Towards A Taxonomy of Brexit: the Politics of Self-Harm

One of the more curious aspects of the Brexit debate is the way Leavers seem impervious to any kind of reasoned argument; in all fairness, many Remainers are just as dogmatically entrenched, but, crucially, their argument – remain in the European Union – was already subject to clear terms, whereas the case for Brexit has always been built on speculation. Online discussions quickly descend to name-calling, or worse, and, in my experience, it is rare to see any attempt by Brexiteers to argue the facts.

Given the Leave campaign’s own poorly-defined, speculative and frequently shifting position on the key areas of debate (the economy; international trade; the cost of Brexit; immigration and border control; national sovereignty etc.) this is hardly surprising, but what is surprising is how quickly Brexit has become an inviolable institution, the sanctified will of the British people, despite these monumental gaps and impossible questions.

Government rhetoric has yet to seriously acknowledge the existence of the substantial minority of Remainers, let alone the wafer-thin margin of the ballot cast on June 23rd. Yet the evidence grows by the day that the UK is committing an unprecedented act of collective self-harm. If we discount the notion of some grand idiocy on the part of the 17 million or so people who voted for Brexit, the only way it makes sense is if we suppose leavers actually want the disaster we see forecast – consciously or otherwise. This initially seems like a baffling proposition, but upon further consideration is not as far-fetched an argument as it might seem.

One of the more persuasive ways therapists explain self-harm is that the physical pain is a way of making some kind of sense of an otherwise inexplicable psychological trauma. As the blade slices, as the blood flows, and quite apart from the euphoric experience of endorphin release, there is a reason for the pain, which makes it more bearable; a surrogate, even, for the somewhat deeper cut of psychological suffering. If we consider Brexit to be the knife in this analogy, we can’t go far wrong.

Reading and listening to Brexit arguments, it seems to me there are four different kinds of Leaver. I have come to call them the Empire Romantics, the Economically Disenfranchised, the UK Democrats, and the Ethno-Nationalists (a polite term for racists). The descriptions are shallow and imperfect, and there are many points of intersection and overlap between them, but I think that, broadly speaking, this taxonomy serves as a working model to help theorise the complex reality of the issue. And the one thing we can say with any confidence is that every one of those identity groups is hurting, badly. So let’s look at each of them.

The Ethno-Nationalists are, perhaps, the easiest to make sense of. I suspect we shall never know quite how much difference they made, but the importance of immigration in the debate (not to mention the aftermath) suggest they constitute a key part of the Brexit voting bloc. If we try to see the world through their eyes, it’s obvious that they see too many of ‘them’ and long for the chance to send ‘them’ back ‘home’. Their pain at the presence of ‘them’ is no mystery. But, deep down, they must also know that they themselves are a minority on the wrong side of history, and that they will never succeed in their objective of an all-White-British UK. And that is the pain they cannot bear to let into their consciousness.

Empire Romantics long to live in the past. They are the people who insist – in contravention of the facts – that we can trade with the Commonwealth just as we did before the EU, and be just as well off. They look back nostalgically to the 1940s, when plucky little Britain stood alone; they conveniently forget that, without the empire, The USA, and Soviet Russia, our lonely stand would have been short indeed – perhaps that is why, needing an enemy to stand against today, they cite Germany as chief villain of the EU, almost as if the war never ended. They cannot bear the reality that US politician Dean Acheson articulated as far back as 1962: that Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The pain is enormous, and to face it would also mean facing the reality that we are no longer (and never again will be) a global imperial power; that if we cannot exploit an empire we cannot prosper alone in today’s world. That reality is too painful for them to face, so they keep it out of consciousness entirely, decrying those who would claim otherwise as ‘treacherously unpatriotic’ and accusing them of ‘talking our country down’.

