In the Mood for Brexit?

While the question of whether to remain part of or leave the European Union was an argument about policy, Brexit was at the same time a cathartic episode in the history of British cultural consciousness; a long-fermented response to decades of simmer-ing feelings that a nation has somehow slipped away from its image of itself. As the journalist Fintan O’Toole (2018:85) states,

Brexit is about many things but one of them is the feeling that there is a much larger rot to stop, a natural order of things that it being eroded … Emotionally, Brexit is fuelled by anxiety.

To say that a momentous national decision is driven by anxiety and foreboding  about the rotting away of a natural order is to register a distance between such affec-tive motivation and the rational self-interest that political scientists often posit as the  foundation of public preferences. In the run-up to the referendum politicians were accused of pandering to popular ‘gut feelings’ and in the aftermath of the result much was made of a Britain Thinks ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey which found that most British people were consumed by feelings of pessimism (Guardian, 2019). Both mass and digital media were implicated as enablers of public frenzy (Jackson et al., 2016; Zappettini & Krzyżanowski, 2019; Zelizer, 2018).

Between December 2016 and January 2018, I conducted 42 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with British citizens aged between 18 and 80 with a view to understanding how Brexit made them feel. In these interviews, I encouraged people to talk about how it felt to be thrown into a national debate about a critically important decision; to make that decision as an individual voter; to witness the result of the referendum as an aggre-gation of public preferences and to live within families and communities in which there were intense disagreements about the significance of the result. I first analysed these interviews narratively by attempting to interpret the themes and structures of the stories that people were telling me. In a second stage of analysis, I explored how interviewees’ stories were framed by specific sensibilities to mood. Focusing upon a range of modali-ties of expression, allusion and hesitation, I attempted to make sense of what Thomas Pfau (2005:7) refers to as ‘the deep-structural situatedness of individuals within history as something never actually intelligible to them in fully coherent, timely, and defini-tive form’. Like other attempts to gain a qualitative impression of affective responses to Brexit (Anderson et al., 2020; Moss et al., 2020), my findings are inevitably subjective and make no claim to generalisation across the UK population, except insofar as they indicate that citizens’ attunement to political mood comprised an element of political orientation that exceeds cognitive explanation.

Many interviewees spoke about feeling out of control, personally, locally, glob-ally and in relation to the referendum itself. They cited the Brexit slogan, ‘Take Back Control’, sometimes as a code term for experiences of feeling political discounted, at others in an ironic tone, hinting at its rhetorical disingenuity. I interpreted these repeated references to control as allusions to personal and collective agency. When Emma, a 36-year-old care assistant told me that ‘Brexit, to me, is our country and us taking back control’, I was intrigued by this crowded space of agency. The country takes back control from colonising forces beyond its national sovereignty. And then, as well as the country performing this act of reclamation, there is ‘us’. What was the difference in Emma’s mind between ‘the country’ and ‘us’ — or were they iden-tical? If the need to separate them suggested different interests or strategies, what might these be? Could there be a foreseeable moment in which the collective agent — ‘us’ — might want to take back control from ‘our country’? Lenny, a 25 year-old trainee auditor, was more sceptical in his talk of taking back control:

The pro-Leave campaign projected this idea that we were being controlled, so that was the whole thing of ‘we need to take back control’ … I think people felt that we were being manipulated in some way, and that we weren’t our own identity anymore … We need to take back control, because we used to be this power. Europeans are now controlling us. On a very primitive, basic level … I think it was a pretty basic level of ‘We want to take back control of something that we don’t even know what we’re controlling over’.

I tried to push some interviewees to explain what taking back control might entail in practice. The following exchange with Lea, a 31year-old office cleaner, captures that process:

Me: What would have to happen for you to feel that we have taken back control?Lea: Things put in place.
Me: What sort of things would you want to see that were different? Could you imagine some clear rules or law or policies?Lea: Yeah, I would say in my head it’s like a rulebook, like, this is happening, this is happening, this is not happening. Something clear.

