“Getting back” what was never lost: the tragedy and the impossible task

Brexit “gets back” what was never lost — Boris Johnson has set up himself (or his successor) for failure when this becomes obvious. The consequences will be serious.

The vox pops in my social media feed on 31 January sent a shiver down the spine. There were comments on getting back “our freedom” (that we never lost), “our independence” (that we never lost), our “sovereignty” (that we never lost), our “democracy” (that we never lost) and “our industry” (that we have lost, but not because of the EU).

That’s a heady mix. On social media people were quick to lampoon these positions — with good reason — but people are believing them.


The brutal reality is that these positions show the depth of the failure thinking that has accompanied Brexit. We can’t get back what we never lost. But globalisation is changing the world radically. The real loss of sovereignty and the real limit on what governments can do is nothing to do with the EU, but does come from increased global connectedness.

A glaring example is that some people blamed Gordon Brown for the financial crash of 2008 but they were wrong — this was a global crash, so the debate about Labour’s performance around then should have focussed on how well they had prepared the economy to withstand a shock from outside. At the time Labour were attacked for the crash itself, showing how hard people are finding it to think more broadly. It’s much easier to have a mental model of one’s country than of the world, but thinking just in terms of the country because one can’t think of the world is like deciding what to where to go out on the basis of the temperature indoors rather than the snow outside.

Waving union jacks doesn’t change anything. Withdrawing from a major and stable European arrangement actually leaves us more vulnerable.

A harsh side of globalisation is that industry has indeed moved. Mass production has gone to countries with lower wages. How many of the people who lament that would be willing to pay two or three times as much for their clothes if they were made in Birmingham rather than Bangladesh? More sharply, the sort of trade barriers that would protect the British economy are things that appeal to populists, but harm the economy in the long term. The fundamental point is that globalisation is almost unstoppable. Resources poured into the illusion of stopping it are resources taken from other things.

Like Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats, with “made in China” tags inside, the fantasy of stopping globalisation doesn’t match reality.

The emotional side

All of that is obvious. There is something going on which means a great swathe of the country is not seeing it.

One of Lacan’s really helpful insights is that we use language to think about things. In a sense that is obvious, but it dangles a more subtle question about what we can’t symbolise — like the person who feels angry and lashes out at someone, even though the person at whom they lash out had nothing to do with their being angry. (In brackets — in that situation people are often good at intuiting situations where they can throw their anger at someone without destroying them, as when a child processes its anger by shouting at its parents, knowing it can do this. How much of the anger Brexiteers have been directing at the EU has nothing to do with the EU, but is being thrown in that direction because the EU is seen as stable-enough to take it?)

When language is working, we have the ability to symbolise things and think about them in very rich ways. But processing raw emotion through to something that can actually be thought is a big achievement. It can’t be taken for granted, especially in situations of rapid change when familiar understandings no longer work. People living in countries with colonies, who are used to thinking dismissively of “the natives”, don’t easily recognise the wisdom of the people they are dismissing — it is often easier simply to deny reality and make up an alternative way to make sense of what they are seeing. In the UK there’s been remarkably little coverage of the fact that the Indian economy has overtaken the British one in importance. It’s even harder for people to recognise the richness of the culture our forebears disparaged. One way to processes this is as fear of immigrants coming to “take what we have” — but in the background there should be the gnawing realisation that things are turning the other way around. The only thing that is likely to challenge that is serious damage from climate change — which gives a sense of why some people might have an unconscious reason to ignore that unfolding crisis.

India is an example, rather than the only piece of reality people have a reason to ignore. A nostalgic attempt to turn back the clock is emotionally easier than engaging with reality. We never lost our “freedom” or “democracy” because of the EU, but both could easily be threatened by global change. The EU has been pretty realistic about this — unfortunately, I fear that Brexiteers hear that not as friends helping us face reality, but as an unwelcome reminder of it.

