England’s recent lurch to the right appears to be but one example of the nationalist wave sweeping across the world, yet as acclaimed Irish critic Fintan O’Toole suggests in The Politics of Pain, it is, in reality, a phenomenon rooted in World War II. We must look not to the vagaries of the European Union but, instead, far back to the end of the British empire, if we hope to understand our most fraternal ally—and the royal mess in which the British now find themselves. O’Toole depicts a roiling nation that almost ludicrously dreams of a German invasion, if only to get the blood going, and that erupts in faux outrage over regulations on “prawn-flavored crisps.” A sympathetic yet unsparing observer, O’Toole asks: How did a great nation bring itself to the point of such willful self-harm? His answer represents one of the most profound portraits of the English since Sarah Lyall’s New York Times bestseller The Anglo Files.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and the Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.