This sense of Brexit as a tidying up of existential national disorder rendered the political foreground of Brexit explicable through references to an impressionistic background of perturbing disarrangement.

A second narrative theme that emerged from the interviews was about the inher-ent messiness of politics. People spoke of the contagious toxicity of political disa-greement and the social fragility of democratic resolutions. Stories were structured around a recurring entwinement between political commitment and consequent frus-tration. Sophie, a 22 year-old student who had been an intern at a fashion magazine at the time of the referendum and had voted for Brexit, describes how her mood fluctuated in the immediate aftermath of the result:

I was excited, but then I think when you hear how upset other people were about it, it kind of took a bit of a toll. You felt a bit flat, rather than excited, because it was clear that it wasn’t the whole country wanting one thing.

Asked how being thrown into the political fray around Brexit made her feel, Sophie paused and then responded in a tone that reflected a sense of uttering an unsayable truth:

I almost feel like we’re given too much choice. Choice is given to people that don’t care enough to think it through.

Will, a 30-year-old office worker, added to this narrative of frustration at what felt like undue pressure to arrive at a definitive political judgement about a matter as important as Brexit:

I just think no-one can communicate and no-one will just be honest and say ‘Actually, we’ve knackered it here, we don’t actually know what we’ve done, we’re not really sure’. No-one’s saying we’re not really sure.

The story here is one of enforced agency: of feeling encumbered by an obligation to take a position on something that one does not want to decide. Essie, a 28year-old trainee teaching assistant, spoke of waking up to hear the result of the referendum on the radio ‘and I thought it was some kind of media stunt’. This was not untypical of narrative attempts by interviewees to remove themselves from responsibility for the result of the referendum. Lopa, a 47year-old homeworker who had voted for Brexit without much enthusiasm seemed content to reduce herself to the role of a bewil-dered observer:

I’m not saying it’s bad or good, I don’t know, that’s the answer. I think we’re still not clear on what’s going to happen.

Related to these suspicions about the consequences of being dragged into politics, several of my interviewees told stories that cast doubt on the capacity of other citizens to make an intelligent decision. Rather like the third-person effect hypothesis, whereby people over-estimate the influence of media information upon others while feeling confident that they themselves can evaluate it critically (Davison, 1983; Perloff, 1999), people told stories about how they could see through the haze of Brexit misinforma-tion, but could not trust others to do so. Gareth, a 22 year-old barista, told me that.

I feel a lot of people’s reasons for leaving weren’t very sincere. I think they weren’t honest throughout the campaign why they were voting Leave. And I think a lot of it came down to people’s opinions of things like immigration. And I think it was all … not taboo subjects, but they wouldn’t openly talk about it. And this gave them a platform.

Later, in the same interview, Gareth’s accusations came closer to home:

My parents voted Brexit. The whole rest of my family voted to leave. And I know them. And I know for a fact that, particularly my mum, my brother and sister, they didn’t research it. They voted based off what my dad did. And my dad’s a Daily Mail reader.

While some stories cast doubt on the judgements of other voters, some voters felt that they themselves were being judged unfairly. Abbey, a 26 year-old shop worker was almost in tears as she spoke at length about how her long-term partner had repeatedly accused her of being a racist for voting for Brexit:

My partner did say that … ‘You’re like all the rest of them’. And I don’t think I am because, like I say, I’d never voted before. There were times when I thought, ‘actually, is this going to work? Are we better off staying in?’ But then, yeah, I kept reading on. I didn’t just listen to Boris Johnson, because he’s just one out of a lot of people. And yeah, it does insult me, because I’m not racist, I don’t see myself as a racist in that I don’t value everyone the same, because I do. It’s just my opinion, and I feel like we might be better to come out of it and see what happens. So yeah, it does insult me. I don’t think it’s fair.

And then there were others who doubted themselves:

I felt like people, including myself, didn’t really know what we were talking about. And it was too big of a decision to be made on such poor information. (Jerri, a 33 year-old nurse).

