The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism

Liveright: Norton. Nov. 2019. 256p. ISBN 9781631496455. $27.95. HIST
How did the UK end up in the mess that is Brexit? Political and cultural commentator O'Toole’s analysis posits a mentality particular to England as the culprit—a mind-set addicted to the glories of empire and victory that also revels in stiff-upper-lip failures (the charge of the Light Brigade; the retreat from Dunkirk), while secretly longing for a foreign invasion to jolt the country into action. Absent a hostile force, immigrants and EU regulations supposedly hell-bent on banning crisps will do. Though this portrait is exaggerated, it reveals a wounded country willing to inflict more suffering on itself as long as it can do so in a manner that feeds its pride. But as amusingly drawn as O'Toole's pointed evaluation is, there's little examination of the complexities of the Britain-EU relationship. Aside from offering some small acknowledgement of EU missteps, O'Toole is more interested in carving up Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg than engaging with complaints of Leave voters in England and the wider UK.
VERDICT A harsh and thorough skewering of the worst parts of English nationalism, though the narrative’s narrow focus undercuts its potential to be more than a caustic takedown of the country's self-image.
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