After the drama of the first months of 2019, it’s perhaps a good moment to step back a little and consider the division in society that has been exposed and deepened by Brexit. Which aspects of the whole saga have been most toxic, emotionally, and are most likely to get in the way of any later process of reconciliation?
There has been growing awareness of the danger inherent in the use of words such as “betrayal”, “treachery” and “traitor”. As well as insulting and provoking the politicians at whom these words are aimed, this most condemnatory language invites and legitimates the expression of violent hatred.
More recently, the theme of humiliation has become prominent. We are told that as the UK continues to fail to agree on a Brexit deal, it is being humiliated in front of the world. Any image of Britain as a settled and dignified nation has been destroyed by this calamity.
An increasingly influential body of psychological theory – developed in, for example, the works of Vamik Volkan and Evelin Lindner –emphasises that the need for dignity is basic to our psychological make up. To feel that we have been stripped of it is very threatening and destabilising. We may respond with rage against the world, but especially against those who, we feel, have put us in such a position.
A point of agreement
Notably, the idea that the present impasse is humiliating for Britain is being offered by Remainers as well as Leavers. Indeed, according to one poll, nearly everyone in the UK is now feeling humiliated by the whole dismal process. When asked “Is the way the UK is dealing with Brexit a national humiliation?” 90% of the respondents said yes. That is, however, a very leading question; a lot of other dramatic phrases could be substituted for “national humiliation” and would probably produce the same response.
Although the UK is in acute difficulty, with Leavers and Remainers both having reasons to despair of the process, is this really a humiliation? Let there be no illusions: the British public has been badly led (sometimes deceitfully so) in the referendum campaigns and through the negotiations.
The country may need constitutional reform, its tribal party system is now clearly dysfunctional, and so on, but similar and worse problems exist elsewhere in Europe as well. The British parliament is less polarised than those in Scandinavian countries and it is still far from planning an “illiberal democracy” (see Hungary).
Experiencing protracted difficulty in reaching a democratic resolution to a major choice between different visions of national identity may be frustrating, even infuriating, and could have been minimised with much better leadership, but it is not intrinsically humiliating. An insistence that it is humiliating will – like the language of treachery – widen the internal rift by intensifying the need to blame others, internally and externally.
We should therefore try to keep these escalatory words out of the Brexit debate as it painfully rolls on. As participants in a recent Newsnight discussion about the humiliation trope concluded, Brexit is probably an embarrassment but not a humiliation. British people may feel some situational discomfort in their national identity, but do not – or should not – feel that it has, in essence, become totally devalued, and deserves the contempt or pity of others.
But we also need to ask why such words have entered the debate. They may be out of place in the Brexit context, but they have been taken up there because the feelings they express are churning around in the emotional public sphere. We ignore them at our peril.
Feelings of humiliation are politically dangerous, whether or not they can be fully explained and justified by the present state of the Brexit process or any other actual situation. There are many examples of how such feelings have prepared the way for resentment-driven populism, most obviously in the contemporary US, and have also, at their extremes, been a major driver of today’s terrorism in both neo-Nazi and Islamist modes.
While some people in more psychologically secure sections of the British public may be able to see the Brexit imbroglio as no worse than an embarrassment (and one due to the failure of others), a sense of national humiliation can gain traction in the minds of those who do not personally feel secure or dignified in the contemporary world. Aggregated personal insecurities can become a political force, for example as support for a “strong man” leader who promises to recapture lost pride.
There is an emotional connection between feeling humiliated and feeling betrayed, which is in the capacity to trust. In the feeling of humiliation, there is a collapse of trust in oneself, a vulnerability to feeling defined by the jibes of others.
While people may feel humiliated, and in some way link that feeling to Brexit, psychologically we should take a more complex view of where that feeling may come from. While Brexit has both exposed and added to the fragility of trust in Britain today, we can avoid endorsing and amplifying the sense of humiliation.