Well, obviously it remains to be seen just how much damage Brexit does to the UK – socially, economically and politically.
But the initial consequences do not look at all good: Britain’s credit rating downgraded, the pound struggling to get much above the rock bottom it hit on Monday, up and down (but mostly down) stocks and shares (with markets right around the world affected), the banks and many big companies drawing up relocation plans (with consequent loss of jobs), a mooted 25% of companies declaring a freeze on hiring staff, a significant increase in incidents of racial and ethnic abuse, momentum building for a second Scottish independence referendum and Martin McGuinness calling for a referendum on whether the island of Ireland should be reunited. The ‘serious’ newspapers and internet news sites are full of dire predictions of far worse to come. As the so-called ‘Project Fear’ appears to be turning rapidly into reality, it would be foolish indeed to say blandly everything is going to be OK, as Boris Johnson was doing on Monday morning. The pound and the markets were stable he stated an hour or so before the pound hit a 31-year low.
Everything is not OK. Not in the slightest. The UK faces an existential threat – politically, socially and economically – and no one seems to know what to do about it. David Cameron has effectively abdicated responsibility. The Labour Party has imploded over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (or lack of it). And the Brexit leaders – Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith – seem paralysed with the enormity of what they have done and/or the enormity of the task of untangling the UK from the EU, keeping the Union together and ensuring the welfare and prosperity of its people. They appear to have had no plan beyond fighting for their cause in the referendum. Sky News political editor Faisal Islam claims on Sunday to have asked a senior Tory close to Johnson for what the plan was now, only for the MP to say: “There is no plan. The Leave campaign don’t have a post-Brexit plan.” According to Islam, the MP then pointed toward the Houses of Parliament and said: “Number 10 should have had a plan”. Certainly, at their ‘victory’ press conference on Friday morning Gove and Johnson looked decidedly sombre.
Johnson is clearly a highly intelligent man capable of projecting great passion – as he did in the Scottish independence debate. (See: Why Scotland and rUK need Each Other.) However, the RED dominance in his vMEME stack – so often displayed in the ‘charismatic buffoon’ persona he likes to project – would not lead him to think much of consequences. Given his history of affairs – as chronicled by the likes of Nigel Morris (2013) – it’s more than probable Johnson is high in the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism – which may account for his ruthless self-focus. There may be enough ORANGE present for him to calculate tactics for his leadership ambitions – but little more future projection than that. Gove is what Don Beck (2003) would term a zealot. Driven by a strong RED/BLUE vMEME harmonic giving him an extreme internal locus of control, he doesn’t need to listen to others because he is convinced he knows what is right. He showed this as Education Secretary when he refused to listen to academics and educationalists – ‘experts’ – expressing evidence-based criticisms of his proposed reforms. Gove displayed a similar tendency throughout the Leave campaign, telling Sky News “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
So, on past form, you would hardly expect Johnson and Gove to future pace, anticipate likely consequences and create holistic strategic plans. So it’s no surprise that they’re fumbling around with little clear idea of what to do next. Duncan Smith, I confess to being disappointed with. At times over the past 10 years he does seem to have displayed 2nd Tier thinking and in its early days his Centre for Social Justice produced a number of impressive analyses of some of the social issues afflicting the UK. But the Gravesian approach shows that, just because you access 2nd Tier thinking in one context, that doesn’t mean you think like that all the time in all contexts.
Together, Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith appear to have fallen into what Irving Janis (1972) calls groupthink. Cutting themselves off from ‘experts’ and others who contradict their views, they reinforce their own sense of rightness by only entering into open dialogue with those who think like them. Janis developed the concept of groupthink by investigating how the Kennedy White House got itself into the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. The fiasco Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith have got us into is equally alarming and may yet end up as violent.
The behaviour of the leaders
In all the commentary on why the referendum vote went the way it did, the politicians’ behaviour during the referendum is one of the 2 main streams of thought which has emerged.
