A corner of group relations theory, Earl Hopper’s “Fourth basic assumption” might offer a way to think about the turmoil around Brexit, as indicating an extreme anxiety arising from failed dependency
In the background is an idea from Wilfred Bion, that groups sometimes behave as if everyone has agreed to act in a particular way, but without there having been any discussion. His suggestion is that this reflects something happening at an unconscious level in the group. He coined the term “basic assumptions”, and named three common ones — that the group has become dependent on someone acting as “leader”, or has mobilised two people to work on its behalf as a conversation in a pair, or that it’s gone into a fight-flight mode. In the context of management, these ideas are useful as they can shed light on what’s going on when a group has gone from what it thinks it is trying to do, and there’s a sense of “something” getting in the way.
Earl Hopper’s fourth basic assumption
Other thinkers have observed other basic assumptions. Earl Hopper named a “fourth basic assumption”, with the moderately incomprehensible name “basic assumption incoherence, aggregation/massification” to indicate a situation where things have become very broken.
He joined together two things others had observed. One is called “basic assumption me-ness” to describe a situation where individuals feel sufficiently uncomfortable to mean they act as if the group doesn’t exist. This goes beyond “is the group trustworthy?” or “how do I find my place in the group?” to extreme withdrawl. It was first named in working with Roman Catholic monks and nuns after Vatican II: the point was that, faced with huge changes in their world, some were reacting by extreme withdrawl.
The other is “basic assumption one-ness”, describing a situation where people in the group act as if it is met for some higher transcendent purpose. Sometimes religion makes sense in these terms.
Hopper’s point was that both of these involve not engaging with the group. The sense is that the group has become an unsafe place, so people are disengaging at a very visceral level. Others have extended this to suggest this is visceral, gut-level stuff, that barely gets near conscious thought.
A petition for Britain to revoke the Article 50 notice has gone viral, but supporters of Leave are claiming foreign interference (despite the fact that you have to sign from a UK postcode). This seems a snapshot of how fake news circulates because it fits with what people need to be true, rather than what is.
On the evening of Wednesday 20 March (2019), Theresa May gave a televised address which went down badly. Immediately after a petition on the government web site started to gather support, as if in reaction. As it headed towards 100,000 signatures someone pointed out that there was a petition in favour of a hard Brexit with nearly 400,000 signatures and suggested people shouldn’t be complacent. They needn’t have worried. In less than 24 hours it gained over 1,200,000 signatures, becoming the most-signed petition on the Parliament petitions web site and causing the site itself to crash repeatedly, struggling to cope with its highest-ever rate of signing.
The sense is of a huge surge of energy in favour of cancelling the Article 50 notice. As this can only be done “in good faith”, and not simply to buy more time before being re-issued, this would stop the Brexit process for the forseeable future.
A pro-Brexit response: fear of outside interference
From the pro-Brexit side things have been muted. Angela Leadsom said she’d only take it seriously if the number of signatories crossed 17.4 million (the number who voted Leave). The Daily Express headline that “Petition to CANCEL Brexit hits 1 MILLION signatures as Luvvies declare ‘national emergency’”, adding “ELITIST luvvies Hugh Grant, Annie Lennox and Jennifer Saunders are scrambling to cancel Brexit using a petition that has amassed an eye-watering one million signatures — though Leave voters are questioning its authenticity.”
I’ve been hearing worry about the danger of a right-wing from people who’d feel betrayed if Brexit doesn’t happen. Might the risk be even greater if it does, and its supporters suffer an even-greater betrayal when the promised bright future doesn’t materialise?
I’ve heard a range of politicians say that we must go through with Brexit for fear of the damage that would be caused by doing anything else. Their concerns include the betrayal that would be felt by people who don’t normally vote but were motivated this time, by people whose “Leave” vote was a vote against “the elite” and would feel let down if “the elite” avoided Brexit, and by people who would see any attempt at a People’s Vote as a betrayal of the 2016 one.
Logically, this doesn’t hold that water. We don’t see it as undemocratic to have General Elections every few years. Even Jacob Rees Mogg is on record as suggesting two referenda, with a second one to come after the renegotiation is completed (though he now seems to have forgotten this).
If Brexit goes ahead in any form, it would need exceptionally-good government to address all the resulting challenges. The parliamentary chaos of recent weeks has shown a government a long way from this. Is it time to admit that Brexit can’t be delivered?
