The Brexit crisis has turned out to be a rather impressive psychodrama. A drama that has polarised opinion on each side of the debate. Unpicking the consequences of the Brexit decision is going to take some time, and it won’t be easy to make sense of things for a while.
What was once up is now down, what was once certain is now unknown, and what was once predictable has become chaotic. The political polarities have shifted for sure. Finding out what this means in practice is going to take some time and some creative thinking.
Understanding what the emerging principles of this shift in our assumed reality is going to be much more difficult than the first batch of comment and analysis in the newspapers suggests. But understanding this shift will be key to successful political representation and debate in the United Kingdom for years to come.
Which side are you on, the fifty-two or the forty-eight? This is going to be the defining polarity in British politics and economics for some time to come.
If we are pragmatic in our approach to understanding what has gone on, we might find it useful to think of the debate as a set of interlocking translation issues. Two groups of people had assumed that they had been talking the same language and describing the same things.
It turns out that they had different things in mind, and had been using different frameworks of meaning that couldn’t be comprehended by the other side.
On the one hand there is a tendency for the Brexit result to be boiled down to an easy and straight forward sense of either spite or optimism. Or that the decision can be played out as a battle of inter-generational conflict, in which one generation pulls-up the ladder on a following generation.
There is a lot of evidence to support the view of the selfish generation making it harder for the next generation in practice, just look at the levels of inequality in the United Kingdom. But this is more of a consequence than a direct intent on the part of the Brexit supporters.
Likewise, the result can be broken down into a tension between the nostalgic or the optimistic. Those people who have no memory of the past afflictions of de-industrialisation, or the class war wrought by successive governments, or the shift and change in technology and the global economy, have been shunted sideways by a generation that can only think about how badly they have been treated. Is this a forty year grudge.
There was a telling interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today Program earlier this week. Two women were interviewed, one who regretted her decision, and one who was confirmed in her decision. The woman who regretted voting leave said that she realised she had been holding a grudge for forty years, but that it was now too late to change her mind as her vote had been cast.
The other woman was clear, she had researched and read about the issue of the European Union and felt confident about her decision. She told the interviewer that she was against globalisation, but that the decision to support Brexit would make it easier for the United Kingdom to trade internationally.
This made me choke. The kind of choke and splutter that good radio can achieve on occasions. Quite what does she thinks globalisation is? Has she not understood that trading internationally is globalisation? How can she keep these two contradictory positions in her mind and resolve them?
How does she cope with the cognitive dissonance that she is grappling with?
This faulty logic is where we will find the answer to these issues. This will take some perceptive listening, some creative thinking, and some alternative methods of analysis to come up with a working solution that helps people to make sense of their predicament.
The on-going question, indeed the only question that will dominate British politics, is concerned with how we go about building strong local identities, how we empower people locally, while accommodating international trade and global identity?
Where I think a useful place to look for an answer is somewhat counter-intuitive. Is the Brexit decision better thought of as a failure of nerve and resolve, rather than an embrace of the future and confidence in collective international action and national identity? Saying lets make Britain great again is an admission of defeat.
Clearly the Brexit result is a symptom and not the cause of a bigger problem. Is Brexit the result of one generation getting spooked because life felt like it was moving forward and getting too easy, when they felt that it should be hard?
People have said this is like a divorce, but actually the divorce happened a long time ago. This is one partner realising that their former partner has no need for them, so they are perplexed because their former lover seem to be getting on with their lives, meeting new people and generally having a nice time.
The disdainful ex-partner finds this difficult to deal with, and therefore wants to spite their former partner so that they feel as bad as they do about life. Why should they be out and about meeting people when we are sat at home staring out of the window?
There is a strong underlying current in British life that can’t believe that things can ever be so good. Because life should never be good, according to the puritan mind-set of struggle and toil. You have to work hard to get what you want. You have to be prudent and cut your cloth. Life shouldn’t feel this easy?
The ethic of the British mind-set is very often driven by a puritan impulse that seeks suffering and graft as virtues in themselves, regardless of how useful they turn out to be in practice, or the alternative, smarter ways of doing things that exist.
This mind-set is based on the misconception that the pleasures that life brings should be denied, for a greater virtue is awaited elsewhere, and is a reward for deferred gratification and ease now. John Maynard Keynes called this the Electromagnetic Problem – forcing your family to walk everywhere because the battery in the car is faulty, and so you scrap the whole car rather than just replacing the battery.
Puritans will tell you that learning, knowledge, information, association and participation shouldn’t feel easy. Surely they are difficult and challenging. Surely they are things that we have to work hard for? Surely those people who have the rewards in life got them because they earned them, and not because they where in the right place at the right time, just being lucky?
Our politicians and the news media have promoted the view that life is about tough decisions and that if dealing with things is easy then it is wrong. This is because the best way to keep what you have is to normalise the luck that brought it about, and promote the myth that you got it through hard work and industry, when it was the result of the lottery of life.
Keep in mind that the lottery of life in the United Kingdom as been eschewed and knocked out of kilter for generations now. There is less opportunity for social mobility than ever before, and wealth never seems to trickle down the ladder as was promised.
The Brexit vote, then, is a turning point in people’s sense of imaginative possibility – between the seemingly difficult and the seemingly easy. This is a turning point in which the older generation, by-and-large, bottled it.
They bottled it because they haven’t been able to adapt to the mind-set that internationalism and globalisation brings. What, we need to put a framework in place for cooperation and collaboration? What, we have to engage in international politics and win people over to our ideas? Sorry, our splendid isolation seems enough. Why worry about the rest of the world when we can just look after ourselves?
They bottled it because they don’t understand how communication technology is stripping away national barriers, and allowing people to associate more freely.
Look at Google Translate and think about the power of technology to change our worldview. The Google Translate app on the iPhone has a live camera function, allowing the user to read the text in a sign as the words are translated in-situ.
They bottled it because they can’t understand that they had to turn-up and play a role in creating their own destinies, building their own communities, and enhancing their own sense of civic participation through which they could gain a sense of self-actualised identity.
There is an assumption that we need strong leadership in the United Kingdom to get things done. But this is simply people passing-off responsibility for their actions onto someone else. It’s not my problem guv, but I blame the local council, David Cameron or the EU!
If you want to live in a world in which learning feels hard and a chore, then you might want to invest in barriers, tariffs and vaults to protect your investments. If you think that learning is fun, creative and social, then you will want to break those barriers down.
The greatest question of our lifetimes shows that one generation has bottled-it in the face of these changes.
What is essential, though, is that TINA (There is no alternative) is now dead as a political maxim.
There is an alternative and people can choose it now if they want.
So be careful what you wish for if you thought that by voting for Brexit you would be getting something back that you had been familiar with but estranged from.
Brexit empowers both ways, and your former partner is now well aware that all bets are off, and that alternatives are now open for discussion.
We in the forty-eight percent are free to choose what we want, without any feelings of responsibility for the people they are leaving behind. Bon Voyage!