The five stages of Brexit grief

In the week since the EU referendum I now realise that I have gone through the first four of the five classic stages of grief. It surprises me that my mind automatically processed the result the way it would a bereavement, rather than a political event. It explains much – and so here I will outline how it has felt, in case it helps as you navigate your own process.

“Denial” was over in minutes, and then came an incandescent “Anger” phase that consumed me for three days and two rather sleepless nights. I gave some uncompromising interviews and literally trembled with rage. I also wept with frustration. Perhaps with hubris, I considered that I had a greater personal understanding of what had been surrendered than did the people who voted to surrender it. This was a difficult emotion. I tried to find solace in sentiments such as “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but I have never really got on with the supercilious tone of that jazz, and in any case I was not ready to forgive.

The “Bargaining” stage corresponded with my signing the petition for a second referendum, and then I spent a couple of days deep in Stage Four – “Depression” – which the Wikipedia entry on the Kübler-Ross model describes as being characterised by thoughts such as ‘I’m so sad, why bother with anything?’

I began to swim back up towards the light. As DH Lawrence put it, “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Finally, today, my mind turned to the question of “Acceptance”: whether I should, whether I can, and whether there might be a mode of acceptance that is also beautiful and constructive. Because that, after all, is what a writer should stand for: beauty, and the belief that we can always rebuild.

I do think I have found a constructive mode for acceptance – and I hasten to add that I do not equate acceptance with submission. Also, I must admit that acceptance involved me first articulating my anger in the most explicit terms. I’m finding that it helps to write down exactly what is happening to the country that raised me, and into which I’ve poured my lifelong energy and devotion, and which has now voted to the effect that people like me, and my EU immigrant wife, and our three French-passported children, are the problem.

Anger, then. Look at the winners now, striking their statesmanlike poses, feigning reluctance to take up the greatest office. Listen to them, quoting from Julius Caesar as if they were stabbing each other for the throne of a heartland that stretched from Tingis to the Euphrates, rather than from Bognor to Basildon. Now look behind them at the lonely tycoons, flaccid with age and a surfeit of pleasures, who bankrolled the coup for the last dry thrill that the treachery gave them.

It is easy to see how one might remain in the anger stage forever, and I daresay some people will – because for the moment insult is still being added to injury.

The cabal’s most insulting deception is to make us believe there was no plan for the country after the Leave vote. This is nonsense, of course. The usurpers are high achieving sociopaths with four-hour-a-night sleep habits, obsessive focus on their personal ambitions, and unusually low levels of sentimental attachment to their mistresses and families and friends. It is wishful thinking to believe that they are public school twits treating life as a game or a joke. No: they are very talented people who are so serious that we can barely comprehend it, and we are the chumps making jokes about them on Twitter.

The winners are inveterate schemers who don’t make a cheese sandwich, let alone destabilize the whole world to profit from the ensuing chaos, without first establishing plans for all contingencies – including success. Of course they have a plan. Their design has been years in the making and very clearly telegraphed: it is to raise a country in their image, while reserving for the least favoured among them the prize of bestraddling its awkward and bucking throne.

Along the way their backers in various sectors, including broadcasting, health care, security and detention provision, will get richer still. If they have their way they will deal with the BBC and the NHS by strangulation. They will do little for science, education, universities, charities, farming, fishing, or the arts, and certainly not for technology, infrastructure and construction. The conspirators have never had a feeling for the constructive. They have always made their way by the breaking up and selling off of other people’s achievements. So, for the avoidance of doubt: that’s still the plan.

The winners’ skill this week has been to present themselves as if in disarray – like a bird feigning injury to distract us from its nest. The insult is their insistence that we should accept at face value the picture they make now, as they shriek and scrabble blindly in the dust for the eye they used to share.

Anger, again. It is unarguable that the referendum held fewer risks for its instigators than it did for the nation. If they lost, there was no downside for the Brexit backers: they were simply principled men, making a stand. But they won and now, whatever the stage of our grief, we are in the next stage of their triumph. The plotters have sold a bill of goods to a narrow majority, and now they will invoice all of us for delivery.

And so now, like anyone faced with a bill from a state monopoly, I begin to contemplate “Acceptance”.

How to even begin? Well, by putting my own mind in order first. We should react as we think our heroes would, and a hero of mine is Gandhi. I think he would suggest that we look to the outcome we hope for (in my case, I hope for a reunified British people before we can begin to discuss our new relations with the world). Having identified the object of hope, Gandhi might suggest that we should prepare our minds to behave responsibly in that struggle.

So, the first step for me is to control my own pride. However much Remain voters might dislike the result, it is important for us in the Remain camp not to imagine that we are superior. If the Remainers really were cleverer, Remain would have won.

