Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and the Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Road to Brexit will be published in the US in the fall.
 (March 2019)

Follow Fintan O’Toole on Twitter: @fotoole.


The King and I

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and New Jersey governor Chris Christie at a fund-­raising event, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, May 2016

Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics

by Chris Christie

Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House

by Cliff Sims
Perhaps the defining moment of the Trump presidency occurred before it had even begun, two days after his election. Since May 2016, Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, had been head of the transition team planning for the takeover of power if Trump won in November. Given the candidate’s …

Celtic Myths

Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, and his partner, Matthew Barrett, at an LGBTQ Pride festival, Dublin, June 2017

The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales

by Caoimhín De Barra
In June 2018, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, made a formal apology to men who had been convicted under laws against homosexual acts that were finally repealed in 1993. In the course of his speech in parliament, he noted that “Aristotle wrote that the Celts openly approved of same-sex …

Saboteur in Chief

The Fifth Risk

by Michael Lewis
Americans tend to think they have the best system of government in the world. Yet from the outside, one aspect of it seems insane. Most functioning democracies have a permanent civil service that is legally obliged to be politically neutral. It takes orders from elected politicians but is protected from subversion by protocols of parliamentary accountability and the difficulty of firing its members. In the US, there is of course a vast permanent public service of two million employees. But the top layers of each department and institution are made up of four thousand presidential appointees. Not only is there no continuity of management, but chaos is easy to create. All an incoming president needs to do is appoint people to these agencies who should not be allowed anywhere near them—or indeed appoint no one at all. There is in the US system an opportunity to abuse power by simply declining to use it.

Powder His Face

Mezzotint by Richard Earldom after a drawing by Robert Dighton, 1772

Pretty Gentlemen: Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth-Century Fashion World

by Peter McNeil
When Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he was not thinking of pasta. And the author of the ditty, probably a British professional soldier mocking the New England militiamen with whom he fought during the French and Indian War in the late 1750s or …


How Brexit Broke Up Britain

A sticker reading

There is overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular that part of it called Northern Ireland. Asked whether “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit, fully 83 percent of Leave voters and 73 percent of Conservative voters in England agree that it is. So, while the people who voted for Brexit are waving goodbye to the United Kingdom, Theresa May—with, in this, the support of Corbyn’s Labour—has vowed to “always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.” Brexit cannot be properly articulated because it has made a sacred cause of fighting for the very thing Brexit voters don’t care about.

How Ulster Unionists Block Brexit

Party leader Arlene Foster addressing the November 2017 conference of the Democratic Unionist Party as delegates waved Union and Ulster flags, Belfast, Northern Ireland

As the recent debate on abortion showed, the Democratic Unionist Party’s values and idea of Britishness are increasingly out of kilter with Britain itself. And Brexit, which the DUP supported, now looms as a disaster for the Northern Irish party. If, as the DUP insists, Northern Ireland can be treated no differently from the rest of the UK, because the Union with England, Wales, and Scotland is sacrosanct, then all of the UK must stay within the EU’s rules to meet European conditions on border arrangements with Ireland. In which case, Brexit itself becomes pointless. The DUP’s backward-looking Britishness thus stands solidly in the way of Brexit’s English revolution.

Theresa May’s Blue Monday

British Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street, London, December 5

Britain’s agreement to accept Ireland’s demands over Brexit and the border is an expression of its weakness: it can’t even bully little Ireland anymore. And this would have been bad enough for one day. But there was another humiliation in store. Having backed down, May was then peremptorily informed by her DUP coalition partner that she was not even allowed to back down. It is a scarcely credible position for a once great state to find itself in: its leader does not even have the power to conduct a dignified retreat.

Britain: The End of a Fantasy

British Prime Minister Theresa May on her way to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen's permission to form a minority government, London, June 9, 2017

Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. Because Theresa May doesn’t actually believe in Brexit, she’s improvising a way forward very roughly sketched out by other people. In Britain’s recent election, May’s phony populism came up against the Labour party’s more genuine brand of anti-establishment radicalism that convinced the young and the marginalized that they had something to come out and vote for.