WILL SELF: Our narcissism of small differences got us into this

Boris Johnson is surrounded by Vote Leave and Vote Remain activists as he speaks in Winchester.

Boris Johnson is surrounded by Vote Leave and Vote Remain activists as he speaks in Winchester. - Credit: PA WIRE

Sigmund Freud once said subtle differences, between Scots and Brits, Spaniards and Portugese, had a function. WILL SELF says it went too far with Brexit.

As time's arrow flies inexorably towards the end of the month, and Britain's departure from the European Union, I can't be alone in wondering whether there will be blood in the streets. For years now tensions have been ramped up between two significant moieties of the populace; now that one has definitively got the better of the other, will they not crow, turkey-cock, strut, preen, and otherwise imitate birdlife in order - somewhat paradoxically - to impress upon the vanquished their very human superiority? And will not the Remainers - the poor, sad bearers of a now guttering torch - not lapse into sullenness, resentment, and a sense of smouldering injustice that's ever-ready to burst into a savage conflagration?

Against this, the English have - despite all actions to the contrary - an inextinguishable faith in their own steadiness and rectitude, but even Sir John Major (inadequately channelling crypto-patriot George Orwell) must be fearing a scenario in which, rather than hearing the sound of leather on willow, we hear willow-on-leathery, as the spinster cycling to evensong is pulled from the well-worn saddle of her old boneshaker and beaten to within an inch of her life with a cricket bat, because she once said something nice about Jo Swinson.

In the interests of pouring oil on troubled waters (not, incidentally, something you should try in the Strait of Hormuz any time soon), it behoves me to remind New European readers of Freud's useful heuristic, the so-called 'narcissism of small differences'. In his late, great dissection of the human condition, Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud advanced the idea that: "It is precisely those communities that occupy contiguous territories and are otherwise closely related to each other - like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the North Germans and the South Germans, the English and the Scots, etc - that indulge in feuding and mutual mockery." Despite he and his family being on the verge of expulsion from their homeland, by reason of a particularly rampant form of such narcissism, Freud remained optimistic that: "It can be seen as a convenient and relatively innocuous way of satisfying the tendency to aggression and facilitating solidarity within the community."

Certainly, those Brexiters who cleave to a vision of the British as tolerant sans pareil, must see a little barracking of their liberal idiot twins as par for the course. (And I'd bet that the use of golfing metaphors among them is also… par for the course.) The current incumbent of No.10 Downing Street, who was widely reported to have responded to the news that Qasem Soleimani - Iran's most senior military leader - had been assassinated in Baghdad by a US drone strike, with a single terse expletive: "F**k!" is a well known and highly accomplished barracker. But anyway, I'd been wondering for the past few days what exactly it is that Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, talk about when they're spread out on their loungers in Mustique.


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Johnson's strategic flip-flops, and tactical zigzags reveal - as much as his dishabille, both sartorial and ethical - that he hardly belongs to the socially conservative arm of his party. The man who won an election - or so we're told - by bringing down the perished mortar and crumbling brickwork of Labour's so-called 'red wall' with his monotone trumpeting "Get Brexit Done!" scarcely evinces the sober demeanour and puritanical habits we expect from pillars of establishment - rather, he seems a flimsy sort of pergola, caught up in a convolvulus of illicit caresses. Could it be that Johnson - whose own family tree has roots in a wide variety of soils, and who has referred to himself as a sort of one-man multi-culture - actually experiences an internal narcissism of small differences, as his Little Englander, one-nation conservative side does battle with his heterogeneous and pluralistic one?

And if the prime minister is so trivially - yet momentously - rived, might it not behove the rest of us to admit to a similar internal schism? After all, Remainers as much as Brexiters are afflicted by the same sorts of what psychologists term cognitive dissonance; both sides seemingly believing it's possible for the British economy to thrive given a little creative accountancy - both maintaining the Union can be preserved by force of mere 'patriotism', and both resolutely determined - following that drone strike - to maintain the nation's status as a world power. For Freud, civilisation itself enacted a terrible price on individuals - as much as societies - by requiring of them that they restrain both their sexual and their aggressive appetites. Thus far, Johnson's rise to power - inasmuch as this depends on some notional charisma - has been predicated on a lack of restraint in at least one of these areas. Now, as the days pass, and the tension rises, we'll see whether he's capable of not only maintaining a peaceful posture, but encouraging the rest of us to remain… balanced.

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