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.
I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.
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.
StrongerIN have rightly seized on his words: his actions smack of political opportunism, and sound as if his support for leaving the EU and his personal ambition to become Prime Minister are closely linked.
An immediate riposte is that the mechanisms of the EU do limit the ability of Maverick politicians to play opportunistic games of rabble-rousing. This is no bad thing. People might claim it as undemocratic, but democracy does assume that voters are well-informed and rational: manipulative games also undermine democracy.
But Johnson’s narrative gets the whole thing horribly wrong.
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.
Concern over migration is shaping up to be a EU-wide issue — it is frustrating that it is an issue in the referendum debate as if this is not something we share with our EU partners.
Last weekend’s elections in Germany have sent shockwaves because of the progress of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Writing in The Guardian, Philip Oltermann also points out the success of some pro-refugee candidates as an illustration of the increasingly complex and fractured nature of the argument.
It sounds very familiar: in the UK the proponents of Brexit are pushing an anti-immigration case to “take back control of our borders” while Liberal Democrats are tending to point out the value of immigrants. In narrowly-financial terms, the awkward reality is that immigrants to the UK contribute substantially more in taxes than they take out of the system in benefits. Even the argument to restrict benefits to new arrivals is questionable: if someone comes to the UK, claims benefits while they settle, starts earning and starts paying tax and more-than pays back what they received, then the “benefit” payments look like a prudent investment. The idea’s been pithily summed up in the idea of Schrödinger’s immigrant: simultaneously stealing our jobs and too lazy to work.
In the UK the debate around immigration seems to swing between discussions of free movement of people within the European Union, “economic migrants” (who come to the UK and pay taxes here) and comments on those seeking asylum which swing between seeing them as threats and seeing them as people who deserve compassion. That mix mobilises lots of fears of “others” or “foreigners”, particularly among those with least actual experience of people from other countries.
My eye was caught recently by a super watercolour of the Houses of Parliament in the mist, viewed from the Thames, in the days before motorised boats on the river. As it was hanging on the wall of the room where the Liberal Democrat European Group held its AGM, I was tempted to quip that that might be the age to which Eurosceptics seek to turn back the clock. This was the age of empire and Rule Britannia. I can see the appeal of that romanticised vision but golden ages don’t usually stand close scrutiny, and this vision is particularly deceptive.
The European Union is a newish body, but it builds on a rich heritage. The Britain that “ruled the waves” was one of the European powers with a colonial story. We have been rivals, but we and our European neighbours were neighbours across the world.
Scratching the surface barely more deeply, there are the seemingly-unending stories of migration, preserved in some of our surnames, and in the genetic mapping of the UK which shows England’s genetic debt to the Saxons who settled here.