, of radicalism, of social progress, feeding back into the EU project. Maybe in some kind of dream world they will again – the sooner the better.

Anya Pearson is social media and events editor of the Political Quarterly, and co-editor of the Political Quarterly blog. 

Listen to Fintan O'Toole's lecture 'The Nightmare of History: Brexit, Ireland and the English Revolution' here:

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