Jane overheard some gossip – she knew the people involved were unpleasant and spiteful, but they were discussing her husband. She realised, with horror, they were talking about an affair they believed he was having with a work colleague. Shocked, Jane hired a private detective to investigate. She was upset and simply asked the detective to discover whether her husband was in a relationship with someone else, yes or no?
A week later, the detective gave her the answer she didn’t want to hear. That evening, after a blazing row, her husband stormed out of the house. Two years later they were divorced. Those were two very unhappy years for Jane, she had been married to her husband for 43 years and they had grown together. They had, it is true, forgotten their first flush of romance and like so many relationships, at times, it had been very hard work. They had worked together for several years and many of the ideas that had helped shape her husband’s business had come from her.
She bitterly regretted what had happened. She was now too old, she felt, to start again – her youthful vigour was long gone. She also had doubts about the so-called affair and wondered if it was innocent after all. Her husband, deeply hurt by her lack of trust, refused to discuss it. But, the process was inexorable and the sad day arrived when her divorce was declared absolute. A chance encounter with one of the gossips was the final straw – ‘oh Jim wasn’t having an affair, we knew you were listening and we thought it would be a laugh to wind you up’. Jane was distraught, her happiness had been shattered. Life would never be the same. What went wrong?
As we read this very sad story, we wonder how it all came about. Are there any parallels with the EU referendum? After all, little stories often have big lessons.
Here are some obvious ones: are you asking the question in the right way and for the right reason? Was asking a detective to get the answers better than discussing the issue with the person involved? Was listening to spiteful gossip a sensible basis for taking action? Was worrying about what Nigel Farage or Ian Duncan Smith were saying or up to, a sufficient reason to promise a referendum on EU membership? Is the question to be put meaningful? A ‘relationship’ has many nuances of meaning likewise ‘Leave the EU’ is deeply ambiguous and poorly defined. Do you know how you will react no matter what the answer? You have to think through the consequences. Saying ‘relationship means relationship’ is about as meaningless as saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – all it signals is you haven’t a clue what to do next. So plan for the consequences. Finally, do you really want to know the answer? In the end, the collapse of Jane’s marriage was founded on a lie. Britain’s vote for Brexit was largely based on a lie.
So what should Jane have done? I leave you to figure it out. But what is clear is that she should not have given way to paranoia. Challenge the gossips, call them out. What should David Cameron have done before calling a referendum: sought the will of Parliament – after all they are our elected representatives and it is there that evidence based discussion and debate can occur. He listened to the Farage’s of this world and gave them far too much importance. UKIP was more of a threat to Miliband’s Labour Party than to the Tories. But, you have to debunk the conspiracy theories upon which UKIP and the ultra-right thrive. Scratch many a UKIPPER and you will find someone who signs up to a similar list of conspiracies. Favourites are: the science of global warming is a hoax; the government persuaded the IFS, the IMF and the Bank of England to peddle fear. Germany and their puppets in the EU are hell bent on creating a federal Europe. There is a plan to wave Turkey through the formalities of becoming a member of the EU unleashing a ‘tidal wave’ of impoverished Turks on the working class heartlands of the UK. The list is endless. The basic UKIP ideology is riddled with what psychologists call Conspiracy Ideation.
The referendum was won on a mix of Conspiracy Theories, Lies and Governmental ineptitude. The problem is: when people are anxious they succumb more easily to the nonsense that UKIP peddles. How could Jane have unravelled the mess? How can Theresa May do likewise? The answer is to focus on the source of the problem: work to reduce the paranoia and the anxiety. Seek ways to raise the incomes of the marginalised and their sense of inclusion in the UK. Ruthlessly debunk the myths that UKIP and the rest rely upon to peddle their xenophobic agenda. Then, seek an agreement with the EU such that both parties gain from the new relationship rather than lose. There is a win-win and smart politicians, shrugging off the sniping from the loony right, need to find it.