How psychology helps us to understand Brexit

27 Feb|Mark Vernon

Psychologist Wilfred Bion can shed some light on the chaos that is Brexit, says Mark Vernon

What is going on with Brexit? Some try to disentangle the issues. Only, the truth is that they’re issues tied up in a Gordian knot. So, instead, how about some psychology?

It offers an alternative approach to the confusion, with the psychodynamic insights of Wilfred Bion being particularly useful at this time. He’s the central figure in part five of our online course, An Introduction to Psychotherapy, released this week. He thought a lot about groups.

Bion argued that much of the time we’re not actually acting as individuals but as members of groups. When our groups are functioning well, and doing what they are supposed to do, we tend not to notice. It might be the group we call “the office”, the group we call “our family”, the group we call “my team”, the group we call “my church”. When all is well with them, all is more or less well with us. They provide a sense of purpose, of agency, of belonging.

But when they go wrong, Bion argued, that functionality rapidly falls apart. In fact, he observed that dysfunctional groups shift into patterns of madness far more quickly than individuals are inclined to do. It’s why wars and internecine spats readily kick off. And this is what has happened with Brexit.

The referendum has meant that most people do not feel the group called “my country” is doing what it should. Remainers feel disenfranchised. Brexiteers feel their vote is being compromised. Others somewhere in the middle feel that the whole shebang only goes to prove that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It is truly a risky time. If our democratic institutions were not robust enough to contain the collective insanity, or the queen had not been so long on the throne, there would have been violence on the streets, and a sense not only of political drift but constitutional breakdown. It could have been 1642, the start of the English Civil War, all over again. So what, psychologically, is happening?

Bion analysed groups as they cease to perform. He noticed that three reactions tend to break out.

A first is that the group in crisis throws up leaders who promise that they will lead everyone out of the chaos. They take on the aura of a saviour or hero, and their followers feel strongly that this person and this person alone is the one speaking the truth. You can think of Nigel Farage in this way, which is why UKIP has fallen apart without him. It never was a party. It always was a support system for him, the liberator.

A second is that the group panic produces sub-groups that try to work out what to do. They feel themselves to be clear of the insanity, capable of reasoning a way forward, and will speak to the masses with words of calmness, clarity and apparent wisdom.

Don’t believe them. They have no more ability to enforce their will than anyone else. They’ll generate proposals, devise solutions, and offer triple lock guarantees. It’s rot. The wider group is in crisis and they’re no more capable of turning the tide than King Canute. In the current Brexit situation, Keir Starmer’s sub-group in Labour is a bit like this. They’ve pulled a customs union rabbit out of the hat. Now watch as their enemies, within Labour and without, rip off its ears, pull out its eyes, and disembowel its innards. There’s no reasonable conversation, little rational assessment of the proposal. Instead, people react. They love it or hate it, period. We’re living in a dysfunctional group.

A third possibility is fight or flight. This is a chaotic response. Some people will leave the UK, and change nationalities given the chance. Others will hunker down and abandon the democratic process perhaps never to vote again, muttering, “They’re as bad as each other.”

Others again will become lone voices. Like an Anna Soubry or Frank Field, they will receive a lot of attention, and talk as if they were sane, but they’re not. They’re as much a product of the turmoil as anyone else, which is why they’ll regularly threaten resignation or call on others to go. Toys are being thrown out of the pram.

So, watch out when groups go wrong. It can happen in families and workplaces, clubs and churches, as much as within nations and between nations. Bion concluded that there’s little the individual can do to resist the melee. The hope is to understand the psychology and ride the storm. Does someone look like a saviour? Don’t trust them. Is some sub-group saying they’ve got the answer? It’s unlikely to stick. Do you want to flee and stuff the rest? It’s an understandable response but no more sensible than any other.

Bion advised sitting down, holding onto your chair, and going with the turbulent flow. At least seeing it can help.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Melanie Klein, but were afraid to ask, now is your chance. Our psychotherapy course with Dr Mark Vernon takes you through the life and work of six key figures in the world of psychotherapy. A fantastic primer in the key developments in psychotherapy since its birth in late 19th century Vienna, Mark’s course will also help you to think about your own life. Find out more here.