Launching his bid for the Tory leadership this week, Dominic Raab announced, histrionically: “We’ve been humiliated as a country.” For those of us who do not live on planet Brexit, this might have been mistaken for a belated reaction to the genuinely demeaning spectacle of Donald Trump’s state visit a week earlier. But, of course, like almost all of his fellow contenders to be the next prime minister, Raab was playing his part in a strange performance in which the national honour has been so horribly besmirched by the European Union that it can be salved only by taking the pain of a no-deal Brexit.
Perhaps if you keep acting out phoney feelings, you end up not being able to recognise the real thing. Brexit Britain has been wallowing in a hyped-up psychodrama of national humiliation. It is, indeed, one of the very few things that remainers and leavers still share, even if they feel mortified for very different reasons. In relation to the EU, this sense of humiliation is wildly overplayed. But when Trump comes to town and really does degrade Britain, the sense of wounded dignity that ought to be felt seems curiously absent.
Trump’s state visit sure looked like an episode of national humiliation. From the gratuitous insults tweeted about Sadiq Khan and the blatant interference in internal UK politics, to the sweeping demands as to what must be on the table in a prospective trade deal, to his openly patronising attitude to the serving prime minister, he acted like he was visiting one of his own resorts rather than a respected foreign country. And, even worse, the British state literally made a show of itself for him, rolling out its monarchy and its military as performers to entertain the emperor and his royal family of Trumps.
Now, in a way, this is fine. Humiliation is not an objective reality. It is calibrated against one’s sense of one’s own status. If you’re used to travelling business class, you may feel humiliated by having to sit in economy; but if you’ve always sat in economy, it’s just normal. So perhaps the willingness to suck up Trump’s domineering boorishness is a sign of realism, even of maturity – this is what’s it’s like to be a medium-sized country dependent on a superpower. Standing on one’s dignity is an indulgence Britain can no longer afford.
Fair enough. But then how come the idea of national humiliation has loomed so large in Brexit? Shortly before the missed departure date of 29 March, a Sky Data poll asked: “Is the way Britain is dealing with Brexit a national humiliation?” Ninety per cent of respondents said yes. This idea of collective abasement is everywhere in the Brexit narrative. A random sample of headlines from across the spectrum tells the story: “Brexit and the prospect of national humiliation” (Financial Times); “Voice of the Mirror: Theresa May’s Brexit is a national humiliation”; “A national humiliation: Never was so much embarrassment caused to so many by so few” (Telegraph); “‘Humiliating to have to beg’ for EU exit, says Arlene Foster” (Irish Times). And so, endlessly, on.
There is something hysterical in this constant evocation of humiliation. It is a cry of outraged self-regard: how dare they treat us like this?
Yes, of course, the Brexit debacle has reduced Britain’s prestige around the world. And the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May is indeed a miserable thing when compared with the glorious visions that preceded it. But Britain has not been humiliated by the EU – the deal was shaped by May’s (and Arlene Foster’s) red lines. Britain did not get what the Brexiters fantasised about, but it did get what it actually asked for. That’s not humiliation.
There is, of course, a long British tradition of phoney affront. When Britain was an aggressive imperial power, it was always on the lookout for intolerable slights to the national honour – think of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the 18th century, when an assault on an English smuggler was the excuse for war with Spain. Perhaps when you are truly powerful, there is even a certain pleasure in imagining the opposite. As the poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum has written: “Humiliation is bliss if the experience of largeness or magnitude has become overwhelming and unpleasant and you need relief.”
But a feeling that provided relief from the overwhelming greatness of empire becomes ridiculous when you are no longer a great power. It becomes a mere posture. This is what happened to the idea of national humiliation in the Brexit mentality. At its heart, Brexit depends on the idea that Britain cannot be an ordinary European country and, therefore, that equality within the EU is inherently humiliating. The EU traps a business-class country in economy class, where it must writhe in resentment, hemmed in between lesser nations and tormented by visions of the silver service and fine wines it should be getting instead of “chicken or beef”.
And yet we have the apparently untroubled self-abasement towards Trump. National humiliation, it seems, depends on which nation or group of nations is inflicting the offence. Mere equality with France and Germany and Spain is intolerably demeaning. Subservience to a loutish US president is not. Honour is impugned when the EU negotiates realistically but not when Trump casually abuses elected English politicians and interferes in the selection of the next prime minister.
Britain is humiliated by the EU because it expects to be superior. It is not humiliated by Trump because, for all the illusion of a special relationship, it accepts that it is a junior partner. In one context, dominance is demanded; in the other, subservience is accepted. So much for honour. “What,” Shakespeare’s Falstaff asks, “is honour?”, and he answers: “a word”. And so is its opposite, humiliation. But a dangerous word. It may have no substance, but it has the power to harm. It brings down with it an acid rain of corrosive emotions: the need, at all costs, not to lose face, the indulgence of self-pity, the demented idea that national pride can be restored only by the endurance of great pain.
It needs to be banished from the Brexit discourse. Acknowledging reality is not humiliating. Accepting that you have made a mistake is not humiliating. If this poisonous word can be avoided when it has no meaning, perhaps it can be used when it really is called for.
• Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain