Shadow and Theresa May’s downfall

Perhaps Theresa May’s downfall was an inevitable tragedy. Jung’s idea of shadow offers a way to think about her impossible role.

The shadows one doesn’t see

Carl Gustav Jung coined the term “shadow” to draw together the things of ourselves we carry but are not aware of.

That could be read as another way to think of the unconscious, but it fits with Jung’s idea that the path to becoming a more integrated self is to seek to work with the unconscious rather than seeing it as sinister. Dreams, free associations, jokes and “Freudian slips” offer some insight into that world, but Jung’s point is that this is something we carry even when we don’t notice it — like our shadows. Whenever there is light, our bodies cast shadows, even without our awareness. Many people have had the experience of taking a photograph and concentrating so much on what they were photographing that they fail to realise that their own shadow is also in the photo, as if it is so familiar that it is not noticed.

In calling this “shadow” he’s naming the fact that this is often in things we see as bad — though it’s sometimes also there it what we see as almost-excessively positive — in the people and causes we idealise. Inner work is needed to engage with this, so that it doesn’t come to dominate without being noticed. Jung phrased it that “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Theresa May’s role

In many ways Theresa May’s role as Prime Minister was impossible. The Leave campaign was vague about what Brexit would actually mean, so she was trying to deliver something ill-defined and which she also knew to be harmful (if her statements before the referendum are to be believed). Elsewhere I’ve blogged on the impossibility of her role, and the possibility that she is a high-profile, and perhaps even courageous, casualty of Brexit.

That statement might well seem controversial and it runs contrary to some of the harsh comments that have followed her resignation. The idea of shadow offers another way to think about this.

Shadow and Brexit

One of the strengths of the language of shadow is that it gives a way to recognise that people can seek something they genuinely perceive to be good and fail to see its destructive side. A sharp example might be communism, whose proponents describe it in terms that sound very attractive, but can only do this by ignoring its deeply-destructive reality — its shadow.

The Leave campaign offered a very positive view of Brexit. They were short on details, which means people could vote for it for a host of different and contradictory reasons. They can unite around Brexit if they see only the “bright future” and don’t see those contradictions and the likely consequences. Talking of this as shadow offers a way to talk about the “not seeing” not as a failure, but as something driven by people’s inner needs.

This has been striking in the time since the referendum. It took from June 2016 until Theresa May’s Mansion House speech in January 2017 for the government to articulate what they thought Brexit meant (which means it really hadn’t been worked through in advance). The continuing shambles since then shows that there is no common view on what it means — do we stay in the Single Market, or the Customs Union? Do we leave and trade just as a member of the WTO? Do we need to re-think, now it’s become clear that the “easy” trade deals that countries would be “queuing up to make” are anything but easy?

If Brexit is the “will of the people”, but is actually unclear, what on earth is the “will of the people”?

Among all those who’ve been looking to Theresa May to deliver Brexit there’s a view that it is a good thing, and lots of shadow in the failure to recognise other views (except as “enemies”) or the likely consequences. One of the places this shadow shows itself is in anger at Theresa May. I’ve heard plenty of people express anger at her failure, but the script seems to be “She’s failed, because she has not delivered the Brexit that is obvious [to me]”. I’ve put the “to me” in brackets because, different versions are “obvious” to different people, and it is individual pathologies that control what is in play for each person.

The point about shadow is that it is out of people’s awareness. In accusing Theresa May of “failing to deliver Brexit” people are failing to recognise their own shadow material which makes Brexit seem easy (to them). Theresa May’s failure is a failure to hold all that shadow material.

An example: the Irish “backstop”

The controversy around the Irish backstop gives an example of some of the shadow material around.

Pragmatic reality is that the Good Friday Agreement was possible because the UK and Republic of Ireland were both in the EU, and provides a very elegant compromise which respects the deep differences between the Republican and Unionist communities, without those having to lead to death and destruction. The Northern Ireland backstop means that, if technological solutions can’t be found for the Irish border, things default to a UK-wide customs union rather than do anything to re-kindle violence. The other possible solution is to keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union, which aligns Northern Ireland more closely with the Republic than the UK. At the very least that pulls Northern Ireland along the path to leaving the UK for the Republic.

There have been loud objections to the backstop, and to anything that might question the territorial integrity of the UK. There have been loud comments on “alternative” arrangements, but no sign of what they might be. In this case, there seems to be strong idealising of the idea of getting out of the EU as “good”, and an assumption that the problem of the Irish border must be “soluble” if it gets in the way. There’s a near-total failure to recognise the complexity, and even the shocking story of Karen Bradley, as Northern Ireland Secretary, failing to realise that people vote on sectarian lines.

The terrorism in Ireland is not so far in the past that any politician has an excuse not to be aware of it, so the unconscious desire for it not to be there is around in people behaving as if there is no problem, failing to realise it is there at every turn, and blaming others for pointing this out. In the longer term, the history of Anglo-Irish relations has been complicated: it needs a big piece of deliberate overlooking not to realise that. There’s also a huge failure to heed warnings from American politicians that support for the Irish cause in the USA would mean serious damage to relations between the UK and USA if the UK acted in a way that led to the Troubles re-starting.

