The psychology of Brexit


Jay Watts has written an important psychotherapeutic perspective on the mental health crisis unleashed by the Brexit vote. She notes widespread feelings of dislocation, incomprehension and insecurity. This is by no means confined to the Remain side, as the stories of buyers’ remorse underline.

Jay’s piece is insightful on why Europe has always been such a neuralgic issue for us:

“The Brexit vote was always about identity and the boundaries between ourselves and others, be that our relationship with Europe and migration, or the expert and politician. Anything connected with borders brings with it an association to the body, and the boundary between inner and outer. This elicits primitive anxieties, the fears of both annihilation and colonisation. Such fears are heightened in relation to the EU, which carries associations with our biggest cultural trauma, that of the world wars.

“The EU, of course, was formed as an antidote to the extreme nationalism that had devastated Europe, and cost so many millions of lives. Its presence in the cultural imagination is one reason otherwise sensible people are using the world wars to attack people on the other side (“in voting leave/remain you betrayed our grandfathers”), and politicians kept on mentioning the Nazis.

“For some, the EU remains a great stabilising force, balancing the wilder policies of political parties, nationalism and selfishness. To vote leave is seen as a betrayal of all that is good, our “safe haven” from peril. By contrast, for others, the EU has become an obstacle to the British greatness that we imagine stopped us from being invaded in the wars. The EU here is the great intruder, interfering with our ability to keep firm foundations, a vessel on to which we project everything that is wrong with society. The EU is thus a strange object. It holds a dramatically different place in these two narratives, as both what allows safety and what deprives us of safety. Our position here will often depend on our own family history and the transgenerational place of migration within it.”

If anything, I think she underplays the causes of anxiety. The uncertainty over our relationship with Europe is only one aspect in which our identity is under threat. Other factors include: waking up to find ourselves in a nation that has unleashed hate crime and intimidation of foreigners; the collapse at the heart of our political institutions of the leadership and deliberation that we thought characterised our governance; the potential severing of internal bonds between the nations of the UK; and the realisation of the depth of our neglect of the dispossessed over the past decades.

Will Davies, whose contributions are among the best of the analysis of the crisis, suggests we do not yet face an emergency. He portrays our situation – correctly, I think – as the long-delayed political aftershock of the financial crisis of 2008. The damage to centralised power that he describes creates another contributing factor to the psychological unease – the danger that we could descend into some re-enactment of the 1930s, if and when we are hit by an actual emergency:

“The source of the emergency could be anything, but it is surely likely to be either another financial shock or a major terrorist strike. Were either of these two things to happen, the loss of political power delivered by Brexit would produce far higher levels of panic, and far greater flight towards informal and cultural sources of security: fascism and local violence. We’ve already witnessed the rise of public racism and harassment on Britain’s streets since June 23rd, and that’s without anything yet fundamentally changing. As it becomes clear that the state’s capacity to provide security (social, economic, physical) is shrinking, especially in areas where fiscal policy and EU funds were key to social cohesion, then things are likely to get worse.

“Avoiding such an emergency may be crucial to how Brexit turns out. The longer we go without one, the easier it will be to absorb if and when it arrives. Anything the state could do in the meantime to guarantee equal security for all UK residents and to rule out deportations would be welcome, which makes the silence of the Home Secretary Theresa May all the more appalling. Some sort of ‘Lexit’ strategy might even become plausible if a period of relative peace is long enough, though it seems even less thought-through than Brexit itself.”

Returning to the therapeutic perspective, Jay Watts says:

“If the vote tells us that traditional forms of governance have failed – and levels of malaise certainly suggest this – we must not act out our disquiet rashly in cutting links with the EU. Rather, we must use this moment to pause, and to explore new ways of relating to one another in a radically different world.”

I think this is exactly right. One of the most worrying aspects at present is not so much the sense of confusion and lack of direction on the part of politicians but their instinct to address this by defaulting to false certainties and strong leadership. Theresa May, declaring there should be no early election and that Brexit means Brexit, seems particularly inclined to this. My point here is not to argue for reversing the referendum result but to suggest that wise leadership would play for time and be inclusive of diverse perspectives.

There are so many dimensions to consider, it will take a while for the meaning of what has happened to become clear. The options for executing Brexit cannot be assessed until the UK and the EU begin to talk about them. Until this happens, it would make no sense for the UK to begin the irreversible process of involving Article 50. While it is important to respect the verdict expressed in last week’s vote, its questionable to regard it as the settled will of the people and we should remember that its legal status is advisory. The argument that political reality determines our eventual Brexit doesn’t hold. The contradictions between trying to stay close to the single market and controlling immigration have yet to be resolved. As the implications of Brexit become more apparent, it’s entirely conceivable that the public will could shift decisively – perhaps against leaving, perhaps settling on something like the Norway option, perhaps reconciled to a break with Europe.

It’s fortunate, then, that legal opinion seems to be coalescing around the view that there’s no route to Brexit without an act of Parliament. According to the QC, David Pannick, writing in The Times:

“Whether parliament would enact legislation to allow for an Article 50 withdrawal is a matter for it. However without such legislation, the prime minister cannot lawfully give a notification.”

The fear of an immediate decision following the outcome of the Conservatives’ leadership election might therefore be receding. Given that the overwhelming majority of MPs do not consider Brexit to be in the UK’s interest, it is not likely that the issue could be decided this side of a General Election.

A crowdfunding campaign, Should Parliament Decide? is under way to test the legal issues. The argument that Parliament should assert its right to decide applies as much from a psychological perspective as a constitutional one. It is not only likely to result in a more considered and robust decision, which is in the interest of both sides of the argument, but it would provide reassurance to the public that the factors that are causing such deep anxiety can be considered in a responsible manner.

Image courtesy slεεpµ╬dεmoñ.


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