One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.
The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.
The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, but also making a point about how she understood Anglo-French relations now.
My sense is that the two world wars are acting as chosen traumas — articulating a sense of the struggle — and as chosen glories, speaking of our success.
But the wars are remembered differently on the two sides of the Channel. Though things were tough, we didn’t experience invasion, fighting in our streets, occupation or brutal repression.
Beside the ongoing drama around Westminster, there’s an urgent task to be done among those who voted to leave the EU and are beginning to regret it. This is crucial for the country, and wise for LibDems as well.
I’m thinking of those taken in by false “promises” — there isn’t an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, or an end to free movement of people, Brexit doesn’t mean an end to fishing quotas, and “taking back control” now sounds like a joke. They were already alienated and this is not helping.
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.
People who already felt disenfranchised and voted Leave are now discovering they were lied to: it is hard to imagine this not fueling resentment.
Vote Leave seem to have ridden a tide of resentment to a narrow referendum majority, and immediately had to start admitting to lying in their campaign. The lies were impressive and, combined with the idea that experts are not to be trusted, were irrefutable. They played on the fears and anxieties of people who already felt left behind. They spoke to people struggling from years of austerity and feeling ignored by “elites”.
What happens to these people as they realise they were taken for a ride by a faction of that “elite” that played on their vulnerability? What is happening to people who voted Leave because they wanted change, and are increasingly horrified to find out what that change looks like, or voted out of protest and discover that their vote has consequences?
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.
One of the recurring threads of the EU referendum campaign has been the need for reform. What gets lost in that is that the EU has been on a continual process of reform from its inception.
While proponents of Brexit argue for reform in a way that sometimes leaves me wondering whether their comments are based on their fantasies of the EU or reality, the EU has been getting on with it.
On 16 March, Guy Verhofstadt tweeted his pleasure at the EU Council adopting measures for better law-making in the EU, published on European Council’s web site. Frustratingly that didn’t get much attention in the British media.
The dates in that document are interesting — ideas put forward for discussion by the Commission on 20 May 2015 — well before attempts at “renegotiation” were under way, so there is no sense that this arises from British pressure. The proposal has worked its way through the system in a way that enables proper discussion. As a democratic body, the EU is bound to have a complex decision-making process, to allow for proper engagement with those we elect to the European Parliament and the (elected) governments of the nation states, so there is wisdom in this taking a while.