The 2016 Tory conference will go down as a landmark moment. I fear it will come to be seen as the signalling of a chilling new “class war”.
On the surface the language could be heard as optimistic, with talk of opportunity and investment and everyone benefitting, and “Hard Brexit” being tough but good.
But the scarcely-concealed panic should be ringing alarm bells. Austerity abandoned, money to be borrowed for investment in housing and infrastructure. That sounds like a Keynesian reaction to an impending economic catastrophe induced by Brexit. Is that catastrophe what people voted for?
Recently [September 2016] I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK.
In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.
More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.
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.
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 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.