‘Where are we just now’? Brian Hughes’ ‘The Psychology of Brexit’ and the need for disciplinary agnosticism.

I have just finished reading Brian Hughes’ new book The Psychology of Brexit: From Psychodrama to Behavioural Science (2019). Hughes is Professor of Psychology at NUI, Galway, and the author of the excellent Psychology in Crisis (2018), which addressed the various methodological crises that face psychology and (quite properly) threaten to undermine its credibility. His clear exposition in that book of various controversial psychological findings, whether based on illogical interpretations, erroneous analyses, or even fraudulent research, are indicative of his clear-sighted and even-handed approach to unpicking the psychology of Brexit as psychodrama.

I want to begin by making it clear that I think his new book is excellent. I write this because what follows might otherwise be read as criticism. That is not my purpose. However, as someone committed to understanding the world as multiverse, and so in consequence to the exercise of disciplinary agnosticism, I am troubled by his emphatic claim that: “Brexit is psychological, not political” (p. 151). What concerns me here is, I think, related both to the long-standing problem of the inability of disciplinary knowledge to adequately address ‘wicked’ issues like Brexit and a related sense of insufficient context. These issues are nothing new, but it seems important to draw attention to their consequences in relation to any discipline-based analysis of the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

I appreciate that Hughes wants to write about Brexit from a psychological point of view that stresses the role of ‘feelings, assumptions, influences, dispositions, social relations, identities, emotions, pathologies and perspectives’ (p. 151). My problem (and it is of course mine, and not Hughes’) is that it seems to me that Brexit is not a tidy, self-contained phenomenon. It is only an over-magnified aspect of a larger developing situation. One that is linked to the banking crisis of 2008 and to the imposition of so-called ‘austerity’; basically a policy to protect the wealthy, at the expense of those most dependent on public services, by avoiding the need to raise taxes or to address the increasing gap between rich and poor. This back-history is, in turn, in no small part yet another manifestation of the particularly British version of ‘class war’ between the ‘upper classes’ (now based as much on – often inherited – wealth and cultural capital as on traditional notions such as ‘family’), and the increasingly fragmented ‘middle’ and ‘working’ classes. A ‘war’ that, of course, has never been straight-forward in what Hughes might see in ‘tribal’ terms – I’m thinking of working-class support for Enoch Powell and my own godmother, Dame Irene Ward, a privately-educated Conservative MP who none the less represented a largely working-class constituency and was a strong advocate for Tyneside industry and better social conditions. While all these issues can no doubt be accounted for in psychological terms, to do so seems to me to risk missing all-important historical and other partial determinants of the complex situation in which we find ourselves.

My own view is that it is potentially misleading to focus singularly on a psychological perspective. Instead, I would argue that Hughes’ often valuable insights are best considered by relating them to a range of perspectives other than the psychological. That is by comparing them with relevant political, cultural, environmental, economic and anthropological insights.

For example, I wonder about Hughes’ dismissal of the role of nostalgia for the British Empire within the Brexit debate and, equally, about his dismissal of the use of metaphors of pathology. Both issues might, I think, usefully be pondered in the context of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. This is because a general multiculturalism and, to a lesser extent, variants on academic post-colonial thinking, have in recent years increasingly come to challenge the taken-for-granted ‘schoolbook’ view of Britain’s history. Namely the history from which the majority of the British public derive their sense of Britain’s – or perhaps more accurately England’s – ‘illustrious’ past. This shift has disturbed the status quo in various ways. That Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018) should become a Sunday Times bestselling book represents one aspect of this shift. That Michael Gove, one of the most prominent figures of the Vote Leave campaign and now Minister with special responsibility for preparing for Brexit tried, as Minister for Education, to reinstate what might be called a ‘top-down’ history focused on the doings of kings and queens, represents another.

While Hughes’ account of the irrationality involved in the mutual pathologising of the ‘other’ by opposing Brexit camps seems to me accurate enough, Ghosh’s argument for using the term ‘derangement’ in relation to the mentalité of the Global North is not so easy to dismiss. While reading back and forth between Ghosh and Hughes does not invalidate anything that Hughes writes, I think Ghosh’s non-European perspective provided a useful additional inflection on ‘our’ current situation, particularly since it locates that situation – correctly in my view – within the wider context of impending socio-environmental collapse.

Understandably enough, Hughes does not address subtexts to the Brexit debates concerning financial regulation and deregulation, or the possibilities of financial speculation in relation to the renegotiation of trade agreements. However, while these relatively esoteric economic issues are clearly not directly relevant to Hughes’ psychological perspective, they are first order issues for key ‘influencers’ in the Brexit debate. For example, to those who own large sections of what Hughes refers to as the ‘vibrant’ British media (a curious term for a media culture seen world-wide, at least in its popular manifestations, as unusually vicious and partisan); to vastly wealthy politicians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ultra-conservative and climate-change denier who, while arguing for national sovereignty, salts away his money in tax havens; or, on the ‘traditional Left’, those who, like Jeremy Corbin, regard the EU as fundamentally a ‘rich man’s club’ designed to exploit the ‘international working class’.

I also wonder that, writing as a psychologist, Hughes does not consider Brexit in relation to the Global North’s dominant culture of ‘possessive individualism’. He is, after all, writing at a time when the socio-environmental crisis precipitated by the Global North in terms of both social justice and environmental degradation. Consequently, I find I need to read his book with James Leach’s Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism, Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime and Jem Bendell’s paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, in mind.

James Leach’s text because it offers me a clear sense of the dominant culture’s underlying presuppositions and so clarifies the fallacies in the cult of exceptionalism espoused by Rees-Mogg. Bruno Latour for his reading of the issues at play in shifts in the global political landscape, of which Brexit is only one ‘local’ expression. And Jem Bendell because his text seems to me particularly relevant in this context given that his argument, as a scientist, raises questions about Hughes’ own position as a behavioural scientist. Questions that might be said to relate to the interface between scientific method and ethics.

The particular context within which Bendell’s paper first appeared raise profoundly important questions about the extent to which the institutional governance of science – a process mediated in no small part by discipline-based academic journals – now determine what scientists are and are not able to say publicly ‘as scientists’. Hughes writes as someone who, in so far as he is able, seeks to adopt a genuinely scientific perspective. However, that claim itself is indirectly complicated by the context of current scientific publication to which Bendell draws attention. Given Hughes’ quite proper scientific concerns in Psychology in Crisis, I would hope to find him sympathetic to my view that the issues Bendell raises as a scientist need to be addressed.

All-in-all, while I would certainly recommend reading The Psychology of Brexit, I think its understanding of Brexit as, first and foremost, psychological, should be approached with the caution proper to disciplinary agnosticism. It’s not that Hughes’ psychological approach is wrong (at leat in so far as I’m competent to judge); it’s just that, as a discipline-based academic, his views are, almost by definition, partial. If I want the fullest, most rounded sense of ‘where we are just now’, including how we are placed emotionally and behaviourally, I need to keep myself open to as many perspectives as possible on situations like Brexit, even if many of them can only be held somewhere in my peripheral vision.