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 November. (June 2019)
Does Boris Johnson believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.
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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.
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.
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.
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.