The new client, United Kingdom, shuffles into the room and slumps down uncomfortably in the chair. There is no eye contact. We sit in silence. Finally there is a cough and a muffled voice, a sort of low growl: “Don’t really need to be here. Just been feeling a bit down lately.” Another silence. A tear rolls down from Scotland and lands somewhere near Darlington.
Yes, if countries were people, the UK might be looking for a therapist right about now.
It has been having a hard time of late. It was a summer of discontent. Before the Brexit referendum, this was a largely peaceful, united land that prided itself on never losing its great sense of humour, come what may—the land of Monty Python, Alan Partridge, the Office, Mr Bean. A nation that believed in fair play. A creative, resilient, quirky place that didn’t just tolerate difference and eccentricity but embraced it. The land of Churchill (half American), fish and chips (brought here by Spanish jews), beer (probably middle Eastern), sliced bread (American), England’s St. George (from Cappadocia, never visited our islands), Morris dancing (originally “Moorish”), the Queen (at least a little but German). The country whose two favourite dishes are chicken tikka masala and Chinese stir fry. The country that fought fascism and won.
We used to be mostly in the middle, proud of our patchwork cultural history, a big-tent bell curve of British decency, tea and sympathy.
Post-referendum, the bell curve has been turned on its head. The centre has been vacated, and you’re either jeering from the terraces on the star-spangled blue side, shouting “You idiots—what have you done to our future?” or you’re on the other side, amid a sea of red-and-white-painted faces, chanting “Get over it, we won.” With added swear words from both sides, obviously.
The UK is at war with itself. When a person feels like that, in crisis, the old ways of doing things no longer work, and nothing seems to make sense any more. Time to take stock—with the help of a therapist, ideally—turn the spotlight on you and your life and, fortified by knowledge and love, make some changes.
With a bit of luck, the breakdown turns into a breakthrough.
The root of the problem
It can be a small thing that triggers such a crisis. Someone inexplicably bursts into tears getting dressed for work, or their boss finds an empty vodka miniature in their desk, or they shout at a little old lady fumbling in the checkout queue, and their world unravels. It of course can be a big thing, too: illness, redundancy, divorce, trauma, bereavement.
The UK’s problem—manifested by the referendum—began as a squabble within the Conservative Party. Since World War Two, there has been a growing chorus of Tory backbenchers—big and small “c” conservatives—who decry the rise of the European Union. They have tended to see Britain in heroic, benighted terms, as a proud, fiercely-independent land, in living memory the supposedly-magnanimous, beating heart of the biggest empire the world has even seen, shining the light of civilisation into the dark corners of the world and teaching them how to play cricket. The idea of being told what to do by the French, or the Germans, was beyond the pale. Who won the war anyhow? These nostalgic, elegiac chords were played at full volume by the likes of Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and ... Nigel Farage.
When traditional Tory voters began to flee to UKIP, the eurosceptic harrumphs turned into howls.
PM and former PR man David Cameron was facing a mutiny. He hoped to quash it by calling the rebels’ bluff. He called for backup; he took it to the nation, gambling his job, career and the nation’s future.
The referendum took on a life of its own. It grew. It turned into a referendum on everything.
• Was it about the EU? Yes, although three recent consecutive eurosceptic Conservative Party leaders, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, failed to gain any traction among voters on the issue. And in the immediate aftermath of the vote, an awful lot of people in the UK Googled “What is the EU?”
• Was it about democracy? Yes, although shouldn’t Brexiteers also therefore be tirelessly campaigning to end the monarchy, abolish the House of Lords, the cronyism of the honours system, the influence of the City on domestic policy, and of Washington DC on foreign policy?
• Was it about immigration? Yes, although overall immigrants are net positive contributors to the British economy, and since the days of the Normans, the Saxons, the Danes and the Hugenots, Britain, British culture and British people have been forged from outside influences.
Perhaps what the referendum mostly was about was dissatisfaction with the status quo. As with the unfortunate American embrace of Donald Trump, Brexit was a protest vote against hard times and the struggle of life—exacerbated by a government policy of austerity that crippled poorer parts of the nation—with the finger of blame pointing every whichway: at politicians, the EU, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, “experts,” the Establishment, the media, old people, young people, rich people, poor people.
Let’s hope the sunlit uplands of prosperity that the Brexiteers voted for come to pass. Regrettably, however, it seems more likely that there will instead be much more dissatisfaction to come.
Cameron didn’t expect to lose. There was no plan. More than two months later, there seemingly still isn’t. No one seems to know how or when Brexit will happen or what it will look like. But hey, great news: our passports are going to be blue!
The person in charge of implementing Brexit—the unelected pro-Remain Theresa May—has to get on with it now, directing enormous time and resources to extricating the UK from the EU and disentangling decades of legislation, and trying to set up new trade deals around the world with countries for whom the post-Brexit UK is, according to some, something of a laughing stock, and who are in the strong bargaining positioning of knowing, and knowing that we know, they we need them more than they need us. The PM also has to deal with all the domestic fallout: the possible disintegration of the UK, businesses threatening to make their own Brexit and head to the Continent, a tanking pound, the rise of racism.