Oh – and yet! When we watch the behaviour of the victorious camp, it is hard for Remain voters not to feel that we inhabit a more reasonable world. The public leaders of Leave now mire themselves ever deeper in each other’s blood. And of the trusting foot soldiers of Brexit, Remainers can only ask: where is their red, white and blue bunting now? Where are their street parties with cake and trestle tables? In this, the week of their triumph, where are their plastic Union Jack hats held on with loops of elastic?

It is so tempting to feel superior on noting that, in the week since the referendum result, the winners-in-the-street have been awfully quiet. Seventeen million victors are not acting like liberators who have freed their enslaved country. Instead they cower like serfs who have done their masters’ bidding, only to watch their masters being put to the sword.

Now they wait nervously for the next unknown fear to be announced. The people have already stopped asking about the 350 million pieces of silver they were promised. A few are still strutting and crowing, of course, but they are the lapdog columnists and small time collaborators giddy on the miniscule aliquots of power they were given. They are the ones who have forgotten that history is always auditioning for faces to place above its picture caption, “The weak minded fell under the spell”.

Well, let’s not be too sure that those photos won’t also be of the 48 per cent. Remainers might flatter themselves that they have reason, technology, science, economics, art and sometimes money on their side – but these things only insulate against false argument. They offer no immunity whatsoever against the method that the conspirators learned in the cradle of their twisted families, which is the dark art of division.

The plotters will certainly have won if we, the Remainers, allow ourselves to despise the half of the nation who, until a week ago, were just thought of as our nation’s business owners, our paramedics, our military, our farmers, our fishermen, our police forces, and our families. Ours.

Each side would be quite wrong to scorn the other even if it was believed that they voted against their own interests. If we actually thought that 17 million people were stupid or evil, then we all ought to just stay in “Depression” and say “why even bother with anything?”

But the other half of the British public is not stupid or evil. The worst we should accuse them of is also the worst accusation we should accept from them: that the two sides in the EU referendum were basing their decisions on completely different sources of information. We should admit that we still have no idea what it feels like to be them, just as they still have no idea how it feels to be us.

Remainers are doing the conspirators’ work for them if they stay angry at the voters who, by reason of their locality and demographic, will suffer worst in the great social divisions that this coup has as its goal. Having perceived a mandate for the view that foreigners – and not bad government – are the reason for hard working people’s travails, there is a terrible likelihood that bad government will now crack down on foreigners. (Including, for example, my wife and children.) But as soon as that particular well has run dry, the least empowered in our society will be issued instructions on how to hate one another. We can’t be angry at people who are about to suffer so badly.

The Remain camp, too, will be manoeuvred into finding divisions within itself. Already the gaps are opening. Those who want a second referendum versus those who grudgingly accept the result. Those who will allow a Tory coronation to decide the future of the country, versus those who will demand a general election. Those who are still full of fight and fury, versus those who feel they must now move on.

(For what it’s worth, we are a free people with no written constitution, in an unprecedented situation for which there is no jurisprudence or tradition – and so, whatever your opinion about the most legal and desirable way to interpret the referendum’s result, you are absolutely correct.)

Wherever we stand, it is worth noting that our democracy was so structured that it allowed a dozen wealthy and emotionally damaged people to abuse it to destruction. The leaders of the coup probed for the weakest part of the system, and they found it when they offered up the promise that globalisation could be avoided through immigration controls and self-isolation.

Because of our first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandered for years to create parliamentary seats for traditional parties, there was no parliamentary forum in which the practical problems of globalisation could be effectively debated and solved. Missing from parliament were perhaps a dozen green MPs, several score of liberals, and maybe as many  single-issue Eurosceptics who would have been present under proportional representation.

Not enough pro-Europeans stood up, when there was still time, and insisted that the people whose views they found distasteful should nevertheless be represented in the Commons. I know I didn’t. I just looked at the number of people who voted UKIP at the last general election, versus the number of seats they won, and I thought “thank god for first past the post”. As a democrat I’m ashamed of that reaction now, and I offer this as my acceptance of my own part in the referendum result. Because that vital national conversation was excluded from Parliament, of course it took place in the street.

As a consequence, a referendum has delivered a verdict that has atomised our democracy in a way that almost no one is happy with.

It’s a shame that it all came down to the issue of foreigners. In an ideal world a great many people would agree that the best response to globalisation is excellence. I don’t think either side would deny that it is exactly Britain’s excellence which once minded our European partners to treat our exceptional country exceptionally.

