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

Former British prime minister David Cameron: his egotistical capriciousness allowed the Leave campaign to offer a pure negative: vote for what you don’t want (EU membership). Photograph:  Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Former British prime minister David Cameron: his egotistical capriciousness allowed the Leave campaign to offer a pure negative: vote for what you don’t want (EU membership). Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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.

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