Grieving is a natural process for dealing with loss. It can be painful. People often also deny reality, which lets us deal with it gradually. Ultimately grief is a healing process which enables people to process losses and move forward in a healthy way. Owning some of the griefs Liberal Democrats have experienced could be important as part of the journey ahead.
As LibDems, we’ve had a lot to grieve in the last few years. Between 2006 and 2015 each local election seemed to bring losses. Some of the compromises of the coalition were painful. The elections to the European Parliament, the General Election and the EU referendum were excruciating.
We shouldn’t let the language of ‘LibDem fightback’ disguise the fact that we have taken a pounding, even as we welcome new members.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
People who already felt disenfranchised and voted Leave are now discovering they were lied to: it is hard to imagine this not fueling resentment.
Vote Leave seem to have ridden a tide of resentment to a narrow referendum majority, and immediately had to start admitting to lying in their campaign. The lies were impressive and, combined with the idea that experts are not to be trusted, were irrefutable. They played on the fears and anxieties of people who already felt left behind. They spoke to people struggling from years of austerity and feeling ignored by “elites”.
What happens to these people as they realise they were taken for a ride by a faction of that “elite” that played on their vulnerability? What is happening to people who voted Leave because they wanted change, and are increasingly horrified to find out what that change looks like, or voted out of protest and discover that their vote has consequences?
In this video, Michael Dougan offers a brilliant and well-informed exposition of the EU.
Truth has sometimes felt like a scarce commodity in the referendum debate. It’s hard not to read the Leave campaign’s claims about Turkey being on the point of joining the EU with catastrophic effect, or the mythical £350 million a week to Brussels, as lies.
The Remain campaign has not been so extreme, but has tended to quote statistics without proper respect for uncertainty. For example, there are lots of projections of what Brexit would cost the UK economy. The actual numbers depend on the assumptions in the modelling. The broad conclusion is that Brexit would harm the UK economy, but being too exact gets into a discussion of whose model is best, and can undermine the conclusion that Brexit risks serious economic problems.
Do watch this video, in which Prof Michael Dougan offers a very coherent academic assessment of the situation.
After the referendum, Michael Dougan released a second video on the new situation: click here to watch.
Evidence to Treasury Select Committee
Michael Dougan was one of four witnesses to the Treasury Select Committee on 5 July, along with Robin Niblett, Sir Emyr Jones Parry and Raoul Ruparel. The video feed is remarkable: my reading is that it makes the leaving of the EU seem absurd, and the negotiations to be about damage-limitation.
It seems profoundly in the interest of the UK and of the EU to abandon Brexit (and get on with being constructive members of the EU after this mistake).
Since the murder of Jo Cox and the arrest of Thomas Mair, there has been lots of speculation on how this is to be understood. It is worth adding a group perspective to this.
One of the ideas in group relations is that we are all in various groups, and sometimes what we do makes most sense if it is seen in the context of the group. It’s possible to push that too far, but it can be a helpful way of looking.
What goes with this is an idea that, when there is pressure on a group, someone eventually acts in a way that addresses it. This isn’t necessarily a great leader. In fact is often the weakest member of the group — their weakness meaning they are least able to resist the pressure of the whole group.
As a mundane example, a while back I was on a late-night train, where people were interrupted by a “replacement bus service”. We were all annoyed. One person was obnoxious to the railway staff. Was he the person who was putting into words what we all felt? Was our embarrassment at his bad language also embarrassment at the language we were tempted to use?
This way of thinking flags up a concern about how we respond to terrorists. If they are the unstable extreme of the community from which they come, then acting against the whole community actually increases the strain and makes terrorists more likely.
The Bank of England has recently highlighted “risks of adverse spill-overs to the global economy” from a Brexit vote, and flagged up concerns about pressure on sterling, in addition to worries it had already voiced. It may be no surprise that supporters of Vote Leave are keen for these not to be heard.
There was a quite surreal segement on the Today Programme on 16 June, when Bernard Jenkin, of Vote Leave, was interviewed and attacked Bank of England Govenor Mark Carney for (as he saw it) breaking the purdah rules that prevent civil servants and publicly-funded bodies speaking out on the referendum, and David Cameron was quoted as saying this was an attack on the Bank’s independence.
The frustration is real. The slowdown of 2008 has had serious effects. Austerity has been painful and the government doesn’t seem concerned. Work is more fragile than we’d like, housing is painfully expensive, worries about the NHS are real and there are fears about immigration.
There’s palpable anger at politicians among at least some of those wanting to vote for Brexit. I’ve heard personalised reasons “I’m voting out because David Cameron wants us to vote in” or “because I don’t want George Osborne to be Prime Minister”. I’ve heard general things like “to teach them a lesson” or “to make the EU change”. I’ve heard grander arguments like “stand up to globalisation” or “take our place in the world”.
I can understand each of those reactions. Before the last General Election I went to a party where one person said he was thinking of having a tee-shirt made with the words “I’m not voting for any of them because they are all liars”. I’d gone the other way and tried to make a difference by standing for parliament.