‘English’ or ‘European’? The trauma behind Brexit

Special guest posting by Sarai Allen

The previous post on the subject of right-wing populism discussed and critiqued Jay Frankel’s paper that made the argument for right wing working class Americans identifying with the aggressor.  This was based on Frankel’s reading of Ferenczi’s paper on this subject.  In this post I would like to develop this theory to show how, in the context of Brexit,  both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters were identifying with the aggressor,  and pose some potential reasons for and consequences of this.

To summarise Ferenczi’s theory: people who have experienced emotional abandonment, and crucially when this abandonment has been denied, will identify with the people perpetrating harm and violence (identifying with the aggressor) as a way to avoid the terrifying annihilation of self and traumatic social exclusion created from being left utterly alone and bereft. They will scapegoat others as a way to project distressing feelings away from themselves and the idealised aggressor.

Going by this theory, people who voted to leave the EU were identifying with right-wing populism and political parties such as UKIP and Britain First, while at the same time scapegoating the ‘Liberal establishment elite. If we flip this argument we can see that the ‘remain’ campaign were identifying with anti-democratic EU institutions and oppressive political ideas, while at the same time scapegoating people who they view as ‘ignorant, northern racists’.

Many people have put forward the notion that Brexit was primarily about immigration. Issues surrounding immigration, globalisation and multiculturalism cause us to ask bigger questions about our own identities and position within the world.  I would like to argue that voting ‘leave’ was a way to maintains one’s identity as English, whilst voting ‘remain’ was a way to maintain one’s identity as European.

Looking at the principal reasons why people voted for ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ can give us some clues as to how a ‘lack of identity’ led them to vote a certain way.

One of the main surveys following the Brexit result showed that the three top reasons for voting leave were:

1, So that “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

2, It “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”

3, It created choice “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead.”

We can talk of predominantly white, working class leave voters’ English identity being eroded by the forces of globalisation and the free market. The massive de-industrialisation took away these identities that were centred around unionised industrial labour. The ‘dispossessed’ attempting to return to an identity based on ‘Britishness’  or ‘Englishness’ was founded on notions of race and nostalgia.

However, it also appears that ‘leave’ voters were also very concerned about freedom of choice and ways to increase British democratic power over its own laws and lands. The concept of a sovereign parliament is so deeply embedded in British political identity that investing in a federalizing Europe is inherently abhorrent to a great many people.

When ‘remain’ voters were asked why they voted remain the three top reasons were:

1, The risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices

2, The UK would have ‘the best of both worlds’ with access to the EU single market but without Schengen or the Euro.

3, The UK “would become more isolated from its friends and neighbours”.

Notably the first two reasons are economic. Keeping hold of, or increasing one’s affluence appears to be uppermost in ‘remainers’’ minds. Fears about anti-democratic institutions and curtails of democratic freedom are not apparent here as they were in the reasons for voting ‘leave’.

The third reason however speaks of another fear inherent in this debate, one of cultural and social isolation and loss of cohesion. This is the opposite of the ‘leavers’’ concerns about immigration, controlling borders and not being isolated enough.

A clue to this link between isolation, immigration and how people voted lies in the demographic statistics of voters. We know that predominantly it was the older generations that voted leave. The statistic below shows a link between cultural identity and age:

“44% of over 65s think of themselves as English but only 21% of the under 26s think this way.”

Many younger people in Britain have been raised to think of European integration and membership as a static state of affairs, not a transient political experiment that could be reversed by mainly the older generation. Younger people have grown up with an identity outside of ‘Englishness’ that sits comfortably within a multicultural society. They have only known cities like London and Edinburgh as inherently diverse and multicultural. They have developed an identity born from globalisation which is much more about being European or global citizens and much less about being British (let alone English).

A “typical” remain voter, Ms Muscroft, 24, who lives in London summed this up in her response to the Brexit vote: “My initial reaction when it happened was feeling like part of my identity had been stripped away. One thing I’ve always really felt a strong connection to, with Europe, is a unified sense of fate — the fact that we are all in this together, and that we benefit each other through this union.”

Being part of a multicultural and multi-ethnic society is a place where many people get their identity from. This identity transcends demographic reasons and is also shared by people who tend to live in multicultural cities as we can see in the high levels of remain votes cast in affluent, cities such as London and Edinburgh. Multicultural cities tend to foster a sense of freedom of movement in and between countries. Brexit threatens this process and creates a sense of a lack of freedom of movement that in part means being stuck on a confusing wasteland of an island surrounded by racists with no means of escape.

A key question that appears to be being asked in the wake of Brexit that created this confusing wasteland is:  Who am I if I am not European? and consequently: What happened to an identity rooted in ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’?

Questions of English cultural identity within British society have clearly been shaken in the wake of globalisation and the 2008 financial crisis. If we don’t have a sense of British or English identity, we will probably look to get it elsewhere. Getting some of our identity from “being part of a diverse society” stops us from feeling isolated and confused without an identity to hold onto. If you take away multiculturalism you take away part of the identity inherent in the 48% of Brexit voters. So distressing is being exposed to this lack of identity, this annihilation of self , that ‘remainers’ would happily identify with the aggressor by clinging to anti-democratic EU institutions and peddling oppressive censorship of freedoms of speech.

This perhaps gives us a clue as to why ‘remain’ voters are so quick to call others ‘racists’. If you do not see multiculturalism as a threat (quite the opposite) then people who speak in any way against multiculturalism are a threat to your identity. It is as if ‘remain’ voters cannot understand how ‘leave’ voters can criticise multiculturalism. They don’t understand that ‘leave’ voters have not assimilated the Other of other cultures and races into their own sense of self (quite the opposite). This confusion, while understandable, is a driving force behind scapegoating ‘leavers’, or indeed anyone who goes even close to saying a bad word against multiculturalism, as racists.

On the other hand, ‘leave’ voters when faced with feeling like a stranger in their own town, suffering the impact of infrastructure not keeping up with population growth (school/GP appointments, etc), can lead to a sense of British identity being eroded. Linking this back to Ferenczi’s theory of denial of mistreatment: if you know that you are hurt and confused but you also know that if you raise those concerns you will not only be told that your fears are not valid but that you are a racist, lends itself perfectly to ‘leavers’ identifying with the aggressor (right wing populism who share similar concerns) and scapegoating ‘The Establishment’ for being out of touch.

Neither side is understanding each other. confusion reigns on both sides. ‘Leavers’ are being xenophobic and ‘remainers’ are being anglophobic. Virtually everyone is making their own aggressors to identify with and our own scapegoats to project bad feelings onto. Frankel reflects this universality in his paper when he says:

The apparent ubiquity of IWA (identification with the aggressor) may be due to the minor degree of at least occasional traumatic emotional abandonment in the histories of virtually everyone. Even a whiff of social exclusion could then function as a trigger for identification and compliance

Frankel goes on to discuss social exclusion in an evolutionary context, highlighting the importance of social links to human survival and how social exclusion is experienced as a traumatic threatening experience.

Perhaps we need to see Brexit as a response to a trauma that touches all of us, and find a way to work with this that doesn’t involve identifying with aggressors or scapegoating others.