Fintan O’Toole: Britain has gone to huge trouble to humiliate itself

Best possible Brexit outcome is the worst of both worlds, a state neither in nor out

The best headline about British prime minister Theresa May's short-lived triumph over the hard Brexiteers last Friday was undoubtedly the one on Pádraig Collins's report in the Guardian: "Possum rescued after getting head stuck in Nutella jar".

Admittedly, Collins was actually reporting, not from Chequers, but from Brisbane, Australia. Yet the accompanying photograph was the perfect image of what May is trying to do. It showed the furry creature all curled up and immobilised with its head completely encased in a glass jar streaked with visible residues of sticky brown stuff. As a spokesman for the Australian RSPCA explained, the dumb animal “managed to get his head in the jar, but obviously couldn’t get it out”. The rescuer put “towels around the possum so she could get him out of the jar without getting scratched by his claws”.

The story saves me the trouble of thinking up a metaphor. The Brexiteers have their heads stuck in a jar of sticky brown stuff that seemed so sweet and enticing. May’s compromise deal and the White Paper she is still expected to publish this week are the towels wrapped round the Brexiteers’ claws so that their heads can be pulled out of the jar without her premiership getting scratched to death.

Distorting lens

The only problem is that David Davis and Boris Johnson, having been successfully extracted, decided to bare their claws again. As any possum or two-year-old child will tell you, sticking your head inside a glass jar is quite a thrill. You get to see the world through a distorting lens that creates a comforting distance between you and reality. You can't hear unwanted voices raising awkward questions. Brexit has so far been conducted through a glass darkly. It has been seen through glorious fantasies of imperial revival and layers of self-pity about imaginary oppression. What May has been attempting, very late in the day, is to force her more deluded colleagues to get their heads out of the jar and look directly at Brexit.


She has shown them the best-case scenario, the most desirable possible outcome. And though in colour it may look like Nutella, it is actually a different kind of sticky brown stuff. “Human kind,” said TS Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality,” and the same is surely true of Davis, Johnson and their fellow diehards. May has finally managed to disenchant the Brexit project, to strip away its heroic veneer. And instead of a date with destiny, it looks awfully like a loveless marriage, entered into with a heavy heart because the only alternative is unbearable loneliness.

The Brexit the British are now officially seeking is indeed miserable. Instead of the Star Trek vision of boldly going where no imperial-nostalgic society had gone before, it would not have enough thrust to get the UK out of the gravitational pull of the European Union. And instead of freeing British businesses from Brussels red tape, it proposes to wrap them up like mummies in layers of staggeringly complex bureaucracy, with two completely different tariff regimes operating side by side. And this, remember, is what the UK is asking for, not what it will get.

In real negotiations, as Davis knows from experience, things can only get worse: the role of the hated European Court of Justice will loom much larger and the opt-outs for future UK parliaments will disappear. If a deal is to be done at all, the last vestiges of fantasy Brexit will have to be stripped away and what will be left is a state that has negotiated its way from full partnership to the status of a rule-taking satellite of the EU.

When you take away all the heroic elements of Brexit, all the epic thrills of throwing off the oppressor and beginning a new history, what you are left with is just this – a country that has gone to enormous trouble to humiliate itself. Brexit has reached the point where the best possible outcome is the worst of both worlds, a state that is neither in nor out, neither on its own nor part of something larger.

This is what all the patriotic bombast has brought Britain to: a humble request that the EU play nice and grant it a subordinate status. Imagine that at some point in the past, the EU had actually offered this to the British. How dare they!

National humiliation

Can there be the slightest doubt that the British would have been up in arms, demanding nothing less than full EU membership? Has any country ever gone into international treaty negotiations hoping to emerge with a status greatly inferior to the one it already enjoys? What do we want? National humiliation. When do we want it? Now.

Davis and Johnson know this is the reality they helped to create. They hadn’t the stomach either to face it or to publish a credible alternative. That is because the only alternatives to a mortifying Brexit are stark. One is to be honest and admit that the whole project has already failed and must be stopped before it is too late. The other is to stick your head back in the Nutella jar. If May goes, there may be no one left to pull the poor possums out.