A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit

A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.

The systemic problem

In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile.

The UK’s connection with the rest of Europe is long and complicated. Waves of migration have interconnected us deeply. Even the fighting that has happened makes more sense if it’s thought of as fighting in a long-term and stable marriage. Some have gone as far as to describe the two world wars as having the viciousness of civil wars. We have always been a part of Europe, though it has been a complex story.

Since the UK joined the EU it has become easier to describe, because the present tense reality has some structures around it. The slight hitch here is that the wise thinking that has gone into building the structures of the EU doesn’t always work at the level of raw anxiety. The seemingly illogical and irrational arguments deployed by the Leave campaign make a horrible sense if their role was to stir up people’s fears. The flip side of the importance of Europe for the UK is that it was a good target for those fears — like someone kicking a wall in frustration, but not meaning to demolish the wall.

I could express this in terms of a basic fight-flight reaction, where anxiety gets people into a fight-flight response, which then coalesces around some sort of target to make it happen. This is actually nothing to do with the target — in this case the EU —and everything to do with whatever is going on in those emotions.

This makes some sense of the Cameron government’s failure to make plans for Brexit before the referendum, and the Leave campaign’s failure to present a coherent vision. For different reasons, Brexit was seen by both groups as a rebellion against the EU rather than the choice of something else. At an individual level, I have spoken with individuals who vote Leave because of a sense that life is very difficult, so a change was needed — without recognising that not all changes are for the better.

For people used to the containment offered by Europe in general, and the EU in particular, Brexit is a major emotional problem. It becomes impossible to blame the EU for things that were nothing to do with the EU. The familiar links and possibilities are suddenly challenged. That would anyway make life difficult, in a way that might have some echoes of the difficulty for an adult to cope with the sudden death of both parents, but is made orders of magnitude harder by having the formidably complex task of unravelling four decades of the intertwining of British and EU law and policy, and trying to plan for the future without knowing how things will be working between the UK and its nearest and biggest trading partner. On top of that, the EU has been active in protecting human rights and democratic functioning: attempts to get away from those aspects of the EU, not least in the EU Withdrawl Bill, should un-nerve people.

It’s no wonder that Andrew Adonis has spoken of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall.

The fallout of this has seen all the political parties struggle. The Tories’ difficulties have been painfully obvious. Labour is in a bizarre place, with a leader who was not taken seriously when he first stood but has become unassailable at the same time as dividing the party. For the Liberal Democrats, it has been hard to get our message out and criticisms of Tim Farron’s leadership could be heard as expressions if the near-impossibility of the task. The SNP find their core policy, of Scots independence, is both made more likely by Brexit, and pushed off the agenda. And UKIP has been surreal.

In each case, leadership looks really difficult. At the moment, Vince Cable seems the most credible leader: his own attributes are considerable, but he also has the advantage that his party is not at war with itself over Brexit and support for EU membership among LibDem votes means he doesn’t need to struggle to avoid alienating those who voted Leave.

For Labour and the Conservatives, leadership looks nearly impossible. A leader can lead because their followers give them power, which is another way of saying someone is mobilised as a leader because of what the followers project onto them. But both parties, and their supporters, are deeply divided on Europe, so the projections are muddled and undermine the leaders’ authority. Under most circumstances this would be solved by leadership contest, but both parties are in situations which make that really difficult. Neither leader can prove their mandate by seeing off a challenge, or gain followers by showing strength.

This much could have been said at more-or-less any point since the referendum. But I’ll pick up the week of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, not because it is especially dysfunctional, but because the divisions have been most obvious. I’ll focus on the Tory situation because they are in the spotlight, as the party in government, though it is worth bearing in mind that the surreal situation for Labour is that the close result in the 2017 election was so much better than expected that it had the feeling of a victory, but without their policies hitting the harsh realities of government.


The week has seen two sharply contrasted polls. One from YouGov showed a small majority thinking the UK made the right decision over Brexit, for the first time since July 2017, while one from ICM for the Guardian puts Remain 16 points ahead. All polls have a margin of error. This difference is extreme, but does make sense if the system is itself chaotic.

Tory chaos

This week (leading up to 7 January 2018)…

Boris Johnson demanded more money for the NHS — having recently attracted derision for returning to the Leave campaign’s discredited claim that Brexit would bring an additional £350Million a week for the NHS and claimed that was an underestimate. He was censured for leaking the comments he was going to make in Cabinet before the Cabinet met. I wish I could dismiss him as a buffoon, but he is correctly gauging where one of the UK’s most sensitive spots is. Brexit will actually undermine the NHS by harming the economy, but in the irrational world of failed containment, this will get support.

