Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: UK voted for Brexit because citizens feel their country is ‘broken’. It can be fixed

Decades of demonisation made the EU a natural fit in the search for an 'oppressor' to revolt against

The wave of reactionary resentment that has swept across Europe and the United States is generally filed under the vague and often inaccurate label of populism. But if progressive politics is to respond effectively it has to start from a more subtle analysis.

If we look in particular at Brexit we can see that there are actually two distinct phenomena at work: the sore tooth and the broken umbrella. The first will be very hard to deal with. The second is where hope lies.

The sore tooth

Nationalist fervour is like having a sore tooth. The tooth is a very small part of the body, and a sense of national identity is actually a very small part of most people’s lives. But a person with a sore tooth finds it hard to think about anything else. There is a pain there that will not stop until it is somehow assuaged – the ache of collective resentment, the nagging feeling that “we” have somehow been done down by “them”.

The problem is that the pain is not necessarily rational – and therefore it may be very difficult to alleviate. It feeds on feelings of loss and on resentment at slights that may or may not be real. And indeed it doesn’t much matter whether they are real or not: the effects are the same either way.


One of the most striking aspects of, for example, the resentment of immigrants that is at the heart of so much of the current wave of nationalism in Europe and the United States is that anti-immigrant sentiment tends to be strongest in places where there are fewest immigrants. The sense of being “swamped” is often most potent in places where in fact the demographic tide is going out.

Telling these people that immigrants are okay is not going to change their feelings. Because those feelings are not rooted in reality, they are not susceptible to this kind of argument.

Brexit is driven above all by a force that was gathering itself in the shadows: English nationalism. The problem with this English nationalism is not that it exists. It has a very long history, and indeed England can be seen as one of the first movers in the formation of the modern nation state.

Britain's pretensions to be a global military power petered out in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. The claim on Northern Ireland has been ceded

The English have as much right to a collective political identity as the Irish or the Scots (and indeed as the Germans or the French) have. But for centuries English nationalism has been buried in two larger constructs: the United Kingdom and the British Empire. The gradual construction of the UK, with the inclusion first of Scotland and then of Ireland, gave England stability and control in its own part of the world and allowed it to dominate much of the rest of the world through the empire. Britishness didn’t threaten Englishness; it amplified it.

But now the empire is gone, and the UK is slipping out of England’s control. Britain’s pretensions to be a global military power petered out in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. The claim on Northern Ireland has been ceded, and Scotland, although not yet ready for independence, increasingly looks and sounds like another country.

In retrospect it is not surprising that the reaction to these developments has created a reversion to an English, rather than a British, allegiance. In the 2011 census 32.4 million people (57.7 percent of the population of England and Wales) chose “English” as their sole identity, while just 10.7 million people (19.1 percent) associated themselves with a British identity only. But there are few positive democratic expressions of this English identity.

The sore tooth is being felt by millions of tongues, but those tongues were not able to give it expression until Brexit came along.

As a nationalist revolution, however, Brexit is doomed to failure because it is radically incoherent. It does not know what kind of nationalism it wants to articulate. Crudely, passionate nationalism has taken two forms. There is an imperial nationalism and an anti-imperial nationalism; one sets out to dominate the world, the other to throw off such dominance. The incoherence of the new English nationalism is that it wants to be both.

On the one hand Brexit is fuelled by nostalgic fantasies of Empire 2.0, a reconstructed global trading empire in which the old colonies will be reconnected to the mother country. On the other it is an insurgency and therefore needs an oppressor to revolt against. As England doesn’t actually have an oppressor it was necessary to invent one.

Decades of demonisation by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and by the enormously influential Daily Mail made the European Union a natural fit for the job. But these contradictory impulses cannot be made to work together: throwing off a nonexistent yoke cannot lead to Empire 2.0.

Thus the oddest thing about the political turn this English nationalist revolt has taken since the Brexit referendum: it is very, very French. It is pure Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the “general will” of the people has been expressed once and for all on referendum day, and therefore anyone who seeks to question that popular will is a traitor.

Theresa May, in reality an old-fashioned Home Counties conservative, thought the way to gain and consolidate power was to embrace a phoney populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are to be reimagined as "the people".

