On the 18th of April, 2017 the Irish Times published an article by Fintan O’ Toole, entitled “Brexit means Ireland must be the anti-England.” In common with his other musings on the subject, O’Toole refuses to view Brexit as in any way a legitimate act of rebellion. Instead he views it as something atavistic and regressive. Something linked irredeemably to an imperial past. He also refuses to view the constituency that voted for Brexit as anything more than selfish, narrow-minded cretins. It is for the English however to defend themselves on this point. Not for the Irish.
What is interesting to me about the article is its focus on binaries. And with that, the idea that Ireland can take the high moral ground in this instance. Ireland can be everything this new England is not.
Fintan O’Toole’s argument goes something like this:
- Ireland has always defined itself as the Anti-England, often to our detriment, because defining oneself in the negative, limits one’s horizons.
- This binary however was simplistic and often superficial. And beneath the surface there was much exchange.
- But now England has chosen to define itself negatively, turning its back on the world.
- The opportunity arises for us once more to define ourselves as the Anti-England. But now with a twist.
- Two negatives make a positive. Ireland will be asserting its new identity as an open, tolerant society by opposing a backward looking England.
Liberal academics and journalists are forever accusing nationalists of creating reductive binary arguments. Their own love affair with binary arguments receives far less attention but it is on full display here. They in fact have no objection to reductive binaries just so long as those binaries confirm their worldview.
The part of our history I’m thinking about is the notion of Ireland as the anti-England. It was a bad idea that might now be a good idea.
Whereas nationalist binaries are always associated with hatred and generalisation, O’Toole is very careful to dodge such accusations.
Being the anti-England is not about being anti-English.
This is an important point for O’Toole but an awkward one. As much as he would like to focus his vitriol on the British State rather than the English people, it was not the British State that wanted Brexit. It was a rebellion against the British State as much as it was against the European Union. A large proportion of the English people saw Brexit as a way of making a point that otherwise could not have been made, even if it was a futile point.
And of course, God forbid that we confuse O’Toole’s principled counterpoint with some kind of xenophobia.
Irish Anglophobia is dead and if it ever stirs again we should place another stake through its heart, just in case.
Indeed, it is a peculiar kind of Anglophobia that O’Toole espouses. It is the Anglophobia of the Guardian newspaper and a large section of the British establishment. It is the Anglophobia of the London metropolitan liberal. Transplanted to Dublin, it is the Anglophobia of a twenty-first century West Brit.
The reductive nature of the argument is this. There is a certain type of England that O’Toole is attacking and there is a certain type of Ireland that O’Toole is defending, or recommending. But one type of England is an attack on another type of England and one type of Ireland is an attack on another type of Ireland. So what we really see is cosmopolitan liberals in London and in Dublin ganging up on their enemies whom they view in a sort of jingoistic way.
Identities are often defined by what they are not, and this form of negative self-identification came naturally to an Irish nationalism struggling to break the link with a country that dominated not just us but much of the world. In our dictionary, “us” could be defined simply as “not them”.
But O’Toole has no problem with talking about “us” and “them”. No liberal really has a problem with that distinction. Just so long as the “us” in question is cosmopolitan liberalism and the “them” in question is rooted nationalism.
There is no satisfaction in seeing our neighbours harm themselves by adopting forms of national self-assertion that we know from our own experience to be self-destructive.
That last point is what is colloquially known on the Internet as “concern-trolling”.
The gradual demise of the mentality in which Ireland was merely the opposite of England has done us nothing but good, even though it could be argued that we’ve never managed to replace this negative identity with a fully positive one. So why the hell would we want any part of it back? Because, of course, Brexit and the English nationalism that underlies it are redefining England for the rest of the world as an angry, hostile, unlovable place. And it’s vital for Ireland that we are clearly distinguished from that new English identity.
We have to define ourselves for the rest of the world as not-England. This is not just about being a separate space; it is about being an opposing kind of space.
It’s not about being different. It’s about thinking differently. Ireland is simply a state of mind. In this case, to Fintan’s way of thinking, a superior state of mind; so disembodied as to be extra-territorial. As An Taoiseach Enda Kenny put it on Monday, we are a “global people.” In other words, we have no roots, no boundaries… nothing to tie us down. We are seeds in the wind.
We have to write “Au contraire” on our banners again.
But this time the words, ironically enough, must themselves have a contrary meaning. They have to imply the opposite of what they used to suggest – not that Ireland is enclosed but that it is open, not that we have a monolithic religious and ethnic identity but that we are enthusiastically pluralist, not that we look inwards but that we look outwards…
There you have it, if England tries to be rooted, we must be rootless. If the English are sentimental and irrational, we must show them our ruthlessness. They are closed. We must be open. And the way to be open is to shut the door on all that is closed.
One final point and probably the most important point. There seems to be an unstated assumption in all of this. It is as if one day England woke up and decided it was going to be more insular and more nationalistic. It voted Brexit on a sudden whim. It occurred outside of history. O’Toole has written quite a bit about Brexit and while he has written much about England’s means and opportunity, he has been less interested in England’s motives. How did it come that the English became more insular and more suspicious of the world? Did becoming an ethnic minority in their own capital city contribute to that feeling? Did the cult of openness itself contribute?
This is where Fintan O’Toole falls down. This is where the dots are never joined up. If the English are becoming more “closed” it is because they were so “open” for so long. If they had not been so “open” they would not be where they are. If they were as racist as we are led to believe, then it was not very effective at keeping foreigners out of their country. If they are becoming more nationalistic now, it is because they have lost their nationality.
The Imperialism that threatens us now is a Liberal Internationalism which is the most corrosive legacy of the British Empire. The resistance against it grows day by day, while the liberal media become more and more irate. None of this is happening in a bubble. It is all historically contingent. The choices Ireland makes today will have consequences in the future. If we look at other countries which have taken similar paths, we can reach some conclusions about what those consequences will be.
As for binaries, O’Toole’s binaries are all mixed up. Are we to believe that by embracing a multicultural outlook, as the English did when they imported their colonies, that we will be blessed by the gods with peace? It is Anglo liberalism from which the cult of openness flows. It is Anglo liberalism which we have taken to our breasts economically and spiritually. Anglo liberalism is indeed anti-English as it is anti-Irish and as it is anti-nation in general. It damn near killed the English and it sure as hell is going to kill us if we continue to embrace it. The way to be “radically unEnglish” is not to repeat the English mistakes, but rather, as O’Toole suggests, to affirm a “fully positive” identity.
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