Matthew Parris

My Brexiteer friends need some ladders to climb down

My honest belief is that there’s a spirit abroad in the Leave camp that calls for psychiatric, not political, analysis

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

I am worried about the mental state of many Brexiteers. The author of The Spectator’s weekly Notes, Charles Moore, always a sharp observer of the passing scene, noticed my worry almost before I noticed it myself. He complained here a few weeks ago that I’m citing among my reasons for distrusting the Leave case the fact that so many of its adherents strike me as headbangers. He went on to suggest I’ve become psychologically incapable of even listening to their argument.

Personality traits displayed by Brexit-eers do indeed worry me and help inform my response to their case. To help me weigh an argument, I’m in the habit of taking a long and careful look at the person making it. Little in life is provable, so our assessment of the judgment and balance of those who urge an opinion upon us can help us greatly in making up our own minds.

Which is why the insistent, splenetic, neuralgic, angry, obsessive and sometimes almost crazed intensity of so many in the Leave crowd has become a source of concern to the rest of us. It isn’t as if these people lost the referendum. It isn’t as if their plans are being thwarted! They won, we concede it, and the government is executing their instructions with resolve — and all the signs are that the final outcome will be the ‘hard’ Brexit so many of them crave.

So what’s bugging them? Why do they, the winners, keep lashing out whenever one of the losers doubts or questions their plans? You can almost see the veins standing out on their necks as they rail against the people who didn’t win the referendum.

Charles is at the courteous end of this spectrum but (though he calls me a headbanger myself) I cannot forbear to observe that it has been hard to find a Notes of his since 23 June in which he has managed to resist the impulse to start banging on about Brexit again. To check my recollection I made a little survey of his weekly contribution since last November…

On 19 November (discussing a Deloitte’s report on Brexit planning) he accuses the Times of ‘false news’; on 26 November he’s bothered that there are ‘17.4 million people whose views [on you-know-what] are unrepresented’ among the 11 Supreme Court judges; on 3 December he’s stunned by the judges’ failure to realise that the rudeness they’re encountering is ‘the inevitable result of their new activist stance as opponents of the executive’; on 10 December he muses on why as part of an educated elite he now supports the so-called oafs (who voted for you-know-what); on 7 January he laments an academic’s failure to seek ‘a creative way through this [you-know-what]’; on 28 January he praises Lord Reed, a Supreme Court judge who dissented on you-know-what…

And so it goes on. In recent months Charles is sometimes diverted from Brexit by his growing interest (‘more interested than horrified’) in Donald Trump. As it’s hard to imagine any US politician better calculated to disgust Mr Moore, we can guess what leads him to indulge this one. You know what.

At least Charles observes the decencies. Here’s a small sample of some of my Times readers responding online to a column I wrote last Saturday. This wasn’t even about Brexit, but about Theresa May’s remark last October that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. I offered a mild toot on the trumpet for the value of being a world citizen as well as a British one, and remarked that I ‘cling to the hope’ that Mrs May accepts that. Critics among my readers, however, wanted to talk about me personally, and Brexit, and immigration, and Brexit, and the rage of our downtrodden native population, and Brexit.


‘Sadly, Parris has become obsessed by Brexit.’

‘Many ordinary people are “clinging to the hope” that they won’t be slagged off as racists for voting a new direction for their country.’

‘And of course if you ever find you’re in a crowd that is respectfully singing the National Anthem, you’re waving the EU’s flag and humming Ode to Joy?’

‘Arty-farty nonsense …’

‘… boring, navel-fixated tosh.’

‘God, you are sanctimonious old queen.’

‘Theresa May at the Conference was addressing [native-born Britons] in the light of the Brexit vote.’

‘Sadly Matthew, your obsession against Brexit is now colouring virtually everything your write.’

‘Thank God we have had little Englanders to make you safe over the last decades whilst you hid under the stairs with matron.’

‘Mushy, elitist claptrap.’

‘You really are a pillock. Shouldn’t you be writing the Independent or the Red Star?’

I find critics like these wonderfully affirming so don’t think I’m complaining: I’ve got rather fond of them. No, I quote this sort of stuff (and anyone whom Brexiteers suspect of being ‘liberal, metropolitan elite’ faces a constant barrage of it) as evidence for my honest belief that there’s a spirit abroad in the Leave camp that calls for psychiatric rather than political analysis.

Here’s mine. I think most of these voters, MPs and journalists are public-spirited patriots who are secretly, usually unconsciously, terrified that they’ve done the wrong thing. They do of course care. They urged their country forward into a leap in the dark and now worry desperately lest it turn out badly. They’re displaying the classic psychopathology of deep anxiety, seeing enemies and conspiracies everywhere, hitting out angrily at all dissent, and channelling their own fear into aggression against those who are in fact expressing it. Freudians call this projection.

So what’s needed is not columns like this (which they will wrongly interpret as questioning their sanity) but therapy, in the form of ladders to climb down. Maybe I need it too, for in truth I’m not sure I’m right, and can imagine Brexit proving a (to me surprising) success. So let me make the first conciliatory move. I, a Remainer, accept that Brexit may not prove a mistake. Ball’s in your court, Leavers: can you accept that it may?

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