Both sides made dubious claims and/or threatened actions which were designed to manipulate people into voting their way. The Remain camp were certainly no angels in this respect. George Osborne has probably killed off what little chance he had of ever becoming Conservative leader by saying on Monday that everything was in hand and that there was no need to have the desperate emergency budget he had stated (pre-vote) would be unequivocally necessary. (His appearance of incompetence was increased yesterday by him saying that tax rises and cuts in public services will be necessary to deal with the impact of Brexit on the public finances.)
Most criticism, though, is reserved for the Leave leaders. The BBC’s Reality Check have produced an analysis of the Leave campaign’s claims and promises. Though carefully worded to try to provide a sheen of impartiality, the article exposes how much the Leave leaders have ‘modified’ – ie: back-tracked – on their principal arguments. The article should be read in its own right but its headlines are:-
- The campaign claim: We send £350m a week to Brussels, which could be spent on the NHS instead.
The current claim: The claim was a mistake, and we will not be able to spend that much extra on the NHS.
- The campaign claim: The UK does not need preferential access to the single market.
The current claim: The UK should get preferential access to the single market but will not have to accept freedom of movement to get it.
- The campaign claim: Immigration levels could be controlled if the UK left the EU. This would relieve pressure on public services.
The current claim: Immigration levels can’t be radically reduced by leaving the EU. Fears about immigration did not influence the way people voted.
Nick Cohen, in this Sunday’s Observer (p43), summed up the Leave leaders claims: “…not since Suez has the nation’s fate been decided by politicians who made a straight, shameless, incontrovertible lie the first plank of their campaign.”
Small wonder that there is now a petition to create an independent regulator to ensure truth in political advertising!
Almost certainly, it was the Leave side’s claims about immigration that had the single greatest impact upon the campaign. In The Observer David Olusoga noted: ‘To those who remember Britain’s 1975 referendum, what must be striking is how the big issues that took up the airtime and column inches then hardly got a mention this time. Increasing political integration, levels of regulation and the common agricultural policy were so marginal as to be virtually invisible. Immigration was not just the dominant issue – it became a great mincing machine through which other debates were fed. The failure of successive British governments to build sufficient housing, social or otherwise, has, for example, been repeatedly boiled down to a series of angry accusations about immigrants jumping the housing queue….”
The apogee of Leave’s manipulation of the immigration issue was UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster which implied that remaining in the EU meant hordes of Syrian refugees would come to Britain. Olusoga describes it as “almost identical to an image from a Nazi propaganda film”.
Following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by an extremist with connections to anti-immigration group Britain First, just an hour or so after Nigel Farage launched the UKIP poster, the official Leave leaders – most notably Gove – distanced themselves from its tastelessness. However, they continued to use gaining control of immigration as a key reason for leaving the EU.
The connection between immigration and the ‘left behind’
The second main stream of thought about why the referendum went the way it did is the concept of the ‘left behind’. They are the traditional white working class of Britain’s former industrial heartlands of South Wales, the Midlands, the North of England and the banks of Scotland’s River Clyde. Effectively thrown on the employment scrapheap by Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies in the 1980s – see The Thatcherite Project is ended: whither Britain? and Margaret Thatcher: Saviour or Devil? – many have swelled the ranks of what Charles Murray (1989; 1990) calls the Underclass – see Underclass: the Excreta of Capitalism. Others – and their grown-up children – struggle to get by on minimum wages in jobs their grandfathers and fathers would have despised as unsuitable for a man to provide adequately for his family. As the services sectors boomed under Thatcher and then Tony Blair, the rump of the manufacturing industry increasingly diversified into high-tech digital work or highly-specialised niche engineering. None of these offered many opportunities for low-skill manual workers; but those who worked in managerial, the professional and the technical – the middle class – did well as Britain boomed, going from the 7th wealthiest country in the world by GDP in 1997 to the 2nd wealthiest (World Bank, 2007).
Those who were left behind, by and large, did not share in that wealth.
