I often describe Brexit as being like a divorce where the partner doing the divorcing still wants to stay friends, have a key to the front door of the family home and expects their now ex- partner and the kids to be happy about it.
Divorce, which is effectively what Brexit is, takes a long time because it hurts. Once it is clear a marriage is over, the painful process of negotiating the terms of the divorce begins. Sometimes, when a family breaks up there can be hostility and even in the friendliest of divorces, people rarely emerge completely unscathed.
The problem with the Brexit divorce is that England’s in-laws, Scotland and Northern Ireland, still love the EU, and don’t want to see the relationship end. In fact, they’d rather wave goodbye to England, but due to family ties, they can’t. England is forging ahead, cheered by the hope of new adventures but Scotland and Northern Ireland see the road ahead as being littered with anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty for everyone involved.
The referendum fix that suited David Cameron when he was panicking about losing the last election (and let us not forget that it was concern about the electoral threat from UKIP that induced him to commit to a referendum in the first place) has unfortunately divided a nation. The cheap electoral trick has now placed the UK on a journey into the unknown and has created huge divisions in our society. It poses major risks to the United Kingdom, as both Scotland and Northern Ireland will seriously question the partnership when the Brexit exit eventually occurs. Those divisions on nationalism, the union, immigration and poverty drove a Brexit seeking many answers. Unfortunately, we don’t know what questions these answers relate to, yet so many claim to know the will of the people.
This has led to many of us suffering from BOB (Bored of Brexit). We want it to go away, and yet we are obsessed by it. The arguments are pored over, positions are becoming more and more entrenched and compromise is rejected. The same details are reported and repeated again and again and fake news abounds.
Psychologically we reject the indigestible. Does psychology have anything to offer here to help us work out how to resolve this and cure BOB? Well there are some players in this whole drama who are psychologically flawed, but more on that another time. Research shows us that there are three parts of our brain that have evolved sequentially over time; the reptile brain, the limbic brain and the neocortex. The reptile brain controls our functions, such as breathing and temperature control, and the limbic brain controls memories, emotion and stimulation / arousal. The neocortex, responsible for reasoning, arrived last and much later than the previous two.
In situations where we’re stressed, we react first and think later – our limbic brain acts before our neocortex has a chance to get involved. To put it simply, we’re more receptive to emotional input than reason. One of my heroes is Daniel Kahneman and I love his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that we can retrain our thinking, moving from fast, emotion-based responses to slower, reason-based action. The one thing which can override emotion is reason.
As difficult as it is, with Brexit we must switch from fast to slow thinking, separating emotions from reason. Yes, we feel very emotionally attached to whatever our opinion is on Brexit, and that leaves us very little room to listen to the reason of others – we’re fighting emotion with emotion. There is fury and hurt. There is an atmosphere of anger and confusion. There is outrage, disbelief and an indigestibility for any other’s points of view. There are lies, lies and lies.
The problem with lies is that once we commit to them, we have to defend them. As we defend them, we build structures around them to make them real and truthful (to ourselves, at least) and suddenly we have a lie so entrenched in our psyche that it has become a very important truth, even more important than the reality. When we wrap these emotional responses and lies in the flag of nationalism we move to a much higher plane of unreasonable expectation.
Returning to the divorce metaphor, England is effectively gaslighting itself with lies that we now believe are truths. We’re twisting the memories of the once happy marriage, making the past seem bleak and oppressed, and in contrast making the new, post-divorce future even brighter. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and our belief in these lies, our own and the lies of others, have convinced us that this light could never be an oncoming train…
For some of the electorate, the lies have led to a sense of English superiority. The sense of not wanting to be controlled by others who do not share this superiority is so important to many leavers. In reality, Brexit Tory Britain is now the poor relation - Europe sees our societal division, and calls Brexit, ‘The English disease’. Yet the sense of English superiority over Europe still stands tall, despite economic forecasts for growth in which predict Britain will be 28th out of 28 EU member states 2019.
Now as an Irishman abroad in England, married to an Englishwoman, I see this as a very English madness. I love the English, yet for the past three years I have listened to English commentators asserting, without any proof whatsoever, that the Irish’s motives when defending Irish interests in Brexit are less than pure. Ireland’s demand for a post-Brexit trade agreement that avoids a hard border is motivated, they say, not by a desire to avoid bloodshed on the island but to achieve the Machiavellian end of reuniting the North with the South against the will of the people of Northern Ireland. On Brexit, England sees Ireland as both schemer and doormat - more lies that we have convinced ourselves of as truths. It’s the perfect example of emotion over reason in Brexit, and as with all things Brexit, once you form an opinion you are not inclined to change.
There are deeper issues about the future of the (dis)United Kingdom, rather than just simplistic caricatures of the English mindset. Politicians are not addressing the root cause of why people voted for Brexit in the first place, as that would mean answering some real questions from disenfranchised voters who are full of hell and mistrust at the mess being made. The best argument against democracy, according to Winston Churchill, ‘is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’, and it’s so tempting to generalise about the motivations of the opposing sides (Remainers = elitists and Leavers = anti-immigration).
However, in a democracy the leave vs remain argument must be able to continue. Yet at some stage, reason must surface over emotion and the great democracies that make up the 28 members of the EU must resolve their differences. At some stage, we will have to get past Brexit and deal with the ills of our society. We can only hope that reasonable people can start to deal in reason over emotion to find a compromise or for the next 50 years we will have a Brexit war. Our future must be more important than our past.
Dr. Maurice Duffy coaches international athletes, top business people, smart entrepreneurs and politicians. He is the author of the acclaimed book New Mindsets for New Times and has developed the Mindset of a Winner© programme which he delivers in over 23 countries around the world. The Mindset of a Winner© is an intensive coaching programme brought to you by one of the world's leading names in performance Dr Maurice Duffy. From elite football, cricket and rugby to global businesses and international politics, Maurice’s expertise is behind some of the world's most successful leaders and teams.