Even before turning to the ethereal qualities of mood, we can see how people were narrativizing their experience of Brexit through distinctive frames of intelli-gibility. The trope of control surfaced as a euphemistic proxy for political agency. There was a somewhat neurotic flavour to much of this talk about control, under-lined by a sense of normative agitation and cultural disarray. Attempts to account narratively for these feelings of unsettlement were blighted by an inability to articu-late the terms of proper democratic agency; it was if the capacity to make a dif-ference could only be registered through its absence. At a broader systemic level, people described politics as an inherently unreliable, erratic and beguiling domain. Even its best outcomes seemed to be at constant risk of debasement by recalcitrant contestation. And even when interviewees felt competent to seize the democratic moment and exercise effective agency, they could not depend upon others to act in accordance with norms of civic diligence.

Brexit narratives emerged as mood stories as they moved beyond representational accounts of object-centred relations and began to touch upon the impalpable affective stimuli and inhibitors of their tellers’ agency. In accordance with Altieri’s (2003:110) adverbial understanding of affective behaviour, I suggest that the focus of mood sto-ries is ‘less on what agents believe about what moves them than on how they perform who they become by virtue of the attitude they have been constructing’. In this sense, mood stories capture how it feels to be alive to a sensory environment.

When I asked Sophie to tell me what she understood by the term Brexit, her response instantly captured a mood:

Mess. Mess, division, it makes me think that the country completely fell apart for a year, while everyone was deciding what they wanted to do. I was falling out with my friends over it, my family. I don’t think it was a particularly good process that we went through.

Vocal expression here took a staccato form. Quick-fire words and phrases were separated by inhaled pauses. Emphatic baton gestures gave emphasis to the frenetic delivery. Metaphors of falling evoked images of precipitous descent, the hazardous plunging of hitherto stable relationships. As she described a country falling apart and friends falling out, Sophie presented herself as an exasperated observer rather than an active agent. The ironic under-statement of the final sentence suggested that words cannot do descriptive justice to the experience of disappointment generated by Brexit. Conjured poetically, almost Biblically, this ambience of generalised mess, division and falling apart seemed to have no temporal boundaries, but was affec-tively reverberant, both unleashing and unleashed by unspecified forces. Sophie was not offering an historical chronicle or political analysis, but a registration of sweep-ing affective palpitations.

I asked James, a 34 year-old hotel chef, to tell me about how he first heard the result of the Brexit referendum. He grimaced, as if urging me to recognise the bitter-ness of the memory he was about to recall:

When I woke up in the morning and watched it I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. At the same time, I thought to myself, this is typical. I thought, I should have seen that this was going to happen.

As I listened to this answer, I sensed that James was speaking to himself more than to me. The pounding cadences of his expression of real-time disbelief were reminiscent of someone reliving a trauma. James’s disbelief was ambiguous; in part, he was recalling a cognitive resistance to the possibility of such an incongru-ent event as Brexit; in part, he was describing an emotional incapacity to take in news that was so disruptive to his equilibrium. But then, James’s voice changed significantly, assuming a knowing confidence as he retraced his feeling of having paid insufficient attention to the social mood leading up to the referendum. That he ‘should’ have seen Brexit coming was a reflection on his own refusal to acknowl-edge signs that would have prepared him for what subsequently came to him as a shock. My question afforded James an opportunity to tell a complex mood story which involved acknowledgement of at least three affective states: incomprehension, denial and recognition.

I asked James to move forward from the moment when he heard the Brexit result to the time of our interview (January 2018). How was he feeling about Brexit now?

I don’t feel sad, I just feel a little bit ashamed, a little bit embarrassed by it, sometimes … When Brexit happened, it was a hot topic. People wanted to get into certain groups so that they could start saying their views, and everyone was agreeing with them, and it was great. But now, people don’t really know what’s going on. People have lost the interest. It’s not a social thing anymore. It’s not all over social media. And I said it before, I think people are actually bored of Brexit. They hear about Brexit on the news and think ‘Oh, they’re still talking about it.

