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.