Speaking to The New York Times earlier this month, Sarah Niblock, the chief executive of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, said:
Brexit is ever-present in the consulting room… It is now so excruciating, and so difficult for people to have conversations about Brexit—families, workplaces, neighbors are so split—there is so much division between groups in society that it is almost as if the therapeutic room has become the last place people can talk with any ease.
For many, the issue goes to the heart of what is often called identity, a proxy for worldview and vantage point. What else explains the violent emotion the subject incites? Even the normally taciturn Archbishop of Canterbury cautioned Britons against mentioning Brexit at the Christmas dinner table, thereby putting Brussels sprouts on a par with the Pelagian heresy.
Remainers and Leavers alike have been caught off-guard by the strength of feeling aroused. And it’s not even remotely fanciful to imagine that the schism within Britain will haunt the polity for decades. Remainers might still see themselves as British, but they might not now see themselves as British in the way some Leavers do. For that matter, perhaps Brexit will put one tedious debate about Britishness—namely, the never-ending one that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US and, later, the 2007 terrorist outrages in London about the Britishness of the country’s immigrants, particularly its Muslim ones—on the back-burner for a while. One can only hope.
Of course, one looming question now is whether Scotland and Northern Ireland will care to remain in the union. Even among the English, there’s been a slight cognitive realignment. Novelist that I am, I note a certain linguistic shift, as the distinctions between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom are increasingly leaned upon in English conversation.
Throughout my adulthood, I felt alien in Britain, never properly settling there but returning for a few years at a time. I have had occasion to make my criticisms publicly, writing, for instance, in The New York Times about the ways in which even the supposedly liberal elites have failed to regard immigrants as properly British. Since 2016, though, I have grown closer to my country. For that, I owe something to the referendum for revealing deeper schisms in British society than the lines between native and immigrant, schisms that had, in a very British way, been papered over for years.
Right after June 23, 2016, the day of the referendum, Britons of my acquaintance—native-born, white, home counties centrists of the almost interchangeable David Cameron or Tony Blair variety—commented that their country suddenly seemed alien to them, musing that they had more in common with me than with many of their fellow native-born Englishmen who’d voted to leave the European Union. This realization evidently came as a surprise to them. The sociological explanation for why I now feel closer to Britain might be that by confronting all Britons with this variety of native British identities, Brexit has created space for other British identities.
If some Remainers may have woken up to the breadth of native diversities within the UK, there are other, rather specific, reasons for my deepening affinity with the country: the UK now resembles a highly dysfunctional family—something my childhood ensured would forever be familiar to me. Also, and more happily, pushing me closer to Britain, is the fact that I fell in love with my two-year-old godson thirty minutes after his birth to my closest friend, a single mom. He is everything to me. Until his arrival, it had never occurred to me to have a will drawn up, for instance.
His mother’s roots are firmly in Britain, with a bit of France in the mix. Born and raised in the Wirral, she is a fan of Liverpool Football Club. I lack the taste for sporting tribalism but I have come to give a damn about Liverpool’s fortunes, if only because the one thing in the world that seems to darken my friend’s mood is Liverpool losing.
Such specific contributions to identity should not be easily dismissed. They show that how we form our senses of attachment to place or community or football club or country are complex. As novelists are wont to say, even if sometimes over-reachingly, the personal is the political.
But Britain was no more divided on June 24, 2016, than on the day before. The referendum marked only the beginning of the revelation of divisions. We see now that divisions even within the main political parties go beyond merely attitudes toward the European Union, reflecting sharp differences in ideas about what kind of country Britain was, is, and should be, and how it stands in relation to the rest of the world. These divisions will endure for some time.
The elites—roughly, the top fifth of earners—largely voted Remain. And relatively speaking, they will be insulated from whatever adverse economic consequences attend Brexit, but they will be reminded again and again of the cultural and social deficit that leaving the EU has meant to them. And since that fifth dominates the media and controls the public conversation, their grievance will continue to be heard in the public space. Their condescension, compounded by being right on almost all the verifiable facts, will continue, as will the mutual alienation.
