Fintan O’Toole: Brexit resurrects the English cult of heroic failure

Move to leave the EU feeds into the British taste for celebrating disasters as triumphs

Listening to Theresa May's big Brexit speech last week, I remembered that the English have a taste for heroic failure. Their favourite poem, Rudyard Kipling's If, says that triumph and disaster are the same thing. It also enjoins the English to "lose, and start again at your beginnings/And never breathe a word about your loss."

Losing everything – even life itself – and not whining about it is the English ideal of heroism. And I do wonder if this inherited ideal is not playing itself out in Brexit.

While everyone else is screaming “Stop! You’re headed for disaster,” the stiff lips part just enough to say, “Ah, but we will treat it as a triumph and never breathe a word about our loss.”

Most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups. In her very entertaining and insightful book, Heroic Failure and the British, the historian Stephanie Barczewski says the exploits that have loomed largest in English consciousness since the 19th century are retreats or disasters: the Charge of the Light Brigade, the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, "Scott of the Antarctic", the "last stand" against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk.


This culture of heroic failure she defines as “a conscious sense of celebration of the striving for an object that was not attained”.

When everything falls apart

It requires, one might add, an ability not to feel sorry for oneself when everything falls apart.

The essence of English heroic failure is Capt Scott reflecting on his fast-approaching death at the Antarctic: “We took risks, we knew we took them. Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”

I bet Boris Johnson has these lines in his back pocket for use when the messianic hopes of Brexit go down in flames.

Now, it must be admitted that there is something lovable in this English capacity to embrace disaster. It is, for one thing, highly creative. It transforms ugly facts into beautiful fantasies.

The charge of the Light Brigade was hideous idiocy. At the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean war in October 1854, the British cavalry charged, sabres aloft, at the Russian artillery, down a long valley that was also flanked by more Russian guns that could fire on them from above.

It was pure suicidal butchery: survivors wrote things like "never was such murder ordered". But the English back home loved it. The prime minister Lord Palmerston described it as "glorious" and Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem that every schoolboy, even of my generation in republican Ireland, knew: "Theirs not to make reply,/ Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die." Like the English working-class being led by their contemporary Tory blimps to charge the European artillery.

So what if they get mauled? It will be glorious – and shame on anyone who asks the reason why.

The problem, however, is that the original English cult of heroic failure was, paradoxically, a symptom of British power.

As Barczewski astutely notes: “Heroic failure . . . neither effected nor engendered decline; on the contrary it arose from British power and dominance, and from the need to provide alternative narratives that distracted from its real-life exploitative and violent aspects.”

Zombie cult

The English could afford to celebrate glorious failure because they were actually very successful – the myths of suffering and endurance covered up the truth that it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.

But the return to heroic failure in the psychology of Brexit is a perfect example of a mythic mindset surviving long after it has ceased to be useful.

The English are no longer dominant and powerful.They are a mid-sized, fairly average western European nation. They can’t afford to indulge their inherited tastes for grandiose screw-ups. But they still have a sweet tooth for these empty calories.

Brexit is a perfect vehicle for this zombie cult. It fuses three of the archetypes of heroic English failure.

There is the last stand, exemplified by Gen George Gordon at Khartoum, another fiasco that quickly became a byword for heroism in the face of inevitable disaster: Brexit is imperial England's last last stand.

There is the suicidal cavalry charge: May hilariously threatened Europe that if it does not play nice, she and Boris will destroy its economic artillery with their flashing sabres.

And there is the doomed expedition into terra incognita to find a promised land. This kind of heroic failure is exemplified by Sir John Franklin’s fatal search for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.

The gods of history were surely sending a message when, just three months after the Brexit vote, they allowed Franklin's ship, HMS Terror, to be found at the bottom of an Arctic bay.

Yet, unheeding of this omen, HMS Brexit sets sail into uncharted waters, confident of finding the, as yet undiscovered, passage to the promised land where you can always have more cake even when you’ve eaten it.

How the nation will weep with pride when some future explorers discover its ghostly remains in the icy depths of reality.