“Brexit is only sort of mentioned once, very briefly in the novel but I think it’s fair to say at this point you know that Brexit is a feeling” Sam Byers
In an interview about his new, technological thriller, Perfidious Albion, the author Sam Byers pondered briefly on the question of whether, or not, the novel could be described as a Brexit novel. whilst he was somewhat recalcitrant in acquiescing fully to this description, he did, however, suggest that Brexit is in many ways as much of a feeling as it is an event.
My previous attempts in writing about Brexit have largely focused on examining aspects of the process from the dense complex arrangements surrounding the European Union trade deals and their role in making the exercise of leaving the EU almost unthinkable, to the resulting 500 page plus withdrawal agreement and the increasingly diverse outcomes making Brexit as a potential destination increasingly difficult to ascertain. However, in recent times it appears there’s been more of an effort to try and capture what Brexit is as a mood or a collection of occasionally contradictory sentiments, feelings and ideas and it’s this that brings me back to the subject.
The Guardian’s recent article on the radicalization of the remain campaign touches on this particular mode of thinking, observing stories and anecdotes from those who found themselves becoming politically active only after the EU referendum and developing distinct patterns of behavior around media consumption and social media engagement. Personalities had sprung up delivering endless defiant platitudes, driving campaigns for a second referendum and touring around Europe singing songs about the EU while an air of distrust had sprung up around state-funded media institutions like the BBC.
Meanwhile, an image of the UK sliding ever closer to the precipice has become the daily reality for many who tag their profiles #FBPE. In a recent survey, only 9% of people identified strongly with a particular political party, meanwhile 44% of people identified strongly with the label of leave or remain. However, both sides have their contradictions, Remain despite typically being associated with more progressive strands of thought is ultimately founded upon the idea of going back to a time before the referendum took place. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign despite often being saddled with claims of conservatism has in many ways, designs on radically reshaping the character of the UK.
In James Meek’s 2019 book “Dreams of Leaving and Remaining”, Meek situates the roots of leaving and remaining within the concept of dreaming, or rather within the specific idea of possible realities that one can inhabit. Some dream of reestablishing themselves once again on the world stage, of reinvigorated national defence and a political class more responsive to the needs of the electorate. The problem, Meeks points out is that many of these dreams are increasingly difficult to realize in a world marked by a cleavage between the political and the economic, which he subsequently refers to as the absent sovereign. In the dereliction of Grimsby, he traces the withdrawal of the central funding and the responsibility of the state. In its place fleeting interest from private capital, public dissatisfaction and sense of abandonment and rising anger.
The symbology constructed by Meek could be said to have a deeper implication when considering the sentiments behind Brexit, the absence of the sovereign corresponding to a real sense of lack, austerity, chronic under-spending and a lack of working-class representation contributing to a state seemingly at odds with its assumed responsibilities. This has continued to deepen with the failure of the parliamentary process to deal with what was characterised as a simple choice. The outcome of this has resulted in a situation where many continue to find themselves increasingly distrustful of state institutions, civil servants and according to recent words from the Conservative MP even the judiciary. Along with this, the artificial division of remain and leave in many ways has made it harder to bridge the divide. A recent LSE blog detailing how the outcome of the process and who to ascribe for it’s going awry is, according to polling, incredibly dependent on whether one falls in the remain or leave camp two division’s which as many have argued are somewhat artificial given that there are many complicating factors, not least class, age and political ideology that may have had far more bearing on someone’s vote than their actions in the booth.
For others, of course, there’s the very real risk of losing connections to family and friends although even having something as fundamental one’s status in a country being in question evokes for many genuine feelings of distress and dislocation. Loss, not necessarily of connection but of the feeling of inhabiting what was perceived to be a shared reality has also been commonly cited by those affected by the vote. One way of interpreting this is through the Lacanian concept of lack, where lack is interpreted as the desire for an object extended to the idea of community lack takes on a keen significance where being deprived either symbolically or in reality of the object leads to frustration.
There has been some evidence for this having an effect on the psyche of the nation with a spike in anti-depressants around the time of the referendum being picked up in a report by Kings College London, 43% of people reported feeling powerless, 39% angry and 38% worried. Research performed by the psychologists’ Stephen Porges and Gregory Lewis suggests that moments of heightened fear correlate strongly with being unable to hear softer more sympathetic tones and instead sounds are prioritised by intensity. Subsequently, anxiety and anger can leave individuals prefrontal cortex prone to being overwhelmed by the amygdala, the part of the brain more responsible for dealing with base fight-or-flight impulses.
This can result in sudden often irrational responses to a situation which can have a correlative effect in others who are in the immediate vicinity. The lack of security experienced in these states can often cause, a drift towards what are often referred to as “deficit values”, a value which if it perceived to be lacking will be prioritised above all others. One such value is security which correlates with Lord Ashcroft’s probing of stats around Brexit which suggests those who voted leave were more likely to agree with statements like “With the way the economy and society are changing there will be more threats to my standard of living in the future than there will be opportunities to improve it” Goodwin’s 2018 article and more broadly in a survey conducted by the Hansard Society the statement “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules” returned a result of 54%.
The rhetoric around the Brexit debate, I would argue, is partially designed to create anxieties that leave those affected ill-prepared to engage in the kinds of deliberative, thought through politics that’s required, pushing voters to either occupying the position of “no-deal” or the equally polarising revocation position espoused by the Liberal Democrats. This I would argue has a bearing not only on the result of the referendum but the frustration felt by many at the continuing lack of a conclusion and the possibility that there may well be a disjunction between what is desired and what is being sought.