That condescension is best exemplified by the procession of dirges and jeremiads in the op-ed pages of the liberal press, often lamentations for the loss of the illusion of Britain that the author held for so long. Hubris, colonial in kind, is often blamed. But if hubris is the cause, such pieces actually serve as arguments for a humbling. In any case, the sad stories of the well-to-do draw no sympathy from me. Liberal elites were complicit for years in cultivating the circumstances that they now blame for Brexit. The fracturing of Britain, as a nation and as an idea, is of secondary significance to the systematic ways in which everyone outside the elite has been shortchanged by successive governments.
The Blair, Brown, and Cameron governments of the two decades preceding Brexit reflected a convergence on technocratic government, it was said, one that purported to do away with ideology. That interpretation was always wrong. Blair’s famous 1998 meeting with Rupert Murdoch reflected the hardening of an elite consensus to protect prevailing capitalist economic norms. In this light, Blair’s push to ban fox-hunting was pandering to the left, with an easy victory in the “culture wars,” while distracting them from the neoliberal economic program.
I see the explosive diversity revealed by Brexit as potentially useful, as shining a light on the shortcomings of Britain’s democratic apparatus. A constitutional regime that privileges two political parties in order, some say, to provide stable government has delivered anything but.
It’s not hard to see why. A member of Parliament’s employment is in the gift of her constituency; but as for her doing the bidding of a referendum, the law is strangely silent. There’s also her party line or lines to consider and then, too, her own good-faith beliefs about what is best for Britain. The constitution, such as it is, is unable to resolve her predicament. But there is one reason that alone would have guaranteed the turmoil we’ve seen in Westminster these past months: Leave might mean leave, but even Leave MPs seem unable to agree what kind of Leave the people want.
The UK’s newly discovered political and cultural diversity, as well as the various resentments exposed by the process, have strained and will further strain its democratic model. Now is precisely the time to start thinking about new electoral mechanisms, reforms to our voting system that would allow the representation of a new spectrum of political perspectives, however unpleasant some of those might be. As we’ve seen, the old fudges don’t work.
Of course, I won’t be holding my breath, not least because Brexit is threatening to take all the oxygen out of politics for some years as long-term deals are negotiated with the EU and countless other bodies, and all the wrinkles of transition are ironed out. But there is a more pressing concern, one that is growing by the day.
In an interview reported in The Daily Telegraph just before the referendum, the psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said that “The major impression one gets observing the debate is that the reasons for exit are clearly emotional.” Kahneman, a Jew who survived the Nazis, added grimly that the risk was that the British people will lash out later at scapegoats if EU withdrawal proves to be a disastrous error. “They won’t regret it,” he said, “because regret is rare. They’ll find a way to explain what happened and blame somebody. That is the general pattern when things go wrong and people are afraid.”
The fact that no one visibly near the front of the campaign for Brexit or its delivery is likely to be in government in a year or two means that if Brexit proves damaging to Britain, there will be no one to hold accountable. Anyone still standing will argue that the kind of Brexit delivered was not the kind they wanted. Without accountability, the rejection of the democratic process acquires legitimacy in the eyes of those with authoritarian tendencies.
Many Britons seem readily able to draw a line from themselves all the way back to the people of this island who prevailed in World War II, people such as my beloved godson’s forebears. Perhaps it is English exceptionalism that permits some to regard the horrors of mid-twentieth-century Europe as Europe’s horrors, not England’s. My hope is that, should things turn sour in a post-Brexit Britain, there will be leaders among us who understand that even if they regard England as exempt from European history, its people are not exempt from human psychology.
Zia Haider Rahman is a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and the author of the novel In the Light of What We Know. (January 2018)
This essay is adapted from a talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, March 17, 2019.