A nihilist and an authoritarian walk into a bar

6 Jun, 2017

By Roy Langmaid

What do the reasons for voting Brexit tell us about how people will vote this time?

C Space is determined to offer our best truth to our clients. Without that commitment we would simply be ‘Yes’ men (and women!) and in a short time our counsel would be relegated to the bin along with the countless trivial opinions of so many commentators.

So what are the hidden truths about the struggle that currently preoccupies the U.K: Brexit?

For a psychologist with many years’ experience of observing the effects of waves of opinion across the nation, there are a number of visible factors that underlie the decision to vote Leave:

  1. The consistent portrayal of the EU as the source of our woes by a large part of the mainstream media, a continual diet of ridicule and dire warnings that has passed unchallenged by those who support the European community.
  2. A residual regional nationalism, located largely in nostalgic memories of the past, filtered through selective memories of a time when things were better, such as winning the World Cup 40 years ago, the sixties, the Thatcher years.
  3. A shift to a post-industrial age of services rather than manufacturing, accompanied by a reluctance to reframe ourselves as a nation of service providers. Services now account for 80% of Britain’s GDP. But somehow they lack the ‘heroic’ element of manufacturing or ‘real’ work, like mining, shipbuilding, steelmaking. Serving others is easily seen as submissive and one-down, even if you call customers ‘clients’.
  4. A growing resentment as once-great towns lost their vitality, as once great enterprises closed and rusted, as shop windows were boarded up contributing to a feeling of being left behind, ignored, neglected.

So, standing in this kind of place, a Leave vote was – at least in part – a wish to go back to better days. It provokes both anxiety and depression to be surrounded by scenes of decay. If I were poorer, older, lacking formal qualifications and lived in St Helens or Wigan I would have voted Leave for sure, as did the majorities in those places (58 and 64% respectively).

This brings us to our first psychological question: ‘is the decline in much of our heartland the fault of the European Community?’ If so, then we are right to leave that community, to explore other paths to progress. If not, then we are in the presence of an ‘attribution error’; we have chosen a reason which is not actually the source of our problems.

When we are anxious or depressed over long periods, our judgments are affected. We are eager to find then remove the source of our distress, and given that the EU has been so constantly demonised in the press, it was a prime candidate for such a choice.

So, we can understand why, in the immediacy of the moment, people voted to get rid of the EU.

Even so, for those who oppose such a choice, those who do not see the EU as the source of our common woes, those who publish endless analyses of economic outlooks that forecast great losses if we leave, it is puzzling why such analyses are ignored by many Leave voters. Why is that?

Apart from attribution errors, there are two more hidden drivers that can be detected in common comments by voters from both sides of the issue. They are nihilism and authoritarianism. Both of these characteristics dismantle the individual’s responsibility for choice, the first dismantling it using some version of these popular memes:

“They’re all the same – politicians.”
“You can’t believe a word they say.”
“They’ll say anything to get your vote.”

In other words, since what politicians say can’t be trusted, you might as well vote in accordance with your impulses and feelings rather than according to their claims or other ‘unreliable’ evidence. Having read for years that the EU is the source of your pain, you can express your hostility and feel justified in so doing. This, I believe is the biggest single psychological mind-set sustaining the Leave vote. Many Remainers, now christened the ‘Reluctant Leavers’ have shifted towards Leave partly out of a desire for national unity, but also because they too believe that politicians lie.

The second driver, authoritarianism, is the principle of submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. Again, we see the benefit for the anxious in handing over responsibility to someone in power.

“We need a strong leader.”
“Only someone with power can get us out of this hole.”
“We need someone powerful to get us a good deal.”

Authoritarian leaders exercise power with little regard to alternatives. A good example is Theresa May’s contention that she doesn’t need to defend her policies or arguments in detail, since she knows what she’s doing. Neither will she provide any substantiation because her demand is for absolute trust, based on feeling, not information.

When we adopt nihilistic or authoritarian positions, there is a cost. We surrender analytical, informed argument in nihilism and our adult efficacy in the infantilism of our surrender to authority. Both have potential to self destructiveness, as when in the grip of a strong impulse we surrender to a cream cake for a moment of glee, even though we are obese.

In summary, we do not know whether Leaving or Remaining is the best choice. We may never find out, because whichever we do, we will not fully see the results of the other choice. However, there are three key psychological drivers at work that we need to think through in weighing up our response:

  1. The Attribution tendency – with its potential for both explanation or error.
  2. Nihilism – a disengagement of belief in the truthfulness and reliability of chosen others.
  3. Authoritarianism – a powerful wish to be led to a promised land by a strong leader who asserts that he/she will fulfil your dreams.

For all our sakes, we must hope that the die we have cast brings us a restitution of hope, prosperity and unity.


Roy Langmaid is C Space’s resident psychologist, inspiring us to ask the right questions and listen better, and applying his craft to our clients’ biggest challenges.

Roy co-founded Promise (latterly C Space) with Charles Trevail in 2002. This unholy union brought together the disciplines of psychology and branding and gave rise to a pioneering new technique – co-creation with consumers.

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