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Fintan O'Toole: English self-mockery has gone beyond a joke

The distance between the gloriously bonkers opening ceremony of the London Olympics and the sourness of Brexit is not as great as it seems

In his very funny and very sad novel about the years leading up to Brexit, entitled Middle England, Jonathan Coe captures a moment that now seems strangely distant.

Looking at the gloriously bonkers opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London in July 2012, Coe’s protagonist, Doug, is initially sceptical. But he “watched it with a mounting sense of admiration that was soon bordering on awe. The scale of the spectacle, the originality of it – the weirdness, at points . . . This eccentric hymn to Britain’s industrial heritage was the last thing he had been expecting, but there was something hugely affecting and persuasive about it . . . what he felt while watching it were the stirrings of an emotion he hadn’t experienced for years – had never really experienced at all, perhaps, having grown up in a household where all expressions of patriotism had been considered suspect: national pride. Yes, why not come straight out and admit it, at this moment he felt proud, proud to be British, proud to be part of a nation which had not only achieved such great things but could now celebrate them with such confidence and irony and lack of self-importance.”

The English have put enormously serious effort into seeming to take nothing about themselves seriously

It’s a question that English people often bring up in conversation: how did we go from that to this? How do you get from the joyously quirky celebration of Britishness in Danny Boyle’s brilliantly choreographed spectacle to the rage and sourness of Brexit in less than four years? The question is freighted with sorrow and bafflement. July 2012 and June 2016 seem to belong to different epochs and to different cultural universes. But perhaps we cannot quite understand what is happening to our neighbour if we do not allow for the fact that the gulf is not quite as great as it seems. Perhaps the self-mockery of 2012 is also, in another guise, the spectacle of a country making a mockery of itself after 2016.

Essential haughtiness

In the updated 2014 edition of her classic book Watching the English, the social anthropologist Kate Fox astutely noted that the thing that made the 2012 Olympic ceremony so delightful was its essential haughtiness – not giving a damn whether the global audience of billions got any of the jokes: “The majority of English people loved it, and didn’t much care whether the rest of the world understood it or not. In fact, many were probably secretly pleased that they didn’t. The degree of self-mockery, self-denigration, obscure self-reference and self-indulgent eccentricity exhibited in that ceremony required a breathtaking disregard for the opinion of others – in this case billions of others – which can only stem from a deep sense of superiority.”


Fox was not thinking of Brexit, which was still just a twinkle in Nigel Farage's beady eye. But her analysis is nonetheless prescient. "I suspect", she wrote, "that English self-mockery is rooted in a rather smug complacency, if not outright arrogance." For the thing about self-mockery on this heroic scale is that you can only really afford it if you actually think you are pretty damn great. Self-mockery is the glory of modern English culture, the heart of that strain of comic genius that runs from Tony Hancock and The Goons through Monty Python all the way to Fleabag and Alan Partridge. The English have put enormously serious effort into seeming to take nothing about themselves seriously.

We love the English for their self-mockery, but the truth is they can't afford it any more

Their national language is not English. It is irony. A character in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country says that his compatriots are “conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb. It’s the amniotic fluid . . . Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.” Irish people are close enough to get this, but we are the only foreigners who do. For continental Europeans or North Americans, there is always the uneasy question: are they being serious or not? And the English have always liked it that way – it keeps outsiders nicely confused and therefore at a disadvantage.


In the Olympic ceremony in 2012, these habits and attitudes were displayed at their most endearing. But it turned out that there is a much thinner line than anyone suspected between self-mockery and becoming a mockery of yourself. As the tragicomedy has unfolded, it is as if the quotation marks that surround everything in the ironic English frame of mind have simply been erased. What Fox called the “self-mockery, self-denigration, obscure self-reference and self-indulgent eccentricity” of 2012 are now the daily stuff of politics. Even in the midst of a profound national crisis, everything remains “serious but not serious”.

We love the English for their self-mockery, but the truth is they can’t afford it any more. The humour has become far too close to the bone. The hidden message of the comic self-denigration was always: we are so sure of ourselves that we can pretend to find ourselves ridiculous. But it’s not a pretence anymore. Send in the clowns? Don’t bother they are here, right at the heart of the state. The British state really has become ridiculous. It is one long closing ceremony for games that refuse to end. The habit of ironical complacency cannot be shaken off even in a crisis that has long since gone beyond a joke.