Philip Hammond at Davos, said that Brexit should bring only very modest changes to the relationship with the EU, and was slapped down for it, though his words are wise, particularly from the person charged with the job of making the British economy work, and speaking at an economic forum.

Jacob Rees Mogg stridently put the case for an insanely-hard Brexit. Almost unbelievably, he did this in terms of the risk of the Tories losing the next election, rather than the national interest. I could lambast that, but if people’s eyes are off the ball because of the dysfunction brought by Brexit, it may be easier to get in touch with the fear of losing power than the real issues of the nation’s future. He is right that a soft Brexit means the status quo but with less influence — but that should be an argument for abandoning Brexit.

David Cameron was caught in an unguarded moment saying that Brexit had not been as bad as feared, which excited the pro-Brexit papers, and missed the fact that he wouldn’t talk the UK down in speaking with a major business leader, and that the predicted serious economic consequences of Brexit would kick in after leaving the single market and the customs union.

On the latter point, news that France was recruiting customs officers to deal with the problems that would arise from the UK leaving the customs union was painted by some as an act of hostility, yet the problem is surely with the British government for failing to alert people to the likely consequences of stumbling out of the Customs Union.

The Pound

The Brexit press got excited that the Pound was doing well against the Dollar, while the Telegraph pointed out that this was down to the weakness of the Dollar. Meanwhile, at Davos, Steve Mnuchkin argued for a weak Dollar and Trump seemed to push both ways. The wise conclusion is that it is rather complicated, but a weak Dollar does not mean a strong Pound (and a comparison with the Chinese Yuan is sobering). The Brexiteer excitement is premature, unless its seen as emotions getting the better of reality.


Even more extreme was the Brexit Press getting excited by a little economic growth “project cheer” according to The Sun. That’s in stark contrast to Mark Carney pointing out that the UK economy is 1% smaller than it would have been if the vote had gone the other way.

The Presidents’ Club fiasco

In the middle of all this, came the unrelated story of a dinner at the Presidents’ Club — a gathering of wealthy men, behaving badly towards their female “hostesses”. There’s no reason to defend what went on there, but a Radio 4 comedian on The News Quiz hit the spot brilliantly by giving an account as if he had been there, and then “in case anyone was looking forward to getting upset” said he hadn’t. The story is unrelated. But without wishing to defend what went on there, it did become a very big story — curiously big. It actually reads as a giant piece of displacement — finding a legitimate object of anger onto which lots of feelings are piled, which take attention away from the fears associated with the loss of containment around Europe.

Joining up the dots

On top of whatever is going on around the Presidents Club, the Tory chaos looks more like a failure of thinking and the putting of fantasies of Europe ahead of reality. That makes total sense when the anxiety is raw and deep, mobilising the primitive feelings that surface when containment is damaged. It argues for the emergence of a good leader, wise enough to provide adequate containment. In brackets, that would inevitably point toward reversing Brexit, but that makes addressing the emotional need for it into a very high priority — a wise leader would look at why people are unhappy, rather than help them on the path to where their unhappiness leads them. Instead, there is a story of Gavin Williamson being positioned for a possible Tory leadership challenge. That’s comically far from wise leadership, and the story of him confessing to Theresa May at having flirted with a female colleague is astonishing: I can’t work out whether he’s getting the career-ending mis-judgement in early, or whether this is supposed to elicit support.

In the middle of all this — and largely un-noticed — came another sobering report from the House of Lords on the likely economic consequences of Brexit. This isn’t peers being out of touch: it’s well-informed peers free to say what others dare not because they don’t have to worry about the electoral consequences of naming reality.

This hasn’t been a particularly exceptional week, but it does show the dysfunctionality the referendum has brought. Heaven help the civil servants trying to sort this mess out behind the scenes.

One thought on “A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit”

  1. I liked your perspective Mark – the deep primal anxiety that you refer to is very masculine. If the followeship to the big political parties are experiencing deep doubts and fears of their own masculinity including the collective ability to manage or contain anxiety – maybe it would be interesting to explore new leadership – and that from a more feminine perspective. But Theresa May appears to be hardly feminine thousand of miles away where I live.

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