James began his answer with a denial: he does not feel sad. His need to disa-vow sadness suggests a social mood characterised by confusing affective signals. What might appear to be sadness, James explained, was in fact shame and embar-rassment, but only ‘a little bit’ of each, and only ‘sometimes’. One sensed that he was trying to describe a diminished mood in which powerful feelings that had once moved him had been flattened by overuse. James goes on to explain how this defla-tion came about. However shocking he had found the initial event, at least Brexit had been a ‘hot topic’. Its mood had been socially galvanising. But over time that mood had dissipated. Brexit had become boring — no longer ‘a social thing’. I think that James was referring here to a contrast between Brexit’s brief life as a vibrant cultural movement, absorbing all sorts of popular commitments and fantasies, and its post-referendum return to the routine aridity of politics as normal.

When I asked Aidan, a 29 year-old fitness instructor, to tell me about his memory of hearing the referendum result, he offered me a telegraphically formulated story:

Woke up with my girlfriend actually, at the time. And I was sat there, I just didn’t believe it could happen, really. That happened, and then obviously a few months later Trump happened, and I think a snowball effect started to happen. I think a lot of things happened and people didn’t expect them.

Here was an example of an account of a series of actions that appear to have no agent executing them. This is known syntactically as agency depletion. The story begins with Aidan sitting up in bed with his then girlfriend and feeling a sense of disbelief, as if suddenly exposed to a freak act of nature. And then the contingencies continue: ‘Trump happens’, which in turn triggers an avalanche of unexpected hap-penings. As Aidan describes these historical aberrations, he looks into the distance as if seeing before him hazy images of capricious turmoil and weirdness. According to Aidan’s mood story, events like Brexit ‘happen’ without apparent agency.

For some of my interviewees, mood served an expansive function, allowing them to stretch specific memories of Brexit to fit within a much broader affective atmosphere. When I asked Essie why she thought people became so agitated about Brexit, she referred to a tangential concern that she considered implicitly relevant to my question:

Just in the things we say now, we’ve got to be really, really careful of what we say. I think that’s had a lot to do with it. Obviously. I’m not saying about slan-der or anything, but there’s so many things that have changed, that we’ve lost control of. Even in schools, teachers have lost control of how they can teach groups, so students can get away with murder, literally, these days.

Essie’s account of mood exemplified what the philosopher Charles Taylor (1993: 328) means when he states that ‘Engaged agents are creatures with a background sense of things’. That is to say, unlike the idealised rationalist agent who engages only with the immediacy of interest and opportunity, engaged agents bring into play the implicit and fragmented feelings that have been gathered as vestiges of their experience. They are able to attend to unarticulated understandings of the bearings of such conditions upon their capacity and propensity to act. Essie seemed to be say-ing that there was a clear link in her mind, perhaps inarticulable as a logical connec-tion, between a sense of caution in response to officially sanctioned norms regarding what can be said and Brexit as a secret vote for the prescriptively unsayable. Essie could in principle make this ‘subsidiary awareness’ (Polanyi, 1962) articulable, but even before doing so, its status as a mood resides in its pre-reflective attention to agentic possibility that is devoid of explicit intentionality.

The mood stories that I have been reflecting upon offer one way of gaining qualita-tive insights into the inexplicit and suggestive forms that subjective sensory appraisal take. While there are moments of acknowledgement of Brexit as an identifiable affec-tive object, at the same time these stories register the presence of moods as elusive currents of feeling to which it is difficult to adjust and from which it is hard to escape. I have in mind here Jasper’s (2018) conceptualisation of mood and affect as points on a spectrum which slowly blur into one another. Mood stories provide a method for inves-tigating the impulses that precede agency by exploring how intuitive assessment lays a fragile foundation for what can subsequently be known. They constitute epistemic  conjectures through which actuality is apprehended through the kind of creative  speculation commonly associated with intuition (Davis, 2009; Forgas, 1995).

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