Pothole column: just don’t get caught out

The Brexiteers seem to be suffering from severe imperial phantom pains. This makes it impossible to deal with each other as equals.

Brexiteers perceive EU exit as a chance to return to old English qualities Photo: Simon Migaj/Unsplash

With each passing Brexit day, I remember more of my childhood. Of my time at an English boarding school in a very English colony: Kenya, a so-called settler’s colony because it was not only colonially administered but also settled. I enjoyed my time there, even though it was a strange experience. Because everything was imported, even the seasons. Our trimesters were based on a climatic calendar that had no relation to the country we were in, because in Kenya there was no fall and no spring and certainly no winter.

Of course, the curriculum was also imported. It was only much later that I realized that the historical account was of decided imperial one-sidedness: victories against the Welsh, victories against the Scots, victories against the French, victories against the Irish. We sat at our desks, surrounded by jacaranda trees, studying the array of armies and the feints of generals, and had to rejoice in the fact that at the end of the historical day of war the English always won – at least it seemed that way.

At the end of my first year at school, when the report cards were handed out, the class teacher declared, "How can you allow a foreigner to be better than you?" The foreigner, that was me, the other students apparently part of an imperial unit, even if many among them were Africans and Indians. A year later, the same teacher announced, "There are two kinds of people, Englishmen and those who would like to be." To which he laughed as if it were a joke, a complicit laugh that was probably meant to express: We’re pretending to be joking, but – between you and me – that’s exactly what it is.

He cackled rather than laughed, and the infantile cackle of Boris Johnson reminds me strongly of that of my class teacher. He, too, was elite, even if only a spare wheel; it had taken him to Kenya for unknown reasons. He too carried his aristocratic charisma unclouded through the sweaty day.

Historic impediment to development

Always decked out and grimacing into the comedic, to show that people of his background and bearing are removed from the lowliness of the little people. Once, when I was caught breaking one of the many strict rules, he scolded me, "You can’t get caught." And then, in wonderfully elliptical English, "You do can anything, if you can get away with it."

There we have the maxim by which the leading lights of the Brexit campaign operate. As Irish publicist Fintan O’Toole points out in his readable book "Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain," the time-honored racism of this class is so aptly disguised in the language of kindergarten. When Boris Johnson speaks of "flag-waving pikaninnies [slave-era term: "little black people"] with watermelon smiles," one of his countless rhetorical gaffes (which are precisely none), it sounds like a phrase from an old children’s book that has long since disappeared into the poison cabinet of resentment.

The new English nationalism stages itself as anti-globalization – nothing more than a party gimmick

The Brexit flag-wavers seem to suffer from historical inhibition of development or from strong imperial phantom pains. One’s greatness is a map from the school atlas on which half the earth was painted pink or blue (I can’t remember the color). And one’s essence is the supposed national character of strength ("stiff upper lip") and resilience ("take it on the chin and move on").

Which is why lately the hard, brutal, uncompromising separation from the European Union has been celebrated in such circles as a chance to step through a valley of suffering to get back to the old English qualities. I know this, too, from my boarding school. Porridge every morning, running in the woods when it rained, and swimming. This was preparation for a life of luxury – getting "tough" early so you could rule and dominate later.

Ready to serve a kleptocratic system

Only the elites have changed in the meantime. While there was celebration on the island that four English teams faced each other in the two European finals, they were anything but "English." I don’t just mean the players, who come from all over, I mean the owners of the clubs. All four are owned by oligarchs who don’t live in England, Liverpool by an American investment manager, Tottenham Hotspurs by a Bahamas-based investor, Chelsea by Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, and Arsenal by an American tycoon and an Uzbek-Russian tycoon.

This new elite sees London, England as an amusement park (and occasionally a sound investment), they were courted by Boris Johnson when he was mayor of the capital, he offered them a glocal oasis. So, when the new English nationalism presents itself as anti-globalization, it goes down well with the strata of the disengaged and marginalized, but it is nothing more than a party gimmick.

After all, the three or four Brexiteers who are always waving their swords and posing as St. George (at a fair) are nothing more than butlers for a gluttonous moneyed elite that owns not only the traditional soccer clubs on the island, but also iconic city palaces (such as Witanhurst Mansion) and parts of venerable Oxford.

Because the imperial phantom pain makes cooperation at eye level impossible (joint decisions at the EU level have been denigrated as humiliation or even enslavement), these people are willing to serve a kleptocratic system as long as they can puff themselves up in the national mirror as free and independent. And that is not something to cackle about, it is deeply tragic.