Repercussions of a sadness around Brexit

The People’s Vote march on 19 October 2019 had a sadness to it — akin to depression — and which should be taken seriously.

People’s Vote march, 19 Oct 2019

A friend commented that she was struck by the sense of sadness. There was also fear, but much less of the carnival-like atmosphere of previous marches. One of the hallmarks of emotions in groups is that, if they affecting the whole group, they are less obvious because people don’t look around and see others in a radically-different space. My friend’s words called my up short, and made me wonder.

Freud’s essay Mourning and Melancholia suggests that the big difference between the two is that, in mourning there is real grieving for something that has been lost, such as after the death of a loved one, but in melancholia, though the sadness is real, but it’s not so clear what has actually been lost. That’s part of the territory of depression.

19 October 2019 was a day of high drama in Parliament — in its first Saturday sitting since the Falklands invasion. The media has been awash with speculation and interpretation — often adding more heat then light. Perhaps that’s justified, but I wonder if it was also a distraction from something much harder to name.

An un-nameable loss

I could point a finger at both the Conservative and Labour parties, suggesting that they’ve both lurched to extremes, leaving many of their traditional supporters with a sense of abandonment. I could point to the serious threat of Brexit, in both economic and cultural terms. But these have all been around for a while. They don’t adequately explain the sadness now.

A missing piece of the jigsaw is the attitude of Brexit supporters. There’s a stridency and a demand to “give us what we voted for” (and a refusal to engage with the rather delicate question of which of the Brexit models on offer is actually what they think they voted for). Around the march there were a handful of Brexit supporters. One earnestly tried to put “the other side” and tell me that the EU is an evil empire. I had the word “paranoia” in mind as we spoke, but also wondered about the emotional process that leads to such a strange conclusion (perhaps related to something I wrote about a while back). Afterwards there were a few others stridently shouting about their Brexit, though it was more clear that they wanted it than what “it” is.

Normally the structures of government provide some stability. At present this is badly compromised. We have a government that can’t get things through the Commons and has been found to have acted illegally. Boris Johnson’s “People v Politicians” language might enable him to turn frustration into victory in a General Election, but devalues the very government he seeks to lead. In a rapidly-changing world, the UK seems poised to wreck relations with a European Union that has provided stability for decades and is its most important trading partner. At the best of times these would unsettle people. They might well also make it hard to think, because the natural response to everything shaking is to shut down rather than think carefully (as people often do when highly stressed).

Freud’s idea of melancholia seems useful because it feels as if there is something else around. For some, particularly those of us who would prefer to remain in the EU, this links to the impending losses around Europe. But the supporters of Brexit seem loud rather than optimistic. It’s reminiscent of “disavowal” — pushing away painful emotions by forcefully putting something else in their place. A classic example is the person who deals with their homosexuality by being loudly homophobic.

The sadness (and some Brexiteers’ disavowal of it) make sense if it’s not clear what’s been lost, so people can’t name it and can’t talk about how to address the loss.

What has been lost?

As someone who is British, I am very much part of the collective process of the UK, so I can’t step outside to see what has been lost, think of Michel Barnier’s suggestion that Brexit is about “nostalgia”: I hear that as a yearning for a world that’s gone and can’t quite be remembered. Stories of the war are thrown around by people who only know it in films. People talk of “foreigners” taking from us, whether that is jobs or trade or fisheries, even as we know these things are not true. That leaves a horrible mis-match — something has been lost, but it’s failing to be expressed. If people can’t express what they are feeling, they can’t get to the place where they feel heard, which becomes a sense that they are being ignored by a “remainer elite”.

We’ve seen an erosion of trust in politicians, not least with the expenses scandal. There’s been a gradual realisation that power is heading away from nation states through globalisation, leading to an anxiety about where it has gone. The referendum accelerated this because it was effectively politicians saying to the country “you can’t trust us to make a wise decision on this”. This is another loss. We could grieve it if we knew where it had gone, but that’s not where we are.

For Remainers, Europe has been evolving, so what the EU “is” to us is complicated. We didn’t show emotion in the referendum campaign not because it wasn’t there, but because it was really hard to find a way into words. That’s a complex situation. For Brexiteers it’s all of these things plus an inarticulable sense of disempowerment, that sort-of finds voice in “take back control”.

The fallout sounds remarkably like the paralysis of depression. The government can’t get anything important done. People are saying — often quite heavily — “just get Brexit done”. That’s closer to the language of the depressive turning suicidal (“just get it over with”) than a realistic desire.

A way forward

The snag with melancholia, that lies behind the link with depression, is that it’s not possible to name what has been lost in order to let it be grieved. But, just as a good parent can comfort a crying child without knowing exactly why they are crying, it’s possible to restore some stability and contain the raw anxities without actually naming them. Three things might hit the spot. One is for a government of national unity under someone deeply credible, stable and trustworthy — which means Kenneth Clarke. The second is for parliament collectively to end the madness by revoking the Article 50 notice — something it’s only likely to do in the teeth of a crisis. These two are not mutually-exclusive. The third is the “strong leader” who can “make everything alright” by acting in a way that discharges people’s anxiety. The extreme of that is fascist leadership. Perhaps the fear on the People’s Vote march is the intuition that this is a possible outcome. Boris Johnson might do something daft that the courts can’t stop, or he might open the door to something else. Regardless of party politics, this is a strong argument for the other two ways out.

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