Next week’s New Yorker cover shows us silly-walking over a cliff. A meme is circulating of a cartoon Britain shooting itself in the foot. Remain voters are loud in their condemnation of the idiocy of Leave voters many of whom, it seems, have made a decision vote into a protest vote and damaged their own interests significantly in the process. Much of the UK has expressed a howl of pain and anger rather than making a considered decision. I’m not the first in this context to use the phrase ‘self-harm’.
I know a lot, as it happens, about self-harm. Both being deep in it and getting out of it. I’d say the term is apposite here. Self-harm generally is the last resort of those who are in unbearable pain and need somehow to express that pain. Those who cut, or starve, or punch, or burn themselves are usually those who are unable to see anywhere they can turn for help. They are those who feel they have no voice. They are often boiling with anger which they have no means of defusing. There is a strong correlation between being abused and self-harm, between unbearable stress and self-harm, between being patronised when you mention your pain and self-harm. (All of those things were true in my teenage life, and were reasons my self-harming behaviour become so secretive and lasted for so long.)
I grew up in a part of the country that voted strongly to Leave. (As it happens, my parents’ constituency neighbours that of Jo Cox and shares its socio-political characteristics.) I was there last weekend, and struck not only by the ubiquitous flags of St George but also of the air of desolation, of disrepair, of overgrown front gardens filled with rubble. Though it has some prosperous bits, it is, on the whole, not a place where most of us would choose to live. I got out of there at age eighteen, and I have not gone back. Instead I am in London, a world of opportunity for people like me, a place with many problems, but also with energy and hope. A place that voted to Remain.
It’s easy enough for news channels to find examples of ‘stupidity’ among Leave voters, like the man in Barnsley who voted out to get rid of Muslims, but who is pretty keen on the Europeans. There were also terrifyingly ill-informed Remain voters; we could find them if we tried. More important are the emotional drivers of the wider Leave vote. According to Lord Ashcroft’s analysis, the vast majority of Leave voters believe there are more threats to their quality of life than opportunities. These people feel disenfranchised, and see decisions being made elsewhere by people who increasingly do not ‘look’ or ‘speak’ like them.
Need I spell out how the self-harm analogy applies?
Self-harm is not logical, but it is real. The disenfranchisement of large areas of the country may or may not be real, depending on your point of view and how you define that ‘disenfranchisement’. But the sense of being disenfranchised and marginalised, and of suffering while others flourish, justified or not, cannot be denied. Self-harm in this context makes perfect sense. As we should not ignore it in a mental health context, so we ignore its political and social connotations at our peril.
So for the prognosis: self-harm does not simply dissolve as people ‘come to their senses’. Nor will ignoring the very real divisions and pain in the country simply make them go away. A rising economic tide does not help all ships equally. And we have just, as a nation, voted for the economic tide to fall for the next few years.
So what do we do? I am – let me surprise you – not a politician. I do, however, know that the answer to self-harm is not logical argument. Nor is it ignoring that the pain is there and getting on with the logical stuff in Westminster. The answer to self-harm is sympathy and hope, and those two together result in a change of perception and therefore a change in behaviour.
I’m sure my personal prescription for creating that hope has its problems. For what it’s worth, I would move Parliament out of London to Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham; focus on reducing tax fraud rather than welfare fraud; build social housing; and move to Proportional Representation. I’m sure there are better ideas. I’d be interested to see your thoughts.
The key thing is creating hope. Because this week the self-harm is not only on the Leave side. I am not the only Remain voter who has spent the last two days picking over and over at the scabs of the referendum, clicking on the Facebook posts, the articles from pro-Remain news outlets, fuelling my own emotions of anger, sadness and helplessness. Yes, I am grieving; but I also know that my current behaviour is not helping me.
I was at dinner last night with some small business owners who voted Leave. They voted to regain sovereignty and reduce red tape. They were ok with the short-term price of that being recession. That is not a view I agree with, but nor is it a deliberately destructive view. These people were not angry or afraid at the result; they were hopeful. People who are hopeful and working towards a positive solution are our salvation.
My hopes are different from theirs. I hope that the feelings exposed by the referendum are a wake-up call to market-focused, and Westminster-centred politicians. I hope that the recession will not be too deep or too long. I hope that we can work to help those who are suffering and reduce the extent of the country mired in hopelessness and pain.
I haven’t worked out what practically I can do to help in all of this. I’m open to offers. But I do know that self-harm is a problem that does not simply go away. It doesn’t for individuals or for communities. And it’s not going to happen here.