Chosen trauma and memories of the war

One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.

Trauma and celebration in World War II
Trauma and celebration in World War II

The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.

The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, but also making a point about how she understood Anglo-French relations now.

My sense is that the two world wars are acting as chosen traumas — articulating a sense of the struggle — and as chosen glories, speaking of our success.

But the wars are remembered differently on the two sides of the Channel. Though things were tough, we didn’t experience invasion, fighting in our streets, occupation or brutal repression.

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A Liberal Democrat future (speech given July 2016)

It has been an astonishing few weeks: shock waves from the Brexit vote have been echoing round the world, our two largest political parties in turmoil and a string of resignations. The spotlight has been shone on wealth inequalities, racism and xenophobia in British society. As a party, we’re right to be getting things in order in case there is a snap election.

Mark Argent
Mark Argent

I campaigned for a Remain vote — both as a Liberal Democrat and in Cambridge for Europe. Remaining in the EU is profoundly important for all of us. I very much agree with Tim Farron’s comment made soon after the referendum, that we should campaign to reverse Brexit in the next election, though quite what that means will depend on whether the formal process of leaving under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty has been triggered by then.

Between the start of the year and the referendum I knocked on just over 2100 doors. Each time I have asked the Europe question. What strikes me is how many of those who said they’d vote Leave who were doing this for reasons which had nothing to do with the EU — reasons that were to do with frustrations with life or politicians. When the EU was mentioned, people knew chillingly little about it.

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Engaging with disgruntled Leave voters

Beside the ongoing drama around Westminster, there’s an urgent task to be done among those who voted to leave the EU and are beginning to regret it. This is crucial for the country, and wise for LibDems as well.


I’m thinking of those taken in by false “promises” — there isn’t an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, or an end to free movement of people, Brexit doesn’t mean an end to fishing quotas, and “taking back control” now sounds like a joke. They were already alienated and this is not helping.

We’re hearing stories of Brexit hitting places that voted for it: Lush moving from Poole, Forterra mothballing plants in Accrington and Claughton. Vacancies and job prospects are down. We need a more constructive response than a brutal “You voted for it”.

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Beware the 1930s

My mind keeps going to parallels between the worlds of Brexit and Trump and what happened in Germany in the 1930s. It’s a worrying parallel.

A demonstrator holds up a flag during a demonstration by far-right protesters in Dover
A demonstrator holds up a flag during a demonstration by far-right protesters in Dover, from “Go home, we voted Leave” on CBC Radio

At the time of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, I was in Spain at the annual meeting of the Intern­ational Society for Psycho­analytic Study of Organisations. A gathering of people from across the world who are used to exploring unconscious processes was a rich context in which to explore what was going on under the surface.

By coincidence, on polling day one conference session was intended to focus on ethical dilemmas. We were shown short films on two famous psychological experiments, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford experiment which are controversial both because people were harmed, and because they shed light on how civilised people can come to behave badly. They have been used to understand what happened in the concentration camps, but are much more widely applicable than that.

The ensuing discussion seemed a little dry, as if there was something important which was being avoided. I took the microphone and made a link with some of the violence of the referendum: the murder of Jo Cox, an incident in a supermarket where someone I had seen earlier in a Vote Leave stall was shouting at a cashier planning to vote Remain, and some very aggressive comments from Leave supporters in door-knocking in the campaign. This is not to accuse Vote Leave of orchestrating violence, but it suggests something was being mobilised (which has become more obvious since then). I commented on the dark streak in Europe: along with our capacity to be civilised, there is a capacity to behave in very destructive ways. I expressed my fear that this was close to the surface in the referendum and struggled with tears as I commented on the way the EU has been set up to contain that destructive streak in the European psyche, and the fears evoked by some in the UK wanting to pull away from that. I was met with a round of applause.

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