The Economically Disenfranchised voters are also easy to understand, and, I think, are the most justified in their apoplectic rage. Starting with the election of Margaret Thatcher, continuing through Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, to the present day, the industrial heartlands of the UK have been systematically gutted, and the proud industries they cradled destroyed or exported to foreign climes. No viable alternative has been offered since. With the advent of the ‘knowledge economy,’ skilled craftsmen were told they had nothing to offer, and dumped on the scrapheap – and what can be worse in a society that makes so much of merit than to be judged as having none. No social group in our society has ever been left as morally naked as that. Communities, towns, even whole regions of the nation, have had the heart and soul brutally torn out of them.

A disaffected, hurting populace have wanted and waited for something better that has yet to come; their anger is hardly surprising. Worse than that, what little economic regeneration they saw before the recession has largely been at the cost of community and social cohesion – it is abundantly clear that, in this brave new neoliberal world, competition is the only value that really matters. So it isn’t surprising at all that it hurts for the people of these working-class communities, as they are forced to surrender their cultural heritage just to get by. I daresay that many in this group are fully aware of the dangers of Brexit – they voted for our departure because said vote was contrary to the wishes of the government, and served as an opportunity to stick a metaphorical yet oh-so-real middle finger up at both the ruling political elite and the neoliberal economic consensus.

The UK Democrats are perhaps most to be pitied. They are, above all, people of high principle. They believe in parliamentary sovereignty and are proud of the UK’s history as a seat of democracy, an example to the world and a shining beacon of good government. Their distress is the agony of betrayal, because they cannot bear to contemplate the reality. Only one of the two houses of Parliament has any democratic legitimacy; the other includes not just appointees (‘the will of the people’ has no hand in the process) but a hereditary element – we share the unenviable distinction with Lesotho as being a democracy which reserves seats in parliament for hereditary chieftains. The Commons is elected by a first-past-the-post system that is manifestly unfair; the misrepresentation error of the UK parliament (the difference between percentage of votes earned and percentage of seats won for each party; a kind-of government illegitimacy score) has been generally on the increase since the Second World War, leading to situations where a political party can see an increase of 9.6% of the vote, yet only gain 30 seats (as the Labour party did in 2017).

As Lord Hailsham said in 1976, the UK is not so much a democracy as an elective dictatorship, with the government of the day free to act without realistic opposition. The idea of ‘taking back control’ for the people seems to vanish once a party reaches Westminster, every time, because our system gives the winning party almost-absolute power, which, as we know, corrupts almost-absolutely. Local democracy has been eviscerated, not once but many times. Parliament is rife with vested interest, and lobbyists have huge influence. Behind the scenes, we see a snake-pit where occasional scandals reveal an intractable culture of bullying, discrimination, harassment and abuse. The knowledge of these realities must be kept out of the consciousness of the UK Democrats, yet the anguish cannot and it is great indeed. The truth is, of course, that while the EU’s parliamentary system is flawed, ours is no better, but merely a different kind of bad.

For each of these groups, it was easy enough to cast the EU as the problem, and the Leave campaign wasted no time in doing so. Now they have won their referendum. At last, they have a chance to make their distress comprehensible. Like the rituals of a cutting, the preparations are in progress. We see the blade laid to the clear, unblemished skin, its edge cool and sharp. Some proponents want the precaution of carefully sterilising it, a way of minimising the harm they will do, but others, noisy and powerful, prefer a harder line – go straight for the jugular. There it will remain, hanging suspended like the sword of Damocles, until Brexit is completed, promising a comfort never before experienced.

It will hurt. Many of them want it to hurt, and badly. A dystopian experience that can be seen, and subsequently railed against, will make it all the more satisfying, even more so if the 48% can be made the ones who suffer most; the so-called Liberal Metropolitan Elite tm who oh-so-frequently look down on their nationalistic zeal and economic ‘failure’ with a mix of pity, disgust, and paternalistic, patronising benevolence. Only thus, they think, can their secret, sometimes shameful, inner agony be purged.

And the more it hurts, the more satisfying it will be.


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