John King: Adapting to Brexit

john_king3As the shock of the referendum fades away, a deathly silence has come over the remain camp. The defeated remainers have gone to ground, while the process of leaving the EU has taken on a life of its own. All the talk is of Brexit, for “we are all Brexiters now.” In a sense this is understandable as there appears to be no way back: many European countries are keen to be rid of us, having cast ourselves adrift through our own folly, and with every passing week there is even less chance to clamber back aboard the mother ship.

So how are the survivors coping? Many remain voters said they cried when the referendum result was announced. How are they adapting now?

Some have persuaded themselves that, after all, Brexit may be not so bad. They see which way the wind is blowing and trim their sails accordingly. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” becomes their motto, and they teach each other to find the silver linings. Some of them are hopeful that the leave campaigners will keep their promises. I don’t think so. You might as well ask a confidence trickster for your money back. Psychologists call this “identification with the aggressor.”

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a former remain campaigner, is among those who take a philosophical view, offering some hope to offset all the despair. Remainers must now work hard to prove themselves wrong, he writes. But as I see it, working hard to mitigate the damage may only enable the perpetrators to deny that there was a problem in the first place. There is an argument, paradoxically, for doing nothing and letting the perfidy of those who led the Brexit charge be exposed for all to see. Then it will be on their heads at the next general election.

To me the ideal outcome would be for Brexit to be shelved indefinitely—prevention is always better than cure. Unfortunately, I doubt that will happen because if the country were that sensible, a fiasco the size of the EU referendum would have been publicly acknowledged a long time ago amid apologies from those who orchestrated it.

A particular aspect I have been well aware of as a former clinical investigator is the potential impact of Brexit on research. One of my heroes as a young psychiatrist was the late professor Mogens Schou of Denmark, now revered as the father figure of lithium treatment. Schou was the embodiment of the European spirit, linking with fellow doctors across national borders to improve the lives of those who had depression and bipolar disorder. Early in my career he welcomed me to his home in Aarhus as if I was from the next village; it was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. Schou admired all things British, and would simply not have believed that we would be capable of putting up barriers.

He would not be alone. The overwhelming reaction of the world’s press to the referendum result was dismay and incredulity. To quote Bild’s favoured headline, “United KingDUMM” (Dumm being German for stupid1). In Denmark, the result was taken as a salutary warning of a road they should not go down themselves. Across the water the coverage has been even more caustic. The Washington Post wondered why any nation would want to commit suicide, while the New York Times described losing our place in Europe as the final stage after losing our empire.

Some say that the art of losing can be a positive experience. And, as unspent anger is an uncomfortable emotion, graceful acquiescence can be preferable. But not for me, I’m still angry. Because the dishonourable nature of the leave campaign is something I can’t forget. And because the unscrupulous tactics and persuasive power of the British popular press still shocks me. If the Sun ran a campaign for people to sleep outside on a frosty night with no clothes on, the country would do it. But not me—I would remain indoors.

1. Bild pulled this headline at the last minute out of deference for the many Britons who voted remain.

John King is a retired consultant psychiatrist.

Competing interests: None declared.