Brexit through the Imago lens
Over three years since the EU Referendum in June 2016, the subject of whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union continues to provoke strong reactions. It is likely to dominate how people vote in the forthcoming election. In some families the subject itself is banned from discussion, lest it result in heated arguments and rows usually reserved for more domestic matters. Anecdotally, we hear of couples having to separate or divorce because they cannot resolve their differences over the issue. So why have people reacted so strongly and why do we take the views of someone who disagrees with us on Brexit so personally? Imago Facilitator Iain Christie sheds light on this phenomenon using the same Imago framework which is used to address any other issue in relationship break-down.
There are four phases in childhood development and our experience of each of them as we grow up is a significant determinant in how we see the world and relate to others as an adult. Uniquely, all four stages are engaged with the decision to leave the EU and the respective degree of wounding in each phase and our adaptation to it will have a much bigger impact on whether we see the future as catastrophic or idyllic or somewhere in between, than any analysis of conflicting facts or information. Our relative degree of discomfort is in direct correlation to the belief systems we hold and the stories we tell ourselves regardless of political persuasion, class, gender, age, race, education or even nationality.
An analysis using the bands of developmental psychology is much more persuasive than any of these distinguishing features in explaining the intensely personal feelings that many people experience when confronted with the views of someone who voted differently to them. It is clearly an emotionally-based reaction and must be responded to on that level. After all, if it was possible to determine whether the UK’s best future lies within or outside the EU by an analysis of objective data everyone would have made the same decision. The EU is just a political and economic institution, but that institution and our relationship to it represents something much greater in our psyche.
The UK has been a member of the EU for over 40 years. Although we were late joining the party (the European Economic Community, as it was then known, was established by six nations in 1957 and the UK was amongst three more that joined in 1973) many British people have not experienced life outside the EU. Leaving what is perceived by them as their family of origin raises significant attachment issues depending on the extent to which any individual bonded with the other members of the group. Those who do remember a time before the UK joined the EU may have a different perspective, but may yet have become attached to their adoptive family. For some, returning to a relative state of independence or discovering a sense of autonomy for the first time is exciting; for others it is frightening, akin to a feeling of rejection or abandonment. Either way, there will need to be a period of adjustment to our relations to our former family which will inevitably have uncertain repercussions.
As the UK cuts loose its ties to the other member states of the European Union, it sets off into a brave new world full of adventures, opportunities and risks. Possible new relationships and discoveries lie ahead, but also danger and uncertainty. Again, to some this is an exciting time akin to the days of the great explorers of previous centuries who literally set off to discover new worlds; whilst for others it fills them with apprehension and dread which, in the worst case scenario, could lead to their annihilation. But which of these two extremes we gravitate towards has much more to do with how we emerged from this stage of our development and our subsequent experiences than any possible reality about the future. The truth is that we are embarking into completely unchartered territory and it is simply impossible to say with any degree of certainty how it will work out.
Much of the debate has been around the UK’s place in Europe. The very fact that we joined the EEC 16 years after it was created shows the UK’s ambivalent attitude towards the EU. This has been reinforced through subsequent decisions not to join the single currency (the Euro) or be part of the Shengen agreement which removed internal borders between some countries. The geographical location of the UK as an island nation separated by water from mainland Europe increases this sense of detachment. We also have a long history on the world stage with a former Empire, legal and governance ties with the Commonwealth and a special relationship with the United States. Our population is diverse and multi-cultural in parts, traditional and old-fashioned in others. Yet, to all intents and purposes we are a European country with many cultural, social and political links to Europe. Whether we identify as British (or English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish), as European or as a citizen of the world will be another factor in how we relate to the EU, and our sense of identity will play a part in how we react to the idea of detaching from it.
The process of extracting ourselves from over 40 years of legal, institutional and political union with the EU has been described as the most complex peacetime negotiation the UK has ever faced. Our belief in our own ability – or trust in our leaders’ abilities – to manage such a complex task will hugely effect how safe we feel in embarking on the process. What’s more, the outcome will not depend solely upon the skills and expertise of the UK’s negotiators, but on the competence and good will of the other leaders with whom we will be negotiating. Those with high levels of trust and confidence that a process will be found to navigate these unchartered waters are more likely to feel empowered and hopeful about the next few years. Those who are not confident in the competence of the individuals or systems in place are likely to experience a period of deep anxiety or even hopelessness as they watch events unfold. This sense of powerlessness could lead to some extreme reactions by those frightened enough to take whatever action they can to exercise some degree of control over the outcome.
This continues to be a time for cool heads and steady, measured actions. The ability of any individual to remain calm amidst the constant media frenzy over Brexit and the highly emotional public debate about the future of the United Kingdom will depend on their own adaptations in all four areas of personal development. Maximising and minimising need to be avoided at all costs. Those who are able to maintain a healthy balance between the fear and excitement that each challenge inevitably presents, and who keep in their awareness the realisation that those around them are similarly affected, will fare the best. As the United Kingdom embarks on the next phase of its own development the Imago understanding of conflict and relationships has much to offer.
 This is a revised paper of a presentation given to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution in the House of Commons on 5 September 2016 in which Imago dialogue was offered as a model for holding respectful conversations. A recording of that presentation can be heard here between 16.45 and 24.50.