Before the Brexit vote we were Europe’s mad and brilliant cousin, allowed our free range existence on the edge of the continent, taking the ingredients that helped us, and giving energy back. We did not count the cost any more than the sun counts the cost of radiating light. It was in our nature to shine, being so full of bright fuel.

Now our star has been turned inwards and is in danger of burning itself up. A cabal of self-serving careerists has done something worse than taking us out of Europe. This tiny clique of people with no understanding of creation or invention or compassion has turned us against each other. The least of our worries now is that our economy will cool. Instead we must fear that our streets will burn.

How, then, do we halt the downward spiral? Well, first we must save each other and then we must save our politics.

To rescue one another we must be careful to restrict our fury to the very small group of people who put personal ambition ahead of the safety of a nation. Anyone outside that cabal must be respected and admired, whether we agree with them or not. Democracy is the acceptance that life is very hard for everyone, and that it is therefore possible to respect the views of almost any fellow citizen who is still standing after multiple years on earth.

Our own leaders, astonishingly, have tried their utmost to divide us. Let us therefore be resolute in our mindful efforts to love and to celebrate one another across this great divide of opinion. We should carry on, with neither hatred nor violence, as if we were still British.

Next we must all be positive and generous with our energy. We shouldn’t be small in our anger, or wear the badge of our vote to signal our virtue. We should look for symbols that unite us, now that no flag – either European or British – quite does that trick at the moment.

We should also feel strangely lucky. Times of great instability are rare opportunities for change, negative but also positive. We will not all agree on the nature of the changes we wish to see, and nor should we. But there has never been a better time to join a political party, to write letters explaining our views, to volunteer for charities, to be the change we want to see. We’ve arrived in a time when living according to our principles will really make a difference, and that is exciting. That is a truth I can accept.

Finally, we can remember what it is that we like about our country. It is a good exercise to think of a British person you admire so much that you would not think any less of them even if you learned that they had voted for the other side.

My own starter-for-ten comes from a few years back when, researching a novel about a sick child, I spent some time interviewing medical staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I met a nurse named Sue Snaith, Sister on Elephant Ward. I have absolutely no idea how she voted in the referendum, and I don’t care. She was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.

In her job, Sue cared with exquisite skill and compassion for very sick and sometimes terminally ill children. She rode a huge motorbike to work. She answered my questions thoughtfully, with precision and a bright sense of humour. The ward was extremely intense, and I couldn’t understand how she managed the emotional stress of her job. So I asked her what she did on her holidays. She replied that she volunteered as a trauma nurse with the British Army on deployment in the Middle East. With her deeply held conviction that life was about service and healing, that was what this amazing woman did to relax.

As I begin to think about acceptance, it is helping me to remember why I still like Britain. I do think it is surprisingly full of people like Sue Snaith. You never see them in the newspapers and you don’t ever get to vote for them. They’re too busy to talk about themselves, and too modest to tell you what you should think, but together they make up one Britain, which is still a country I think is worth fighting for.

It is also a country I think I can accept, and by this I mean that I accept to continue living here and fight for a more enlightened politics, rather than going to live abroad. I hope in return that one day, in the not-too-distant future, Britain will find it in its heart again to accept me, and my EU immigrant wife, and the three kind, helpful and industrious children of our little European union.



4 thoughts on “The five stages of Brexit grief”

  1. “Democracy is the acceptance that life is very hard for everyone, and that it is therefore possible to respect the views of almost any fellow citizen who is still standing after multiple years on earth.”
    Thanks for these words. They help a great deal also in coping with the political situation of the moment in my own birth country. In a place where supporters of Donald Trump are carrying the anti-immigrant rhetoric far too far, it is good to have someone remind me of a righteous justification for compassion, even toward groups for whom I struggle to conjure any empathy.

  2. Thanks for such an eloquent and enlightening piece. It’s helping me rationalise and maybe move beyond ‘anger’.

  3. Dear Chris,
    You described my anguish, my sorrow and sense of loss with great accuracy. Your powerful writing will help me with what’s ahead. Thank you.

    Your former neighbour from number 9,

  4. Thanks, Chris, for a beautifully balanced passionate and hospitable response to Brexit. Watching from the other side of the world it’s too easy to label Brexiters (well, pretty much all citizens of the so-called UK really) as fools, clowns, pawns of the “lonely tycoons” you point out bankrolled the process, and as racists undeserving of what passes for democracy. It’s especially easy as what has happened in England feels very familiar to politics in Australia. We have an election tomorrow in which the country will almost certainly vote against the environment, against kindness and fairness to asylum seekers, against education and health, against our own best interests. I may be a long way from the kind of hospitality you express, but I’m glad you reminded me of its importance.

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