A more serious emotional side

It’s generally recognised that the Leave campaign lied on an industrial scale. The claim that “both sides lied” is a false equivalence — is a mix of asserting that the economic predictions for what will happen if/when we leave the Single Market and Customs Union have not come true (because we haven’t left them) and that the emergency budget George Osborne said would be needed didn’t happen (except that the changes made by his successor and the Bank of England are that in all but name).

But the “Leave lies” are more than this. In a blog post just after Brexit happened, I mentioned Christopher Wylie’s book Mindf*ck, inside Cambridge Analytica’s plot to break the world gives a chilling account of the use of psychological warfare applied to elections. The picture he tells is both of attempts to undermine trust in democratic processes, and manipulate people’s vulnerabilities.

The undermining of trust in democracy fits with comments from Brexit supporters about wanting to “get back our democracy”. This is about democracy itself, but is also about people’s sense of trust in their country and its processes. Making people feel that they are being ignored undermines all of that. In the referendum there were stories of people taking pens to polling stations for fear that their pencil marks on ballot papers would be rubbed out. The angry comments of “We won” from Brexiteers gives a sense of the emotions around the fear that they wouldn’t. More tellingly, polls have been consistently showing Remain ahead of Leave since very shortly after the referendum. The refusal of the government to offer another referendum could be simply the fear of losing, but if there is any wisdom in it, then the wisdom would be the fear of massive alienation from Leave supporters if Remain won. That points to serious dysfunction.

But the Leave messaging seems to have been clearly calculated to get people to vote Leave rather than to make an informed decision. One of the Leave adverts on Facebook that caught my attention showed a mother polar bear and a cub, with a caption which seemed to mean that the EU stops the UK helping them. On the doorsteps I had people asking about the EU and animal rights soon before the referendum, and it appears that this was an unjustified implying that the EU stood in our way on this. I quoted some other examples in that blog post, but the overall impression is of careful messaging designed to find and exploit people’s vulnerabilities. That’s a world in which truth doesn’t matter.

This is bad news for democracy — it’s the polar opposite of clearly outlining both choices and enabling people to make an informed decision. But stoking people’s anxiety is also dangerous. It’s particularly dangerous when this is done by careful Facebook micro-targeting because it separates people. If my friends and I all receive the same information, we can talk about it. If each of us receives information calibrated on where we are most vulnerable, we are heading different things — it becomes more scary because it is harder to talk about. That’s a world that is frightening and undermines the sense of reality.

The right answer to this is enough information to enable people to talk and think. Separating people and playing on their fears is a way to undermine collective mental health. It’s the sort of atomising where a strong leader who can “make it go away” appeals. The Tory “Get Brexit done” slogan from the 2019 General Election fits with the response to this — it’s not a rational response, but it is one of “take my anxiety away”. It’s nonsense, in that we will be locked into sorting out Brexit for years, but it has appeal. The Tory decision to say there will be no extensions to the implementation (transition) period is folly in terms of the sheer amount to be negotiated, but fits that soothing task of making the anxiety go away.

Shared psychosis

Where we are now feels more like national psychosis than anything sane. It’s a space where raw fears have power, and common sense is a rare commodity. At the best of times that is a bad idea. Navigating the sheer complexity of Brexit it is very serious.

Right now we have a vicious circle. If Boris Johnson can come over as “strong”, that contains the anxiety. If the process of Brexit is stirring up anxiety (as it should) then this is more reason for Johnson to be strong and authoritarian. With a large majority in parliament there is little to restrain him. This is dangerous.

The EU has a duty to put its citizens first in negotiations, and to hope the British crisis blows over. For now the serious concern is that this does huge damage to our collective sanity — on top of significant economic damage this is not good news. And psychosis is about losing touch with reality, so there is a real risk of people not being able to join up the dots, and instead demanding ever stronger leadership. Those who think they got back the freedom they never lost on 31 January might be on the road to discovering what the loss of freedom feels like.

Originally written 8 February 2020

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