It feels as if many pro-Brexit politicians are behaving towards Ireland with all the high-handedness and disdain that fuelled pressure for Irish Home Rule and then for the formation of the Republic. Acting in denial of there having been a problem in the past, and as though problems in the present can just be wished away carries a huge amount of shadow. But if things are pushed into shadow territory then the anxiety that the present situation should evoke can be pushed away into the “not noticed” (until people are “surprised” by further violence that is worryingly predictable).

Two paths not available to May

In terms of shadow, there are two ways in which Theresa May could have succeeded.

One was to take up a “messiah” role, as the one who does something symbolic to take the unprocessed shadow on themselves. That’s there in some of the theology around Christ as redeemer in Christianity. It works in that context because the sins from which people are redeemed are things people know to be complex and diverse (people don’t usually assume they have the same sins as all their neighbours). It is a mythic role — the messiah is a mythic figure, whose stories operate at the level of the unconscious — so they can work as long as things are not too well defined and salvation is in the hereafter. But among supporters of Brexit, that “salvation” would be in (their model of) Brexit happening, so the messiah role is almost unavailable.

The other pathway was what seems to happen when fascist leadership works — things get short-circuited so that, for the individual citizen, a sense of connection with the leader enables the leader to take away their unbearable anxiety. It creates the perfect excuse not to engage with shadow. Notwithstanding a report from the Hansard Society recently which suggested worrying levels of support for a “strong leader who would break the rules”, I hope the UK is a long way from the place where this style would be accepted. In any case, and to her credit, this is not a style of leadership that Theresa May offered. I fear that some of the anger directed towards her from the strident supporters of Brexit is because this is a style of leadership they wanted.

Ways forward

This leaves a difficult task in finding a way forward.

Nigel Farage has offered himself as something dangerously close to that second form of leader, with the “Brexit party” not even having a manifesto before the European elections. The implication of that is that people are understood to have voted for him to do whatever he thinks, uniting their will to his. That will tip some in the Tory party towards the second style of leadership. It is dangerous because it sets the leader up as the one who is beyond question.

The first form — the messiah leader — is a problem because we don’t have a mythic frame work to locate them in (see post on quasi-religious support for Brexit). But it has a possible relative in what happens when a stable leader emerges who can defuse the situation. The point about defusing it is that things get pushed into a stark “light and shadow” mode when people feel threatened. Jung talks also of the heroic path of integration, where a person learns to work with their unconscious, to begin to develop a more balanced and undivided self. He’s right to call this “heroic”, because this involves people dealing with their inner demons. At a national level, this needs a different leader. Where the fascist leader effectively says “I’ll take your on your unprocessed shadow”, this style of leadership says “It’s OK to have fears, and things in the unconscious to work with”, which might boil down to “Let’s work this out together” rather than an angry “Brexit now” (or “Make America Great Again”).

A while back I was wondering about the possibility of Ken Clarke taking on this role. I am now wondering if something else will emerge. A big step here is the sharp rise in support for the Liberal Democrats in the European Elections, after their “Bollocks to Brexit” campaign. The words might have been controversial, but that did give a way to let the emotions back into the debate.

To anyone who understands its implications, Brexit is scary. A Remain campaign focussed solely on economics leaves the emotions unprocessed. In changing direction, the Liberal Democrat position seems to have said “It’s OK to have emotions” and “It’s OK to be scared by this”. That’s a style of leadership that lets the more difficult material find a place.

Vince Cable announced his intention to resign as Liberal Democrat leader just after the European Elections, and the party is in the throes of a leadership election, chosing between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. Swinson’s tribute to Theresa May on her resignation showed this approach to leadership, and it’s in Ed Davey’s style as well. There’s a stark contrast between this and the field of candidates standing for the Tory leadership, most of whom (with the conspicuous exception of Rory Stewart) seem fixated on “delivering” (as yet undefined) Brexit and not going anywhere near the associated shadow material.

The background question

Barely out of sight are a raft of questions around identity and around fears for the future, which have coalesced around support for Brexit. One of my most-read blog posts is one suggesting that some of the support for Brexit is coming from people chasing fantasies of empire, and dealing with the negative aspects of empire by projecting them onto the EU (and therefore seeing the EU as imperialistic): the fact that it is attracting attention rather suggests that this is a live issue. We’re also in need of a leader who can help people own the facts that the UK no longer has an empire, and that the empire itself had some murky aspects.

The leadership we need

None of this is impossible, but it all needs leadership that can recognise that there are some really difficult things around in our present and in collective memories of our past, and stand with people in saying “This is really difficult”, rather than short-circuit that in trying to take the difficulty away.

The irony is that most of the rest of the EU had to go through a similar process in the aftermath of the Second World War. This means there is lots of wisdom on offer among partners in the EU. But shadow work is difficult. If there are people in and around the EU bodies with the skill and the understanding to help us to do this, it is the most natural thing in the world for those who don’t want to go there to demonise the EU instead. That’s a path we need to not tread.

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