current affairs democracy

Brexit and the grieving process

It’s been a strange few days. Britain’s decision to leave the EU has trumped all other news concerns and most other topics of conversation among family and friends. What is most striking to me is just how fragile Britain has turned out to be. The referendum has ripped the country down the middle, destroying both our main political parties in the process. We are left on the threshold of a huge turning point in our history, with no discernable government leadership and no functioning opposition. It’s a very disconcerting place to be.

Of course, millions of people think we’ve achieved some kind of heroic victory, and that the millions of others who voted to remain are ‘sore losers’ – a phrase I’ve heard several times now. But since there is no clear vision for a post-EU Britain, we don’t know what it is that we’ve supposedly won.

I suppose the nearest thing we have to such a vision is Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph today. It is essentially a claim that we can have our cake and eat it: that we can walk away from all the bits of the EU we don’t like, and keep the bits that benefit us. We will have all the rights we currently enjoy as EU citizens and none of the onerous regulation. This is not in Boris’s power to grant, and it’s almost childish in its optimism. It reminds me of when I was five and I tried to work out if there was a bike ride I could do from my house and back again that was downhill all the way.

So we’re nowhere, and as Leave campaigners gradually row back from each one of the claims they made in the run-up to the referendum, it is increasingly clear that there are no winners. There are those who know they didn’t get what they wanted, and those who are about to find out.

There’s a lot I could say here. I’ve already written and then deleted more than one post. What has stuck with me, and that I think might actually be worth sharing, is more of a feeling than an argument or a solution. It feels to me like we are mourning something. I certainly am, and I know many of my friends are. We are carrying around a weight of sadness about what has just happened. It is bigger than losing a referendum. I was on the losing side of another of those not so long ago, and it didn’t hurt like this. I’m quite used to being on the wrong side of a general election too.  (Come to think of it, I have yet to back a winner.) Neither is this sadness the loss of the EU, which isn’t the object of any great affection from anyone I know.

So what is that we’re grieving? Have I just been caught up in the hype? Am I over-reacting? I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and this is what I have so far:

  • I mourn the triumph of false hope, as so many people have pinned their aspirations on an out vote in ways that reality cannot possibly live up to – hopes for jobs, a foot on the housing ladder, a Britain for the British. There will be further disappointment in store as those false hopes unravel, with anger and betrayal to come.
  • I see men like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and Rupert Murdoch getting what they wanted. I see politicians putting their own careers above the needs of the country and succeeding, the weight of lies on both sides, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that evil has triumphed.
  • In theory, a referendum is a form of direct democracy. But this one, like the last one, has been called for political gain – a ploy by David Cameron to shore up his own party. On this self-interested gamble we have redirected the whole story of a nation. Democracy has been abused.
  • Whichever way you voted, how can you not been sad about the ugliness of our media and our public discourse over the last few months? There has been so little regard for truth, for facts, for reason. The biggest decision we have had to make in my lifetime has been made on half-truths and wishful thinking.
  • I mourn the divisions we have created and the brokenness of our society, the way the exit vote gives a tacit sanction to xenophobia, suspicion, and a turning away from global issues and the needs of the most vulnerable.
  • Perhaps most of all, I mourn the irreversibility of the decision. Unlike a general election, we can’t change our minds in four years time if it doesn’t work out the way we planned.

Perhaps if you don’t take an interest in politics, it still feels like a game. Perhaps it’s fun to see a political system collapse on itself. But mourning feels like the right reaction to me, and if you’re posting ‘keep calm and carry on’ Facebook posts, then you’re not paying attention.