May's allies in the Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror characterise recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as "enemies of the people" and "saboteurs", and even the Daily Telegraph, which used to be a quality conservative paper, published a wanted-poster-style front page with mugshots of dissident Tory MPs under the headline "The Brexit mutineers".

In their feverish imaginations the hard Brexiteers can hear the tumbrils squeaking over the cobblestones and the knitting needles of the old ladies waiting by the guillotine clicking away as they wait for the renegade heads to roll.

But actually England was never ready for a French revolution. Its democratic traditions are suspicious of monolithic power and rooted in the idea that dissent and deliberation are both necessary and legitimate. May’s demands for an overwhelming parliamentary majority that could command obedience to the Brexit revolution were decisively rejected in the unnecessary general election she called.

The broken umbrella

The whole project of Brexit as a national liberation movement fell apart and cannot be put back together. Ein Volk, ein Theresa, ein Brexit does not work for Britain as a whole, and it doesn't even work in England. Part of the reason for this is that there is another force in the rise of nationalism in England and elsewhere. It is not just the sore tooth. It is also the broken umbrella.

For all the incoherent resentment that expresses itself in a negative identity politics, there is another, entirely rational side to allegiance to the nation state. People look to the nation state as a shelter, an umbrella that will shield them from the worst effects of economic and cultural globalisation.

The umbrella is not a bad image of this expectation, for people know that an umbrella doesn’t change the weather or even keep you entirely dry. It just makes your exposure more bearable.

People know that nation states can’t protect them from the immense forces of global change; they just think they should be able to offer them some shelter from the storms that make their lives more and more precarious.

The problem is that the umbrella is broken. After the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, nation states lost confidence in their core mission of protecting and enabling the fundamental rights of their citizens to dignity, equality and security – rights that are steadily eroded by the so-called free market.

After the second World War and the Holocaust the nation state in Europe and, to a large extent, in North America became the welfare state. The potential for the sore tooth may always have been there, but the body politic could feel its other limbs: educational opportunity, public housing, national health systems, a steady shift towards economic equality.

The gamble of the centre right (and eventually of the centre left, too) was that the erosion of the welfare state, and with it the concrete, practical attachment of citizens to the nation state, could be somehow made okay by the European project. Never mind that the umbrella is broken, here’s a much bigger umbrella.

But however much the EU has indeed sought to protect social rights, it has not had the power – and its dominant orthodoxy has not had the desire – to create a European welfare state.

The worst political upheavals come when the person with the sore tooth is standing in the gales of globalisation under a broken umbrella

The disillusion that many people feel with the European project is because it has not been able to live up to the implicit promise that we could replace the broken umbrella of eroded national welfare states with the shiny new umbrella of a postnationalist cosmopolitanism in which all the sore teeth will be painlessly extracted.

The worst political upheavals come when the person with the sore tooth is standing in the gales of globalisation under a broken umbrella. The power of a force like Brexit is that it combines the irrational energies of incoherent resentment and unarticulated nationalism with an entirely rational fear of the loss of the welfare state.

And in trying to respond to Brexit and to the other ethnic nationalisms, including Donald Trump’s, progressives have to weaken these forces by decoupling them.

First we have to recognise that the broken tooth will not easily be extracted; the inchoate resentments will not go away anytime soon. Brexit’s French revolutionary moment has passed and its appeal to an imagined, unified “people” has completely failed. It is no longer a credible national project. But that does not mean that it will cease to be potent.

Indeed the more it recedes as a practical proposition the more its focus will shift into blame and betrayal. Brexit is doomed to be a national resurrection that would always have been glorious – if only it had not been stabbed in the back.

As Brexit fails, the sore tooth will get angrier and its poison will become even more toxic. There is nothing much any of us can do about that: England is going to have find its own version of a nationalism that expresses its best, not its worst, traditions.

But there is a great deal that Europe can do nonetheless. It can get on with fixing the umbrella. It can urgently re-create a European narrative of equality, dignity and protection. What we’ve learnt in the past two years is that two well-known phrases are tautologies. One of them is “social Europe” and the other is “social democracy”.

There is no Europe that is not social Europe. If the European project is not animated by the urgent imperative of social justice it will die a horrible death. And there is no democracy if it is not social democracy. Democracy cannot withstand for very long the inequality, insecurity and indignity that are produced by neoliberal globalisation.

We are fortunate to have been given these lessons while there is still time to learn them.