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Fintan O’Toole: The Flann O’Brien guide to understanding Brexit

O’Brien’s The Third Policeman – with its unending, hellish plot – is the Brexit Code

In 2005, viewers around the world were sucked into a meandering TV drama called Lost, in which it was never quite clear what was going on.

Then the writer let it be known that, in the third episode of the second series, there would be an important clue. The clue was that one of the characters was seen reading Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman, written in 1940, in which the reader begins to realise what the nameless narrator does not: that he is in hell.

This made sense of Lost. But I can now reveal that The Third Policeman is also the secret key to another long-running drama in which everyone is lost, no one quite knows what is going on and everything begins to look a lot like hell: Brexit.

Here is the history of Brexit in 12 passages from The Third Policeman.


1. The Leave campaign’s promises

Early in the book, the narrator encounters an “eccentric queerly-spoken” and “tricky-looking” man.

He is a ruthless robber but he takes a shine to the narrator and offers him a grandiose gift.

“He put his hand into a pocket at his crotch and took out a round thing. ‘Here is a sovereign for your good luck,’ he said, ‘the golden token of your golden destiny.’

I gave him, so to speak, my golden thank-you but I noticed that the coin he gave me was a bright penny.”

This is of course a foretelling of Boris Johnson and the other tricky-looking fellows; the Leave campaign’s promise in 2016 of both £350 million a week for the National Health Service; a golden destiny and the promise of a shiny sovereignty that turned out to be really a bad penny.

2. The Leave campaign’s illegal breach of spending limits, purloined Facebook data and use of secretly targeted digital propaganda.

“Apparently there is no limit,” Joe remarked.

“Anything can be said in this place and it will be true and will have to be believed.”

3. The consequence of having no feasible plans for what would happen after the referendum.

In The Third Policeman, the notebooks of the “savant” De Selby, with whose obscure works and bizarre experiments the narrator is obsessed, contain rough sketches of his designs for houses.

“These structures were of two kinds: roofless ‘houses’ and ‘houses’ without walls.”

One French commentator on De Selby suggests that he may have drawn these absent-mindedly as doodles.

“The next time he took it up he was confronted with a mass of diagrams and drawings which he took to be plans of a type of dwelling which he always had in mind and immediately wrote many pages explaining the sketches.”

The Brexiteers likewise looked at their own absent-minded political doodlings and wrote infinite pages (mostly in highly renumerated columns for the Tory press) justifying their plans for a great Brexit house with no roof or no walls.

4. The backward glance to empire and the second World War.

De Selby became fixated on the idea that, if you look at yourself in the mirror, you are seeing an image of yourself as you were a fraction of a second before.

Thus, by constructing a series of parallel mirrors, he claimed to have been able to recede to an image of himself as a “beardless boy of twelve” with “a countenance of singular beauty and nobility”.

So entranced was he with the idea that he eventually “refused to countenance a direct view of anything” and looked at everything through a rear-view mirror.

Equally, the Brexiteers looked in the mirror and saw a singularly English vision of past beauty and nobility.

“It’s Agincourt! It’s Crecy! It’s Waterloo! We always win these things,” cried Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Like De Selby, they refused to countenance a direct view of anything that might be called contemporary reality and walked backwards with a flattering mirror in front of their faces.

5. The triggering of article 50 with no road map for negotiations

De Selby is convinced that there is no need for a sense of direction because a good road will have a “certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west”.

When Theresa May triggered article 50 in March 2017, she had absolutely no sense of direction, yet was certain that Britain was nonetheless on the road to destiny.

When David Davis turned up in Brussels to begin negotiations (the easiest ever conducted, he predicted) with scarcely a piece of paper in front of him, he was following De Selby's teachings: "If a friendly road should lead you into a complicated city with nets of crooked streets and five hundred other roads leaving it for unknown destinations, your own road will always . . . lead you to safety out of the tangled town."

6. The increasingly ludicrous hype

The actual negotiations made it ever more obvious that the only really achievable Brexit was a kind of second-class membership of the European Union and that the whole exercise was thus inherently futile.