I’m not the only one experiencing that grief, as the five stages of grief are being played out all around us. It’s worth remembering what those are:

  • Denial – witness the millions of people signing a petition to run the referendum again, or the obsession with the number of people who have expressed regret at their choice or who wish to change their minds. David Cameron’s resignation and the disintegration of our political class could be seen as a form of denial, a refusal to own the consequences of what they’ve just unleashed.
  • Anger – there’s a huge sense of betrayal in the air at the moment and because it’s a referendum, it’s on all of us. Relationships and friendships are frayed over it, new family feuds have emerged. That anger is legitimate, but often misdirected. We can’t blame Britain’s marginalised communities for voting in hope. We certainly can be angry at the newspapers and the politicians that exploited their sense of alienation.
  • Bargaining – perhaps we can just ignore it. Perhaps Article 50 will never be triggered. Let’s write to our MP and ask them to block things in parliament. Maybe Scotland can veto, or a general election can put it all right again.
  • Depression – the stages aren’t linear. We swing from anger to denial and back again. And then depression sets in. We withdraw and give up. What’s the point?
  • Acceptance – this feels like it’s a way off yet. We have a lot of denial and anger to burn through. We’ll get there. Who we will be on the other side of Brexit remains to be seen.

Apologies for a depressing post. This blog isn’t about British politics, and I won’t write endlessly about the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. But I thought it might be helpful to try and articulate what I’ve been experiencing, and try and name the peculiar pain of this moment.

43 comments

    1. Most of which Jeremy says is very true. However, it is a case of ownership and a set of values. If Mr or Mrs Public believed everything published in the press or on the television, they would eat everything they saw. We all have to take ownership for individual actions. The fact remains that the majority vote was to leave the EU. Only time will tell. Just because it was the majority vote does not mean it was the correct thing to do. The timing was hopelessly misjudged and David Cameron, disappointingly, has left a pile of rubbish for the next PM to clear up instead of swallowing his pride and clearing up his own mess.

  1. It was so poignant it made me cry but I am also very sad to be losing the EU and all the opportunities that come with it.

    1. Yes, there is the loss of the EU itself, and the benefits of membership. That’s not something I feel strongly myself, as I grew up in Africa and hardly know Europe. But I see my well-traveled wife grieving the loss of the EU, and as a fluent German speaker it was her German friends that she wanted to be with on Friday evening.

      I hope that many of the opportunities will remain on the individual level, especially if we stay in the common market. But as a nation, we’ve turned out backs on Europe and it hurts to find us as the bad neighbour.

    2. Yes the loss of opportunities is a pity. The lesson is that opportunities should be taken when they are available – they are not there for ever.

      Take heart. New opportunities will open up. The EU is a dead hand on the economy. It is particularly damaging to those at the fringes.

      The UK should now be able to increase its trade with Argentina and other southern hemisphere producers. There is scope for collaboration in the development of the South Atlantic. That will mean an end to the conflict over the Falklands – which would probably never have happened if Britain had not joined the EEC and was no longer one of Argentina’s biggest customers.

  2. thank you jeremy. You always write so well and this says exactly what I’m feeling, but put much better than I could ever do. This completely sums up my feelings. I am grieving, and very worried.

  3. im sure the eu would be happy if britain appoligized. accepted the euro and promised to behave in the future.

  4. Can I put an end to this ‘no one asked for a referendum’ nonsense. In the election last year over 50% of votes cast were for parties in favour of leaving the EU or having a referendum on membership. Hardly an abuse of democracy to act on that.

    1. No, because the problem comes far earlier than the general election. It’s a Conservative party that ignored the EU issue within its own ranks for years, then panicked and put a referendum in the manifesto to appease its back-benchers. Senior figures in the party warned at the time that it was a dangerous thing to do, and they were quite right.

      1. Conservatives ignored Europe? Clearly you haven’t followed Conservative politics for the last 25 years. If anyone ignored Europe it was the New Labour government.

        It may not have been people’s top issue but dissatisfaction has been growing among the wider public to warrant a vote. Maybe once you have dealt with your grief you will see that.

        1. Sure, but they never settled their stand on it as a party, that’s the point. Cameron tried, to be fair, but was never able to patch over the issue and bring people together.