Theresa May has given it her best shot. It is hard to see anything else she could have done to make Brexit work. The game-changer of the last few weeks has been the sheer level of parliamentary dysfunction. It’s now clear that Brexit can’t happen on 29 March because of the sheer volume of legislation to be handled between then and now. If it can’t handle that, it has no chance of the sort of wise restructuring of our arrangements that would be needed for any form of Brexit to have even half a chance of working, and it has no chance of the tough decisions having widespread public support — particularly when they hit the jobs and prospects of people who voted Leave.
Under normal circumstances, when a government has lost credibility it would be time for a General Election. But right now, our two biggest parties are both deeply split. Neither can put forward a manifesto that’s more than an awkward compromise, so neither could form a credible government.
The news that a group of MPs have left Labour to form the Independent Group feels both exciting and dangerous. It might well be the first clear break in the resolution of the crisis around Brexit. But, as the SDP found, the British electoral system creates a massive problem. Unless some Conservatives join soon, it also risks Theresa May calling an opportunistic General Election. Just because that would be grossly-irresponsible doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
There had been rumours that something was in the offing. A video showed in my twitter feed from Chris Leslie announcing his resignation from the Labour Party, and I caught up with the remarkable news. Leslie’s words were wise, measured and statesman-like. He reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture, which signalled what then seemed to be the tectonic shift in British politics that gave birth to the SDP. The criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was stinging but fair. The criticism of Labour for failing to oppose what the Tories are doing on Brexit was spot on. He came across as a man of integrity, remaining true to the principles that took him into the Labour party in leaving a Labour Party that has moved far from that place.
Enabling a People’s Vote, and defusing the present sense of chaos, needs a Government of National Unity.
In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote, I argued that the process should be given significantly more time.
But we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability needed for such the People’s Vote.
This is the time for a Government of National Unity bringing people together from across Parliament, not as a formal coalition between parties, but as an interim arrangement, which would need a more collaborative way of working. The obvious person to lead this is Kenneth Clarke. This is partly because of his own considerable depth and experience. Age means he is also likely to stand down at the next General Election, so it would be clear that the Government of National Unity is there to provide stability in an exceptional time without being subsequently returned to power. He is also sufficiently unpopular with the right wing of his own party to mean that MPs from across the Commons could support him.
The Brexit process began as an internal Tory party squabble, but its resolution has to move from there to mature thinking about the future. Part of this is around the People’s Vote done thoroughly, overseen by a Government of National Unity.
This means asking the rest of the EU for a significant extension to the Article 50 period. This is not for significant further negotiation — if Brexit has to happen, May’s deal is pretty good — but to enable things to be done with considered thinking about the future.
I suggest that the process needs a People’s Vote, but on a longer timetable than people are suggesting to allow adequate preparation. It needs a Government of National Unity to provide the stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterwards for political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of the result, on which to have a General Election.
There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.
The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.
I am one of many Liberal Democrats who sees Brexit as a slowly-unfolding disaster, with no conceivable upside. There is every reason to oppose it. In that comment is an implied vision for the future — much less attractive if Brexit actually happens — but it doesn’t reach the same spot as Brexiteers with bright images of what’s in store (albeit detached from reality), or Corbynistas whose optimism would run aground on the harsh realities of a Brexit-induced recession. But there is real hope for what is in view on the other side of a People’s Vote choosing, after all, to remain in the EU.
The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution is a good place to start — we “exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
This is not about a narrowly party-political agenda. It is about embracing the bright future on offer to a Britain at the heart of the EU, which we are in danger of failing to grasp, but gets in touch with the vision that took us in and has enabled us to make a real contribution — not least to bringing about the Single Market.
Putting some flesh on those bones, in no particular order:
The Guardian piece put a persuasive case for seeing bigotry at the heart of the support for Brexit. It is persuasive but not totally compelling, in that I know people who voted Leave out of a sense of alienation or wanting to waive two fingers at politicians, and others who voted Leave because life has been very tough and they felt that “something has to change” — without thinking too closely of the possibility of things changing for the worse.
What’s intriguing about the Daily Mail story is that the claim has been that “immigrants are taking our jobs”. Though the reality is that immigrants also boost the economy and therefore create jobs, this has been a real fear. But Brexit is leading to staff shortages in the NHS, and the Daily Mail is proud of people volunteering to plug the gap, then something else is going on. Volunteers are not paid. The Daily Mail initiative has turned “immigrants taking our jobs”, which sounds like an economic argument, into “we should be prepared to work for nothing”, as a price (apparently) gladly-paid for getting rid of foreigners.