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)

Follow Fintan O’Toole on Twitter: @fotoole.

IN THE REVIEW

The Ham of Fate

Boris Johnson campaigning in Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, July 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.

Vile Bodies

William Hogarth: The March of the Guards to Finchley, 1750. ‘At right,’ Fintan O’Toole writes, ‘the notorious brothel-keeper Mother Douglas looks out on [English soldiers] from the King’s Head Tavern, while her employees display themselves from the other windows. On the left, an infected soldier grimaces in pain as he attempts to piss against a wall to which is affixed a flyer advertising the services of a well-known VD specialist.’

Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination

by Noelle Gallagher
In May 1998 Donald Trump and Howard Stern discussed on the radio the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to promiscuous heterosexual men. Trump agreed with Stern’s suggestion that he might tell a woman, “Look, you’ve got to go take a medical test before I do you.” (Neither man seemed to …

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 …

NYR DAILY

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.

NYR CALENDAR