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Fintan O’Toole: Ukraine puts crass Brexit into perspective

London rhetoric about EU oppression trivial compared to Putin’s death and destruction

In the first part of Jonathan Swift’s great satire, Lemuel Gulliver finds himself, in Lilliput, a giant among tiny people. On his next voyage he ends up, in Brobdingnag, as a homunculus among giants.

Gulliver himself does not actually change size. But Swift shows us that when you change the perspective, the titan becomes teeny.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has, among so many other things, relocated Brexit from Lilliput to Brobdingnag. It no longer looms large against the European sky – it seems, rather, so insignificant that it might be trod underfoot in a fit of absent-mindedness.

With a gaping wound on its eastern side, asking the European Union to care about an ingrown toenail on its western extremity seems merely crass. The Border, the protocol, article 16 – specks of dust that linger in the air from an apparently monumental construct that has now crumbled into triviality.


Could it really be only a year and a half ago that the British government was declaring, openly and shamelessly, its intention to break international law? And adding that this was okay because, in the words of the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, it would do so only in a “limited and specific” way?

The Brexiteers gloried in their flippant disregard for a rules-based international order, in which agreements are entered into in good faith with the sincere intention to honour them. They thought it was frightfully clever to sign a treaty with hard-fought provisions about Ireland and almost immediately try to tear it up.

What's happened is that the figments of the reactionary imagination have become far too real. Vapid metaphors have turned to torn flesh

And now Boris Johnson is preaching to the world that “It is no longer enough to express warm platitudes about the rules-based international order. We are going to have to actively defend it against a sustained attempt to rewrite the rules.”

Vapid metaphors

But hardly anyone can be bothered to emit a hollow laugh. How infantile those self-indulgent tantrums now appear. “Limited and specific” undermining of rules-based order isn’t even bitterly funny anymore.

What’s happened is that the figments of the reactionary imagination have become far too real. Vapid metaphors have turned to torn flesh. The “frightfully, awfully” posturing has been confronted with what the frightful and awful actually look like.

When Johnson idiotically and bathetically compared the Ukrainian resistance to the freedom-loving impulse of Brexit, he was diminishing the former but revealing a hell of a lot about the latter.

The wave of collective self-pity that Johnson has surfed was powered by camped-up notions of oppression and invasion.

In 2018, the then British foreign secretary (and actually one of the saner Tories), Jeremy Hunt, told the Conservative party conference that the EU was a “prison” just like “the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving”. Britain’s prison break was, in this rhetoric, similar to the Ukraine or other former Soviet republics freeing themselves from Moscow’s iron grip.

Which presumably is why the EU flattened Birmingham with bombs, fired rockets at the National Theatre and St Bart’s hospital in London, and seized large parts of the south coast of England?

There’s an episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm in which a Holocaust survivor is accidentally paired at dinner with a former contestant from the reality TV show Survivor, who proceeds to tell him how tough a time he had while filming it on a Fijian island. It would be interesting to see a show now in which Hunt explained to some Ukrainian refugees how brave but traumatic it was for Britain to escape the tyranny of Brussels.

Migrants vs invaders

Invasion, meanwhile, has been the metaphor of choice for the whole reactionary movement across Europe and the US. Peaceful migrants – many of them fleeing violent oppression – were cast as hordes of invaders who would take over the West and destroy its white Christian civilisation.

The people of Ukraine should not have to bleed so that we can all remember what oppression and invasion really mean

Brexit drew heavily on this imagery. To end free movement was to rebuild the sea walls that would preserve the sanctity and safety of the sceptred isle.

All of this was Lilliputian inflation, the bigging-up of petty and narcissistic grievance. Hyping the compromises involved in membership of the EU as intolerable oppression and casting migrants as aggressors made small-minded politicians feel like grandiose historical figures.

But oppression isn’t an annoying EU regulation about what ingredients can go into flavoured crisps. Invasion isn’t the arrival in your local hospital of a kind and skilled nurse whose skin is darker than your own.

The people of Ukraine should not have to bleed so that we can all remember what oppression and invasion really mean. We should not have to rely on the madness of Vladimir Putin to restore a sane sense of perspective.

It is perhaps a little unfortunate for Ireland that the problems we have been left with as a legacy of an episode that seems more and more ridiculous have shrunk, on the European scale, to almost nothing. What a deludedly happy time it was when Irish problems could command so much attention.

Winston Churchill famously claimed that, as the waters receded after the great deluge of the first World War, the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone appeared once more. The deluge is back and the floods have covered the steeples again. It will be a long time before they are again visible from the European mainland.