“May all your teeth fall out except the one that gives you pain”
Fintan O’Toole has written a great book about Brexit. Except that it’s really a collective psychoanalysis of the English, and only about Brexit in that it feeds into the analysis and emerges as a consequence of it.
So it makes you understand why membership of the European Union was and is offensive to many people down south, and why the suppression of any responsible engagement with Englishness (outwith football) has caused a pain that has made Brexit so popular:
[Brexit] is driven by a force – English nationalism – that its leaders still refuse to articulate. It draws on English disengagement from the Union, but wraps itself in a brashly reasserted Unionism. This leaves England with a sore tooth problem. An unsettled and anxious sense of nationality is like having a sore tooth. The tooth is a very small part of the body and a sense of national identity is actually a very small part of most people’s day-to-day lives. But a person with a toothache finds it hard to think about anything else. There is a pain that will not stop until it is somehow assuaged. […] [But Brexit] is radically invasive surgery – not dentistry. It fulfils the old Yiddish curse: may all your teeth fall out except the one that gives you pain. It leaves the sore tooth where it was. All it does is distract from the pain, much in the way that hitting your foot with a hammer will make you forget the ache in your tooth. Precisely because Brexit is fundamentally an act of displacement, nothing is surer than that the pain will return.
It’s such a good book that it’s hard to summarise it, or to pick out any particular highlights. From his treatment of English self-pity and upper-class masochism over the his description of their obsession with World War II to his analysis of the way the European Union was made a scapegoat, it’s all brilliant.
O’Toole’s conclusion is that the politicians need to engage constructively with English nationalism, and also fix the welfare state. It’s hard to disagree with this, but at the same time it’s clearly not what’s happening. The Westminster politicians are so busy with shooting themselves in the foot that they’ve completely forgotten about the sore tooth. Unfortunately, the inevitable conclusion is that British politics will be in a bad place for many years to come.
Although he doesn’t say it, I believe the inevitable conclusion is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should just leave as soon as possible and allow the English to sort out their existential crisis.