But this resulted, not in calm reflection, but in an ever-increasing volume of noise: Global Britain! Vassal state! D-Day! Independence Day! British pluck! Colony! Bloody Germans! WTO rules! Brexit means Brexit! Saboteurs! Enemies of the people! Go whistle for your money!

This too is foretold in The Third Policeman.

The narrator recalls the hammering noises that were heard while De Selby was conducting supposedly delicate experiments: “no commentator has hazarded a guess as to what was being hammered and for what purpose”.

But one of them “has put forward the suggestion that loud hammering was a device resorted to by the savant to drown other noises which might give some indication of the real trend of the experiments.”

7. The promised trade deals with other countries fail to materialise

De Selby believes that “A journey is an hallucination”.

It is all in the mind. Thus, when he has to undertake a “journey” from Bath to Folkstone, he shuts himself in his room with a series of postcards depicting the places that he would traverse were he actually to travel this route, “together with an elaborate arrangement of clocks and barometric instruments”.

After seven hours, he emerges “convinced that he was in Folkstone and possibly that he had evolved a formula for travellers which would be extremely distasteful to railway and shipping companies. There is no record of the extent of his disillusionment when he found himself still in the familiar surroundings of Bath.”

Effectively, the British government and the Brexit-supporting press shut themselves up in their own room for two years and concentrated very hard on visualising all the milestones on the journey towards the glorious post-Brexit global future.

In this room, they were travelling to the old white colonies (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and to China and India to sign fabulously advantageous trade deals.

They were waving blue passports with proper British insignia as they passed unimpeded through foreign airports to be greeted with renewed respect and affection by the friendly natives who had always longed for their return.

They were sailing their new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth II, into the South China Seas (as the witless defence secretary Gavin Williamson promised) to remind everyone who is in charge.

(I cannot remember whether it was De Selby or Williamson who said: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”)

We do not yet have the record of the full extent of their disillusionment when they opened the door and found themselves still in Bath.

8. The backstop

“The savant spent several months trying to find a satisfactory method of ‘diluting’ water.” Could there be a clearer foreshadowing of the problem of the Irish backstop?

The backstop is the insurance policy placed in the withdrawal agreement to ensure that there could be no imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The British government agreed to it in December 2017 when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary and David Davis was Brexit secretary. And then they spent more than a year trying to dilute it.

"We stand by Ireland," warned Guy Verhofstadt. "There is no majority to reopen or dilute the withdrawal agreement in the European Parliament, including the backstop."

But the British carried on thinking up various ways of diluting water. Amazingly, they couldn’t do it.

9. The indicative votes

“Do you not see that every reply is in the negative? No matter what you ask him he says No.”

Early in The Third Policeman, the narrator encounters the man he has murdered, Old Mathers. When he asks Mathers questions, the answers are “I am not”, “No”, “I do not”.

Eventually Mathers explains that having been led into bad ways in his youth by agreeing to the suggestions of others, he decided to keep himself out of trouble by resolving to “say No henceforth to every suggestion”. He holds that “‘No’ is, generally speaking, a better answer than ‘Yes’.”

In one of its more arcane moments of delusion, the House of Commons became fixated on something called the Malthouse Compromise, which was really another way to dilute water.

But when that evaporated, the parliament settled on what should surely have been called the Mathers Compromise. It realised that the safest way to answer every question thrown up by Brexit is in the negative: no, we do not, none of the above.

It has now twice gone through lists of possible outcomes and rejected each of them one by one. Brexit was always a negative reply – the British (or more accurately the English) said what they do not want, but have not really been given a chance to say what they do.

10. The mirage that keeps receding into the distance

The epigraph to the novel is a quote from De Selby: “It ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.”

This should rightly serve to remind us to keep everything in perspective: it ill becomes any man or woman to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as the end of Brexit.

The Third Policeman does not really end.

In this hell, the narrator thinks he has escaped but we find him on the last pages approaching again the place he has just been, with no memory of it all, doomed to repeat the same terrible adventures forever.

When will Brexit be over?

“The wisest course on this question” writes the narrator, “is probably that taken by the little-known Swiss writer Le Clerque. ‘This matter,’ he says, ‘is outside the true province of the conscientious commentator inasmuch as being unable to say aught that is charitable or useful, he must preserve silence.’”