We might spend years at the side of the road, wiping all the mud off our weary old boots while other countries sprint by in new hi-tech gear that was probably made in China.
Right vs Left
For countries, the internal battle is not quite id vs. super-ego, but rather left versus right. Which voice should prevail—which is correct?
Attempts to deconstruct voter preference are always problematic. One large study, for instance claims that lower intelligence is more likely to be correlated with prejudice and right-wing voting. Another theory is that voting is determined by your overall worldview. As a species, we are capable of unbelievable kindness, generosity, altruism, creativity, diligence, resilience and love. We also can be very good at being selfish, telling lies, cheating, manipulating and stealing. Because of our individual biology, childhood, life experiences, relationships and education—and probably many other factors—each of us tend to resonate more with one or the other, the good or the bad, trust or mistrust. As a piece of research from the Royal Society puts it: “Greater orientation to aversive stimuli tends to be associated with right-of-centre and greater orientation to appetitive (pleasing) stimuli with left-of-centre political inclinations.”
In very broad terms, this idea claims that the Righties generally want society to be about law and order, border controls, defence spending, monoculturalism, punishment rather than rehabilitation, limited benefits, competition that rewards the “winners.” They look to all that’s good in the past. The Lefties want society to be about caring and sharing, cooperation, equality, diversity, multiculturalism, rehabilitation rather than punishment, a welfare state, redistribution that benefits the underdogs. They look to all that’s good in the future.
The Righties accuse the Lefties if being hopelessly naive, out of touch, idealistic, “soft.” The Lefties accuse the Righties of being greedy, uncompassionate, small-minded, dogmatic, “hard.”
But of course these characterisations are hugely simplistic, as are the caricatures of the Remainers and the Leavers. The former included the young, ethnic minorities, urban lefties and the Scots, but also big business that benefits from cheap labour and free-market fundamentalists. The latter included the working class in disenfranchised former industrial towns, but also wealthy retired traditional county conservatives and a lunatic fringe of far-rightists and racists.
The referendum result does not mean that the Leave position is vindicated and the Remain voice should ever more be silenced. Both voices are vital, ensuring a system of checks and balances. We need both walls and bridges; defence and offence. And both voices are in fact each a vast choir. To be whole, all the voices need to be heard.
The way forward
The evolution of national systems of government starts with warring tribes and feudal empires, moves to totalitarian, authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, then onto the 20th century representative democracy of the UK today. But people do not feel represented. Politicians are the least-trusted people in the nation. Brexit at least partially have been a vote of no confidence in the current system. Instead of entrusting politicians to do the right thing, might we herald the birth of a new, fairer social democracy that better involves the populace, and better serves them, too? If there were a referendum about having more referendums, wouldn’t the likely response be a resounding “yes”?
Consider these points (from an earlier post: Does your government make you happy?):
• The Scandinavian system or “Nordic model” of government features high taxes, a large, well-run welfare state, a high standard of free education and healthcare, and low levels of inequality. The machine works for betterment of the people, not the other way round. (In John Rawls “A Theory of Justice,” he demonstrates through his “original position” experiment that if people don’t know how they will end up in an imaginary society, they will generally opt for a fair, redistributive political and economic system that treats all fairly, maximising the prospects of the least well-off.) The Nordic model is a system that appears to make people happy: Denmark and its close cousin Iceland, plus Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, are all in the top-8 happiest nations in the world. Why isn’t such a superior form of governance the rule rather than the exception? (“Yes,” people say, “but these are countries with small populations and low immigration”—as though water, sunlight and soil were only good for some trees but not others.)
• According to the World Happiness Report: “66% of respondents in the Netherlands and 61% in Sweden answered that most people can be trusted, compared with just 35% in the US and 28% in Russia. Moreover, comparing the extent of trust in the 1981-84 sampling period with the recent period, trust rose in Sweden (from 57 to 61%), while it declined in the United States (from 45 to 35%).”
• Scandinavian cities tend to do well in the famous “lost wallet” experiments in which full wallets are left lying around to see how many get returned or handed in.
• The happiest nation, Switzerland, meanwhile, is the closest state in the world to a direct democracy. There are referendums on town, city, district and national level. They don’t just scrawl an X on a ballot paper once every 5 years. The Swiss really have a say in how their country is run. They are invested in their government, and vice versa.
The times they are a’changing. Donald Trump’s fearmongering, xenophobia, and foghorn declarations about the virtues of greed are like the terminal groans and expirations of a witless dinosaur, ignorant of his impending extinction.
Whether you are a Leaver or Remainer, Brexit showed that the British are hungry for democracy. We want to be heard. Brexit was a crack in the walls of the house that was built on the old order of patronage, privilege and politics as usual—a crack that lets in the light.
Primitive societies kill people, then evolve to enslaving them, then to giving them the vote. The next stage is to listen to them.
After a few months of hearing all the differing viewpoints and “standing in the spaces” between them, the client, our dear old friend UK, started to feel much better. The therapy came to a natural end. “It’s all about considering all the different views, and being fair,” said Scotland, speaking for the whole person, who now was sitting tall and proud and relaxed. “The more we listen to all the voices, the better we feel.”
The cure for a sick democracy, it turns out, is more democracy.
1. What is a psychopath?