The fire at Grenfell Tower is clearly a very serious event. A 24-story building, newly refurbished was engulfed in flames. Advice to people to stay in their flats in the event of fire catastrophically wrong. Reactions to the disaster throw a spotlight on the failings of the government.
So far, so bad. There is grief and there is anger. At the time of writing this, it’s not clear whether the fire was a result of building regulations not being followed, or not being sufficient to ensure fire safety. Whatever the actual cause, many people have died nasty deaths.
Pulling the lens back from the fire itself, it raises serious questions of government.
Under normal circumstances people look to government to provide order and stability. In difficult times governments also have blame and anger projected onto them.
I finished a recent post by saying that we urgently need wise leadership, in the face of the situation brought on by the referendum result (and the probably consequences of Trump’s election). “Wise leadership” can sound like a euphemism for a forceful leader who imposes a solution — which sounds more than a little fascist, and is the opposite of wise leadership — but it seems worth being more explicit about this.
Drawing on Kleinian / group relations language
It seems worth expressing this in terms of language that the world of group relations has developed from the work of Melanie Klein. In looking at small children, Klein developed two terms to describe the early stages of mental life (though inevitably this is a simplification). She coined the terms “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions for them — the terms are a little unfortunate, because they don’t mean that someone is paranoid or schizoid or depressed, but it seems worth staying with them. She suggests that these are not stages we move through, but ways of processing that continue to be part of who we are, continuing as parts of our mental life into adulthood: it is sometimes helpful to think of them as layers (or strands) in our being, and one or other is more prominent at any one time.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve heard several people recently talk of the “politics of untruth”, as if things have moved into a particularly surreal space in the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. What happens when truth disappears? Are there unconscious things drawing people to vote in a way that makes life worse?
The crude answer is that people believe what they need to believe, which is not primarily about logic. The assertions that EU membership costs £350 Million per week and that Turkey is about to join the EU bringing mass migration have been thoroughly discredited. The fact that people are still believing them says a great deal for people’s needs and fears. Working with unconscious fears is also core territory for psychoanalysis.
A few weeks after the storm over whether or not the Queen supported Brexit deserves a more detached look.
What actually happened was that The Sun ran a provocative piece on 9 March 2016, claiming that the Queen backed Brexit. The assertion was that she had “rip at the then Deputy PM [Nick Clegg] during a lunch at Windsor Castle”. Clegg rapidly tweeted “As I told the journalist this is nonsense. I’ve no recollection of this happening & its not the sort of thing I would forget” and the BBC ran a story about Buckingham Palace being clear that she was neutral over Brexit.
As the lunch in question was in 2011 it is stretching things to construe whatever was actually said as a comment on the forthcoming referendum. At this distance it might also be quite hard to be sure of what was said and what people wish she had said.
I don’t pretend to know the Queen’s private views on this, but the whole episode raises someone in the role of the Queen might respond to the EU, in terms of the role itself, history and the constitution.