For many of them, immigration is a sore point. They see people who look and/or talk differently, with different norms and values, invading their cities and towns and stealing what jobs there are by working for even less. (Or, if they’re not ‘stealing’ our jobs, they’re claiming our benefits.) Then, because of the enlarged population and its effects on local resources, the left-behind struggle to get their children into favoured local schools and have to wait far too long to get appointments at local GP surgeries.
Writing in The Guardian shortly before the referendum, John Harris could detect the discontent clearly: “In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into clichés, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’ … ‘No one listens to us’ … ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares.’ And of course, none of it needs much translation. Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system and retirements built on thin air? It may have been easy to miss in the London-centred haze of the ‘knowledge economy’ and the birth of the digital future, but this is where millions of lives have been heading since the early 1980s – and to read that some Labour MPs have come back from their constituencies, amazed by the views they encounter on the doorstep, is to be struck by a political failure that sits right at the heart of the story. How did they not know?”
Steve Reicher translated such findings into a simple narrative for The Psychologist’s Ella Rhodes: “In many ways, I think the more relevant identities revolve around ordinary people vs elites…”
For The Observer Rob Ford describes how this affected the referendum result: “…the ‘left-behind’, older, white, socially-conservative voters in more economically-marginal neighbourhoods…had turned against a political class they saw as dominated by socially-liberal graduates with values fundamentally opposed to theirs on identity, Europe and particularly immigration…. The mass migration from poorer EU countries…was something the ‘left-behind’ electorate never wanted, never voted for and never accepted. The economic case for EU migration was clear to the liberal mainstream elites from across the political spectrum who thought that should settle the matter. Politicians from both Labour and the Conservatives never made a case for free movement….”
It’s all about PURPLE
These observations almost characterise the referendum result as a protest vote against the London elites and their dismissal of many of the concerns of the people in the old industrial heartlands. In many ways it was indeed a protest vote; but we need a more in-depth narrative to show how the 2 streams of thought intersect to provide a causal explanation and the understanding necessary if there is to be a way forward beyond the current nihilistic impasse.
My sometime Facebook correspondent Tim Saunders gives us a Gravesian starting point: “…this is what happens when an Orange/Green elite at best ignores and at worst demonises its own indigenous Blue and Red…[and] insecure purple tribal sensibilities.”
By analysing the ‘left-behind’-type argument in terms of vMEMES and vMEME harmonics, Saunders enables us to connect up the dots and give a causal underpinning to the descriptive texts.
While care must be taken because they are huge and stereotypical generalisations, many in the working class think primarily in PURPLE and RED while many in the middle class and upper class think primarily in BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN. Thus, there is all the potential for values mismatch between the working class and the political ‘elite’.
As discussed in The Trouble with Tribalism, PURPLE is motivated to find safety in belonging. It has no ambition beyond that and becomes extremely anxious when its safety is threatened – either by the presence of another tribe or by losing the resources to provide for its tribe – whether that’s loss of a job and its income or restricted access to local health services. The so-called elite in Westminster tend to think about political, economic and social matters in more complex vMEMES – BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN. ORANGE, with its future focus and drive to achieve, has no concern for the left-behind ‘no hopers’ other than to see them as an irritant and a drain on forward progress. GREEN sees all humans as equal and deserving, whether they are of our tribe or not, and will even use positive discrimination in the pursuit of egalitarianism. White indigenous are no more important than 3rd generation Asian immigrants who are no more important than Eastern European economic migrants who are no more important than Syrian refugees trying to cross into Europe.
No wonder white working class PURPLE feels betrayed when refugees and asylum seekers are given aid they perceive could be spent on our own; when they perceive Poles and Lithuanians taking what jobs there are, taking the bread out of our mouths. Thus, they are ripe for what Harris terms ‘a working class revolution’.
