Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles

By Fintan O’Toole

Head of Zeus, £20

“They’re not talking about Brexit any more; they’ve got coronavirus instead,” I overheard a nurse say on a recent hospital visit. It is true that coronavirus has eclipsed Brexit, and it is Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole’s misfortune to publish Three Years in Hell: the Brexit Chronicles at this moment of indifference to the clusterbourach that has preoccupied, nay obsessed, us for the last three years.

But at some point, coronavirus will be over, and – economically and spiritually weaker – we shall once again have to pick over the wreckage that Brexit has wrought. Above all, we shall have to come to terms with ourselves in all our complicated, divided delusion and rage.

Robert Burns has apposite words for the occasion. “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us!” might have written about Brexit.

For its advocates, Brexit is a bold and glorious popular uprising, a glinting silver sword slashing through Brussels red tape to set a proud nation free. But in the almost four years since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), the world beyond this sceptred isle has watched dumbstruck as the Mother of Democracy rounds on her children, and the sensible, tweedy British ditch pragmatism for dogma and sink into xenophobia.

No one sees us more clearly than an “intimate outsider”, which is how O’Toole styles himself. And so it is that Irish journalists, with their long experience of the violence and tragedy that nationalism entails, and their knowledge of our fatal blindspots, have dissected our implosion with a sharper scalpel than home-grown commentators.

None has been more forensic than O’Toole, winner of the Orwell Prize and European Press Prize for his columns on Brexit in the Irish Times, Guardian and New York Review of Books. Three Years in Hell brings together those columns to describe “in real-time reflection” the slow-motion catastrophe that unfolded between the Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s election in December last year.

The book is a sort of sequel to the best-selling Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, in which O’Toole deconstructed the political ideas behind Brexit. Of that book, the English novelist Jonathan Coe wrote, “He has nailed us to the floor with a nine-inch nail.”

He does that here too, though we may well ask who “we” are. From Theresa May’s crackle-voiced bid to shove a square peg in a round hole with her backstop, through Spectator journalist Rod Liddle’s inchoate rantings and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “study in powerlessness”, O’Toole lays bare our national shame.

Above all, he minces current prime minister, Boris Johnson, a serial philanderer wedded to mendacity, whose previous career as a – gulp! – journalist flourished only after he’d been fired by the The Times for inventing lurid quotes for a dull story. Johnson became the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, a position he used to turn everything from crisps to condoms into a battering ram with which to pulverise the EU’s standing, with little regard for the truth.

To manufacture outrage in newspaper columns is one thing; to lead your country into an abyss you neither understand nor wholly endorse is quite another, and O’Toole shows that this is what Johnson did. On joining the Leave campaign after much shilly-shallying on the issue, he told David Cameron he believed Brexit would be crushed. He also thought the UK could still have a seat on the European Council after leaving the EU – a belief O’Toole correctly fingers as “mind-melting”.

“Not only was Johnson unconvinced that he was taking the right side on one of the most important questions his country has faced since the Second World War, but he was unaware of the most basic consequences of Brexit,” he writes.

The trouble with Brexit, as O’Toole demonstrates again and again, is that it doesn’t bear much contact with reality. The border on Ireland that Brexit makes inevitable, which clashes with the UK’s existing international obligations, is a puzzle with no solution. Any deal hammered out with the EU and any trade deals scraped from third countries shall inevitably fall short of the grandiose promises made in the referendum campaign, which, as we have seen (and as we know from the expression on the victor’s face on the morning of his triumph), Johnson did not expect – or want – to win.

It’s no wonder Brexiteers rail against saboteurs and cry betrayal at every turn. The alternative is to face the music, and it is a dreadful cacophony of nothing: no trade deals, no action on the border, no leadership. As O’Toole notes, you cannot free yourself from imaginary oppression.

But there is also a deeper problem, which O’Toole clinically skewers. For all the talk about our precious, precious union, Brexit is a phenomenon that threatens to destroy the polity it seeks to liberate: the UK. It’s not just that Fermanagh is not as British as Finchley (if it ever was) because its residents may now claim Irish and therefore European citizenship. It is far more that the island of Great Britain is hopelessly divided unto itself, with Scotland and London strongly pro-Remain.

Therefore, Brexit is essentially the project of a new polity, which O’Toole names England-without-London. This polity voted by a clear majority of almost 11% to leave the EU. But leaving will not satisfy it. “When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English nationalist movement,” says O’Toole, but it is a movement that dare not speak its name, whose goals have not been articulated, far less reached.

For O’Toole, the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016 was principally about “the non-metropolitan English blowing the lid off” and giving voice to an identity separate from Britishness that has been on the rise for decades. How to marry this with their leaders’ red lines, which defended at all costs “the very thing the English were so deeply unhappy about – the union”?

Not the European Union. The precious, precious union. If the UK splinters, as it very well might, it may not be because Northern Ireland and Scotland exit stage left. Non-metropolitan England, which is busily finding itself, may dump these irksome extrusions, believes O’Toole.

Master of the smashing simile and the magnetic metaphor, O’Toole writes beautifully, and in that sense Three Years in Hell is a pleasure to read. Who can resist his depiction of Arlene Foster “sweeping down the Stormont staircase […] like the star of a Busby Berkeley musical flanked by her all-male chorus line” to kick Theresa May into touch?

And Brexit isn’t the only balloon O’Toole punctures in this book. He is equally searing on the fantasies of Irish nationalists who see Brexit as a fast track to Irish unity. “To put it bluntly (as no one ever does) southerners have no interest in inheriting a political wreck, or becoming direct participants in a gory sequel, ‘Troubles III: The Orange Strikes Back’.”

He is also unflinching on the EU, reminding Remainers that it isn’t simply a lovely, open, cross-cultural exchange: “Just look at what’s happening to Greece: the EU is slowly, sadistically and quite deliberately turning one of its own member states into a third-world country.”

O’Toole is a pitiless and humourful analyst, and Three Years in Hell is packed with uncommon insights. Its problem is explicit in the title. After three years in the bad place, who wants to go back? Now there is coronavirus too. Brexit looks like last year’s calamity.