Why nobody in Britain is talking about Brexit

In Freud’s world, the object of repression was sexual angst, particularly in relation to our parents; in today’s Britain, the object is our tortured relationship with the European Union.
Last Updated : 28 June 2024, 07:57 IST

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By Adrian Wooldridge

Sigmund Freud may no longer be a fashionable thinker, but his theory of repression provides us with the best explanation of the central mystery of the British election: why nobody is talking about Brexit.

Freud posited that repression is a necessary defense mechanism against unpleasant feelings — ensuring that “what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it” but which, if taken to excess, can lead to all sorts of soul-destroying consequences. In Freud’s world, the object of repression was sexual angst, particularly in relation to our parents; in today’s Britain, the object is our tortured relationship with the European Union.

In 2019, the election was about nothing but Brexit. This time, it’s about anything but. The Tories only mention “the benefits of Brexit” in passing in their manifesto. The Liberal Democrats don’t mention it in the first 100 pages of theirs. Keir Starmer didn’t use the word once when he launched his manifesto on June 13 and quickly changes the subject whenever he’s asked about it.

There are some good political explanations for this silence. The Tory Party does not want to talk about Brexit because the benefits they blithely promised have not materialized. Far from being showered with money, the National Health Service is struggling more than ever. Far from booming, the economy is flatlining. And far from addressing North-South inequality, Brexit is hitting manufacturing (and therefore the North) harder than services.

The Labour Party does not want to talk about it because Starmer’s great mission is to win back Labour’s Northern heartlands that voted for both Brexit in 2016 and “getting Brexit done” in 2019. The Liberal Democrats don’t want to talk about it because their outspoken enthusiasm for overturning the result of the referendum reduced them to a rump of just 11 seats in the last Parliament. And Nigel Farage’s Reform Party? The generous view is that it wants to prove it’s a serious party of government rather than a single-issue pressure group. The less generous view is that, with Britain no longer a member of the EU, it needs fresh resentments to feast upon.

Yet all these tactical explanations reflect a deeper psychological one — that the British people want to forget about the biggest trauma to infect their politics in a generation. Brexit arouses too many bad memories — of Tory promises that have been broken or betrayed; of “rejoin marches” that led to nothing; of interminable parliamentary wrangling and convoluted proceedings; and of hardline Brexiteers, puffed up with self-importance, marching to Downing Street to present poor Theresa May with another ultimatum.

Brexit also arouses too much anxiety about a repeat match.

There is a strong rational case for doing what both Labour and the Lib Dems wanted to do in 2019 and holding another EU referendum. Why should all future generations be bound by a narrow “Leave” victory (52-48) in 2016? A Statista poll in May found that 55 per cent of people thought that it was wrong to leave the EU compared with 31 per cent who thought that it was right. And people who were too young to vote in 2016 but are now of voting age are much more likely to be “remainers” than “leavers.” 

Yet few people have the heart to refight the battle. Regretting leaving the EU is not the same as wanting to rejoin, and wanting to rejoin is not the same as being willing to engage again with the Brexiteers. A recent YouGov poll found that, although 51 per cent of voters want to rejoin the EU, only 33 per cent held that view strongly, while 25 per cent of the 36 per cent who want to stay out held their view strongly. Starmer put his finger on the anxiety surrounding Brexit when he told an audience in Vauxhall, South London, one of the most pro-Remain parts of the country, that he had no intention of taking Britain back into the Single Market or the Custom’s Union, let alone the EU, because he didn’t want to revive the “turmoil” and “uncertainty.”

Freud warned that, far from remaining buried, repressed emotions express themselves in various odd ways. And this is certainly part of the Brexit saga.

The subject that dares not speak its name is both shaking up traditional loyalties and driving anti-Tory fury. In 2019, “red wall voters” — working-class voters in the North who had supported Labour since they were first granted the vote — finally cut the umbilical cord. Even if they return to Labour in 2024, as looks likely, they will be returning as floating voters not repentant loyalists. Today, the same thing is happening to “blue-wall voters”: people who have always given the Tories the benefit of the doubt are choosing “anything but the Tories” or staying home.

I have never encountered such anti-Tory feeling in my political lifetime, either in terms of depth or width. The election campaign is being fought almost entirely in Tory seats. Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is being forced to campaign in his own constituency, one of the safest in the country. Voters in three-way races are engaging in tactical voting, something that is unusual in a first past the post system. Focus groups have had to censor discussions of why people are not voting Tory because of the number of expletives.

Equally central to Freud’s theory is that too much repression can lead to dysfunction. Can we continue to dodge serious thought about how Britain relates to the continent across the channel? 

The Labour Party is right to focus on big economic issues such as planning reform and productivity that have been marginalized by Brexit during the Tory years. The party is also right in the short term to break the EU question into a succession of smaller practical questions: aligning with EU rules over food and agricultural products, striking a deal on cellphone-roaming charges, creating a touring visa for artists, simplifying paperwork at the ports, making it easier for young people to study in the EU (and vice versa), and negotiating a new defense pact.

But there are both practical and intellectual limits to salami-slicing. At some point, Britain needs to reengage with the big issues created by the EU’s sheer size and regulatory might. Can Starmer gain the benefits of what he calls a “closer, better relationship” with the 27-member bloc without eventually rejoining the Customs Union or the Single Market? Doing so would give a much faster kickstart to the economy, particularly in the manufacturing sector, than Starmer’s plans for boosting productivity (it would also solidify support from the business elite). And can he rejoin one or both without reviving the great rule-taker versus rule-maker debate: How can a great nation agree to obey a dense network of rules about trade if it has no part in making those rules?

Repressing all thoughts about Brexit may be a convenient ploy during an election campaign. It may even be healthy for a while given the way the subject dominated and distorted Britain’s politics for so long. But Starmer’s prime ministership will be shaped as much as anything by the “return of the repressed.” He will have no choice but to continue the great national discussion about Britain’s relationship with the EU. His great test will be whether he can turn this discussion into a source of strength.

Published 28 June 2024, 07:57 IST

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