          And don’t patronise me or anyone else for being gutted about the damage this referendum has done. Acknowledging that grief is a good way to not be blinded or paralysed by it.

          1. Why should the Tories have settled their position on the EU one way or another? How would that have changed the result? Their view was let the people decide. They did. You are writing a post about this being a grieving process for you and you are making an argument from anger.

            Who had this in their 2015 manifesto, “We support the proposal to have an in-out referendum so that the British people can have their say. This is because so much has changed since the UK joined the Common Market in 1974.”?
            Answer: The Green Party.

          2. I think it’s pretty obvious what Cameron promised the referendum for – and unlike the Green Party, it’s not because he believes in direct democracy. It’s also obvious that Cameron thought a remain vote was a dead cert, or he wouldn’t have called it. Like the AV vote.

            You’re entitled to disagree and insist the referendum was necessary if you wish. I’m not going to argue about it.

        2. DevonChap speaks the truth, it seems some aren’t interested in truth, just their own view. Time for a lot of those suffering from a false sense of entitlement to realise, the teachers lied to you, you can’t always get what you want, no matter how hard you try.

      2. So let’s get this straight. You who is not a Conservative, not a Conservative voter or supporter, in fact would best be described as left of centre; who is not a close student of British party politics, is lecturing me, who is a Conservative why the Conservatives did what they did.

        Because telling the voters of England and Wales they were wrong worked so well.

          1. No. It clearly didn’t go according to Cameron’s plan but you seem to be expecting the Conservatives l to a man swung to have behind what you wanted and are unhappy they failed.

            The fact is no party management like that was possible and it had been long accepted that a only after a referendum like this would the issue be settled in the party. They put it in their manifesto they were returned by the public. How could Cameron renage on his pledge? Get angry at the EU for not giving him anything on immigration.

            Every national party except Labour accepted that there would have to be a vote on EU membership eventually.

            Yes Cameron was overconfident but the referendum was coming what may and the result probably the same. The reasons are much deeper than a conspiracy of newspaper proprietors or dodgy claims that are easy answers to grab on to when you are angry.

          2. I wish I had easy answers.

            I agree we’d have needed a referendum sooner or later, but I’d have liked to have seen a much broader conversation about who we are as a nation and where we’re going. A cross-party discussion, with wide consultation, where people got to air their grievances and be heard as part of developing a vision for the future, rather than being heard through a protest vote. It wouldn’t have been a snap in/out, but a vote for something rather than just against the EU. I’m an advocate of more participative democracy, after all. But referenda can be responsible or irresponsible, called for the common good or for party interests, well phrased or badly phrased.

            In my opinion, the AV was a bad referendum, because nobody wanted AV – and Clegg was naive to accept it. This was a bad referendum for several reasons, but perhaps is the most obvious is that we don’t know what we’ve voted for. What does ‘leave the EU’ mean in practice – does it or does it not include the common market? David Cameron knows he got it wrong or he’d still be prime minister, so I don’t think I’m voicing any particularly controversial opinions here.

            I would appreciate it if you honoured the tone of this post though. Any kneejerk reactions and blame went into the post I wrote and deleted. I’m genuinely not interested in poring over the what ifs and the if onlys of it all. As I made very clear in the post, I have no arguments or solutions to propose. I’m trying to articulate a feeling. If you don’t share it, consider yourself lucky.

  5. “the exit vote gives a tacit sanction to xenophobia, suspicion, and a turning away from global issues and the needs of the most vulnerable.” – can you elaborate on this? That’s a pretty sweeping statement! Have you sat down and discussed the reasons ‘why’ with anyone who voted out? I decided not to vote at the last minute as I couldn’t make my mind up, but making these kind of implications is one of the causes of the anger and division we are seeing. Anger and division which I believe were there already, and have risen to the surface now that the illusion of unity has collapsed.