Thus, they are ripe for RED-driven power-oriented demagogues to exploit their fears. Which is exactly what Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have done. Effectively, the EU and the Remain camp became the out-group. European economic migrants and even British-born Asians also became out-groups. As Henri Tajfel & John Turner (1979) showed with Social Identity Theory, once the out-groups are identified as ‘different’, social comparison will require the in-group to protect its own and demonstrate its superiority to the out-groups. Hence, the surge in racial and ethnic abuse since the referendum result.
Scotland is, of course, different. Despite the industrial belt along the Clyde suffering every bit as much as South Wales or the Midlands under Thatcher/etc, the Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. The question ‘Why?’ is answered by the deliberate social construction of an enhanced Scottish identity by the Scottish National Party and those sympathetic to their cause. The alienation of the Scottish left-behind has been channelled into the cause for independence, with the Westminster government characterised as ‘the enemy’ – as per Samuel Gaertner et al’s (1993) Common In-Group Identity Model – holding back Scottish progress and inflicting unwanted austerity.
The way forward..?
A major problem for a movement based primarily on PURPLE sentiment being exploited by RED demagogues is that PURPLE can’t see the future except as a continuation of the present and RED doesn’t think about consequences – see Marcus P Barber’s Value Systems as Foresight Frameworks. So, while they lashed out against their betrayal by the elites, acting on the woolliest of promises and commitments from Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith, the left-behind were, for the most part, unappreciative of the consequences of the Leave campaign winning.
As how much of Project Fear is going to become reality becomes clearer and people start to feel it where it hurts in raised prices and lower house values, many who voted Leave may well start to regret that decision. The Independent’s Jess Staufenberg today reports a Survation poll showing over a million people who voted Leave already wish they had voted Remain. (Some apparently have even contacted the Electoral Commission to ask if they could change their vote!) The term ‘Bregretter’ is already poised to enter the English lexicon. Another Independent writer Sean O’Grady explains: “Before long this uncertainty will feed through even more concretely from the slightly abstract world of financial markets and exchange rates through to jobs, savings and, above all, the value of people’s homes, which is where most people’s wealth is stored (especially some of the less well-off voters who opted for ‘Leave’). This is really why I suspect Brexit won’t, in the end, come to pass – because most voters can’t afford it….”
Well over 4 million people have signed a petition to the Government and Parliament demanding a second referendum, with change to the UK’s relationship with Europe requiring a minimum 60% majority on a minimum 75% turnout. (At the time of publication of this post, the petition stands at 4,036,276 signatures.
Given the narrowness of the first vote – less than 4% – and the dire consequences being felt – in the UK, the EU and around the world – it makes sense to officially pause Brexit and consider a second referendum. The first referendum is ‘advisory’ and not legally binding so Parliament does not have to accept it, as Labour MP David Lammy has repeatedly pointed out. However, it does have to address it which it could do with a second referendum. That would send out a calming message and hopefully provide time for consideration as against the frenetic and largely-unthinking activity which has followed from the results last Friday morning. At the time of publication, William James at Reuters is reporting that 2 MPs, Labour’s Geraint Davies and Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards, have submitted a motion to Parliament that there should be a second referendum on the terms of exit before David Cameron’s successor triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the formal withdrawal of the UK from the EU. The motion has been reported to say: “UK citizens must agree on the terms of leaving the EU and, if not satisfied, be given the opportunity to opt for the UK to remain an EU member.”
Even if a second referendum were to keep the UK in the EU and stall any further Scottish moves towards independence, it is still a sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound. That wound is not just in the UK and not just in the EU; it runs throughout a very large part of the Western world where people thinking in PURPLE have been left behind and devalued by a ruthless, single-minded technocrat form of Capitalism. The problems associated with leaving PURPLE behind are discussed in broad terms in The Trouble with Tribalism. The way this relates to the EU’s woes will be discussed in a Blog post to be published shortly Whither the EU..?
Judging from the BBC News (2016a) report that Angela Merkel has today “stressed that the UK must accept free movement if it wanted to retain access to the single market”, it appears she still doesn’t get it.