Una Mullally: Brexit chaos rooted in British lack of self-examination

Misplaced sense of superiority and entitlement underpins Brexit crusade

The psychology of those who view themselves as superior permeates much of the British discourse surrounding Brexit. It’s a mindset with which Irish people are achingly familiar.

The incredulousness with which we watch British Brexiteer politicians not know themselves is matched only by the dull familiarity of a privilege and entitlement steeped in a colonialist mindset.

“Do they even hear themselves?” we might ask, as politicians are interviewed and seem annoyed that leaving the European Union will leave Britain with no MEPs, or that they’re just now getting to grips with how food and goods arrive in Britain, or who claim to be patriotic but come to a conclusion that Northern Ireland can do one, mate.

The degree to which Irish people understand Britishness is why some of the best analysis on Brexit has not come from within Britain but from an Irishman, Fintan O'Toole, with the title of his latest book summing it all up: Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.



Self-examination is not a pastime of those who navigate society easily. It’s obvious to see why. If everything bends to your will, then why would you ever need to question the structures that allow you to “be” so smoothly and so uninterrupted?

But if you face opposition in life, if doors don’t necessarily always swing open, you have to question the attributes of both your surroundings and yourself to understand, deal with and overcome it.

It’s why black people know white people better than white people themselves, why gay people understand straightness more than straight people, why women have an insight to maleness that men rarely unpack, why Travellers understand settled people when settled people rarely even see “settled” as part of their identity, why working-class people hear the patronising tones of middle-class people while middle-class people just think they’re being sound.

Those who are oppressed or othered have a tendency to understand those who oppress or other them far more than those actually in perceived positions of power.

In order to navigate a world that may not automatically tend to you first, a degree of unpacking one’s identity or place in society is required. If one views one’s identity as default, self-examination and reflection don’t necessarily occur.

Gay people often discuss their identities, but I have rarely if ever heard straight people discuss the identity and state of straightness.

“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you,” US author Ta-Nehisi Coates said in a conversation about why white hip-hop fans shouldn’t rap along to the n-word.

“You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this.”

When people are blind to their own identities and believe themselves to be superior they can tend to think that everything they do is right

Removing oneself from such conditioning is an act of self-awareness that is often viewed as pointless by those at the top of the food chain in societies – it’s “other” people who need to discuss their identities in order to claim space. But we are now seeing the consequences of what happens when people choose demonising others over their own self-examination.

Brexit would not have happened if there was not a cohort of dishonest Brexit crusaders pushing for it, but also if there was not a cohort of voters who fall back on British identity as superior, who still believe in the idea and aspiration of colonial dominance long after the empire has fallen, who see Britishness as exceptional and elevated, who think a structure that is beneficial to Britain – the EU – is actually instead thorn in its side, and who do not consider how ludicrous it is to feel this way.

Feelings override facts. These feelings are stoked by a long-standing anti-EU propaganda campaign within certain sectors of the British press which have positioned the EU as a nagging interventionist.

Brexit is the teenage tantrum, the slamming of the bedroom door, the “I’ll be better off without you” scream of someone who has actually jilted themselves.

Identity politics

Challenging the default is strenuously contested by those in society who enjoy privilege. The term “identity politics” is often criticised by those who view themselves as default and outside the remit of self-examination on race, sexuality, gender and so on. This largely white, largely male response to the role of identity is intriguing, and strives to make the term “identity politics” almost a shorthand for nonsense or whingeing or snowflakery. Those who view “identity politics” as annoying seldom consider the role their own identities play in such a response. Marginalised people are also believed less, face a different type of interrogation in society and are expected to speak for entire groups of people instead of just for themselves.

One would hope that the implosion of Britain that we’re currently witnessing would at some stage instigate a period of self-examination, but that is wishful thinking. Instead, we are seeing a counterproductive doubling down, a rudderlessness and a disregard for the chaos Brexit is causing.

When people are blind to their own identities and believe themselves to be superior they can tend to think that everything they do is right, that they are somehow magical and immune to making massive errors. Of course, plenty of British people are at their wits’ end with this kind of destructive nonsense. But until the emotional underpinnings of such a crusade are examined, and a realistic admission of British identity not being anything special – no more than any other – then the self-instigated chaos will continue.