    1. Yes, happy to elaborate on that. I’ve talked to quite a few people who voted out, and read the polls that gave us a breakdown of who and why and where. It’s clear that the out vote was driven by some of our most disenfranchised communities and poorest regions. Those who voted out were in many cases those who we have been failing as a society for years, and I completely understand why they voted the way they did.

      What I mean by a ‘tacit sanction’ is that any out voters who actually are racist now feel vindicated in their racism. That’s what we see when people start shouting at Muslims in the street, or handing out flyers telling ‘foreigners’ to go home. That might not have happened before, but the referendum has given them the nod. It’s a misunderstanding of what the result means, obviously, but there’s no doubt that it’s had that effect.

      Another way to put it is that things that would have been politically incorrect to say are now almost literally politically correct. Where you would have muttered to yourself behind closed doors about your Polish neighbours, now you may feel emboldened to go and tell them to their faces that they’re unwelcome.

      None of that means that people who voted for an exit are stupid or xenophobic, but some certainly are, and they now feel justified in their views.

      I agree with you that the referendum has brought things to the surface that were already there, that’s for sure. There are some very harsh lessons for the well educated, comfortable and politically engaged middle class here, about what happens when you allow big chunks of the country to get left behind.

      1. Agree with you on several of these points but still think that calling a Brexit vote a “tacit sanction” for racism is a non-sequitur. It’s at best a poor choice of words as this is a serious accusation, and plays into one of the narratives creating a political chasm.

  6. Jeremy,
    A thought provoking blog

    During the referendum we were let down by a lack of leadership from our politicians, fueled by a media skilled in taunting in a hunt for the sensational, all of which led to some very divisive politics

    The result appears to be as much a vote against many forms of Establishment as it is For a decision to Leave

    I was a reluctant exiter, increasingly uncomfortable with the evolution of the Federal State of Europe via an EU structure that is becoming increasingly cumbersome and burdonsome.

    We are still part of Europe – always have been.
    My hope is that we can find a reasonable balance between free trade and movement of people
    Whether we have the knowledge, skills and will within our fragmenting politicians to accomplish this over the next couple of years – now that’a a worry

    1. Indeed, the leadership vacuum is probably the most disturbing thing at the moment, the absence of a plan, and nobody fit to take up the Prime Minister’s job and actually deliver the exit the nation voted for.

    2. RSS, I genuinely want to understand: what Federal State of Europe are you referring to? What specifically do you find cumbersome and burdensome? I would like to know and understand.

  7. A thoughtful post Jeremy, and reflects my own Brexit journey to a large extent. I hope I’m not overly bright siding though by saying that this is far from over. The small margins of the win, the complexities of the constitutional requirements to leave the EU, and the rapidly shifting political backdrop in the UK may all make for a very different outcome. A general election could change everything, as could a shift in European attitudes towards necessary reform. It’s far from over. This is my blog https://www.livelight.org.uk/brexit-this-story-is-far-from-over/

  8. A very carefully worded piece but you have cherry picked controversial figures to make your point justified. Like saying Farage, Murdoch and Trump have what they wanted. I could easily provide you some equally unfavourable characters from the Remain side. How about all the top city banking chief execs, who were responsible for the 2008 recession and subsequent banking crisis, all wanted to Remain? I could mention business owners like Tate & Lyle, Dyson etc How about the Chairman of JCB, who says they conclude much of their business outside the EU and feel EU regulations hold them back? Is this the EU we are all grieving? The bankers who profit billions from bailouts and regulations who bankrolled the Remain campaign. Versus innovators who flourish outside.

    You make a great and valid point about certain politicians and the media for their handling of this. The 24 hour obsessive media hunger to procrastinate every minute and sometimes irrelevant, off the cuff rumour or comment is nothing short of monotonous. Take my advice, talk to your friends and colleagues and do your own research. DO NOT READ THE PAPERS OR THE HEADLINES.

