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Fintan O'Toole: The Tory lunatic fringe of 2016 is now at the centre

Brexit is, in its own mad way, a version of that great British tradition, heroic failure

Nothing will come of nothing. Perhaps the greatest work of the English imagination, William Shakespeare’s King Lear is about the break-up of Britain. It begins with a feckless act of misrule and some capricious egotism and it ends in catastrophe. And at its heart is nothing at all.

When Lear’s daughter Cordelia refuses to play along with his narcissistic demands for flattery, he asks what more she has to say. “Nothing, my lord.” The word bounces back and forth between them, uttered five times in four lines. Lear warns that “Nothing will come of nothing”. He does not yet know what he is saying: that this dark non-thing will grow and grow until it blots out everything – all meaning, all possibility, all of the future.

Brexit is nothing. It was always a negative proposition. Most British leaders, even those who wanted to stay in, never created for their people any positive vision of the European Union. It was spoken of grudgingly and engaged with defensively. The Remain campaign in 2016 essentially presented staying in as the lesser of two evils: the EU is bad but leaving it would be even worse. And David Cameron’s egotistical capriciousness allowed the Leave campaign to offer a pure negative: vote for what you don’t want (EU membership).

It was not required to put forward any clear sense of what would happen after it won. It pointed to the exit sign but shed no light on what lies outside the door. Insofar as it offered any vision – £350 million a week for the NHS, sunny uplands, global Britain, easiest deal ever, have cake/eat cake, Brexit means Brexit – it was a thing of airy nothing.


Brexit is a nothing that pretended to be a thing, a departure that posed as a destination

And nothing does in the end come of nothing. Three years ago, very few of the Brexiteers, let alone those who voted for them, really imagined that Britain would simply leave the EU with no agreement on a future relationship. Few suggested that affiliation would be anything other than close. Yet here we are now with both contenders for the leadership of the Tory party, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, proposing a no-deal Brexit as a serious possibility that must be kept on the table. The lunatic fringe of 2016 is now at the centre.

Crisis of identity

This madness has a Lear-like logic. Brexit is a nothing that pretended to be a thing, a departure that posed as a destination, a break-up masquerading as a relationship. It knows only what it is not. It is rooted in a crisis of identity within the UK and in such crises, when you don’t know what “us” means, it is always easier to go for the negative definition: we’re not them. And thus there is an absurd rationale in Brexit ending up with a supposed policy that is merely an absence: no deal. The Brexit discourse has now arrived at the point where it has to present that nothing as if it were a something, as if failing to create an alternative to EU membership is in fact the alternative.

If Brexit cannot be shaped as a constructive project, it can work wonders of destruction

This is, in its own mad way, a version of that great British tradition, heroic failure. If Scott of the Antarctic could be a hero for not getting to the South Pole first and Sir John Franklin could be a hero for not finding the North-West Passage and the Light Brigade could be heroes for not charging in the right direction, it is always possible to imagine not being able to do a deal as a heroic act. Impotence, in this strange mindset, becomes potent. The collapse, you can convince yourself, is what you were always trying to construct.

Crazy current

Swept along on this crazy current, anarchism (the Tory anarchism that fuses the recklessness of a hollowed-out imperial ruling caste with a neoliberal disdain for the state) becomes nihilism. The last word of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, which increasingly functions as the soundtrack of Brexit, is an exultant, orgiastic “Destroy!” If you cannot govern, you can always misgovern. If Brexit cannot be shaped as a constructive project, it can work wonders of destruction.

If Conservatism is dead (and it is) Destructivism is the next best thing. Wreck the industrial economy by forcing the closure of all those car and aerospace plants with their just-in-time processes and integrated supply chains. Pull down the “precious, precious union”. Blow up the Irish peace process. Remember these are not abstract threats – polls of Tory members show that they are indeed all acceptable to most of them as prices to be paid for Brexit. They are even, in this mood of nihilistic ecstasy, quite prepared to destroy their own party.

Philosophers and physicists tell us that the most fundamental question is, as Gottfried Leibniz put it: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Brexit, in the end, is going to have to resolve itself into something rather than nothing. At some point, the two negatives of Brexit (no plan, no deal) have to make a positive. England in particular is going to have to think about what it is rather than revelling in what it is not. What we do not know is how much pain it will wish upon itself in the meantime.