    Yes this was a slightly depressing post but one you’re not alone in these feelings. If you want my take on it then I’ll gladly explain why I voted Leave, albeit with a heavy heart.

    Firstly, the EU and its unelected Democrats are history. They are completely unprepared and unwilling to debate our issues and they forced us, no called our bluff with a referendum and we voted Leave. Don’t forget, Cameron went to Brussels in February and pleaded for a better deal and we were laughed out of town. The British, rightly or wrongly, felt the EU repeatedly ignored our voice and felt our only path for Change was out of the EU. How sad is that.

    Secondly the future. There is a misconception that Europe together is better. The statistics do not back this up. China, India, Canada. Actually no. Every continent on the planet has grown in the last decade except Antarctica and EUROPE. Can you believe it? It’s almost unbelievable but it’s absolutely true. Out the shackles of Brussels we can forge trade deals with Germany, China, India, Australia, Canada, Africa and everyone else we like. These places are all growing. And under EU control we are unable to negotiate terms themselves. Don’t believe me. Look how long they’ve been negotiating with Australia. India. Etc. A decade. Pathetic waste of money.

    You are failing to look closer to home and how great we are. Leading banking centre of the world, one of the largest armies, 5th largest economy… If everyone stops panicking, reading attention grabbing headlines and focuses on the real task ahead we’ll come out better on the other side.

    1. Yes, I’m naming the politicians that wind me up most. As the post says, I’m trying to name a feeling here rather than make any great argument or propose a solution. It’s a very personal response to where we are today, not an attempt to lay out the arguments either way.

      I take the first of your points. The EU did call our bluff and that rather backfired on them. I do think there are reasons for slower growth in Europe that are larger than EU trade policy though – an aging population being one of the biggest. We’ve got around that through migration, and if we start reducing migration our own economy is going to struggle on that front too.

      And I agree with you that Britain is in no bad place, and it was the 5th biggest economy and all the rest of it despite the ‘shackles’ of the EU. Which makes me wonder what sort of shackles those were exactly.

  9. Having voted Leave, I still agree with much of your observation, but I think a key point is that some people are more comfortable with change than others. Some focus on the opportunity change brings, while others focus on the risks, with everyone somewhere in a scale between.

    The country needs the Leave opportunities to be better articulated by our politicians and executive than they are today. The financial markets appear to be picking up more positive sentiment (let’s hope it lasts), but it’s easy for people to talk down opportunity and talk up risks to a point where the risks become a self fulfilling prophecy. Those who are happy about the result have a responsibility to support those grieving.

    1. You’re right, there is a real risk of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Recessions are generally compounded by people reeling in their spending because they think times are going to be tough.

      And I agree, there are opportunities, all sorts of them. They will emerge out of the dust as it begins to settle. All is not lost. But whether those opportunities were worth the risk is another question.

  10. Reblogged this on ecglivingblog and commented:
    Great blog summing up the grieving process of British people right now. Here my thought and experiences one week on for Brexit tomorrow on my blog. Love & Blessings Aisha Rebecca

  11. This is the EU that gave the country CAP, prairie farming, set-aside, grants for owners, however wealthy, of farm land, a doubling of food prices in the space of a couple of years, and over-fishing, to name just a few, all overseen by an ever-growing bureaucracy on high tax-free wages.

    We should be rejoicing to be out of that circus. What the country makes of it from now on is up to the people and the politicians they elect, but it is an opportunity to deal with long-standing problems that cannot be done inside the EU.

    The first step would be to dismantle VAT, the very worst thing that came out of the EU, by dropping it sharply and progressively raising the registration threshold.

    Where to get the money from? As a short-term measure, the UBR (based on a new valuation), and adjustments to the Council Tax to raise more revenue from the more valuable properties.

    Anyone who is serious for necessary and beneficial change needs to be shouting for LVT, making sure they know what it is, how it would work and what its effects would be.

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