Ed West

Ed West is the Deputy Editor of UnHerd. His book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is published by Little, Brown in March 2020.

October 2, 2019

If you count the tabling of the Referendum Bill as the starting point, the Brexit saga has now been going on longer than the First World War.

It certainly feels like it. Indeed it sometimes seems like nothing other than Brexit is ever talked about on the radio, the issue having sucked the life out of everything else like some political black hole. And as it drags on, families are divided and friends no longer speak, while our MPs call each other increasingly hysterical names. More and more we all feel despair about the future, so much so that we’ve even knocked France off its traditional bottom place in the optimism stakes, which is some achievement.

It’s so depressing that, at least according to the British Association for Counselling and Psychology, one in three Britons believe that Brexit has had a negative impact on their mental health. Claims are made, too, that the referendum has led to a rise in antidepressant use, although that sounds like one of those things I’d like to ask Tom Chivers about before tweeting. Likewise, it has been suggested by counsellors that Brexit has put a stress on some relationships.

For some it has developed into a sort of madness. Numerous public figures are said to suffer from “Brexit Derangement Syndrome”, a phrase coined soon after the referendum to describe the many people who’ve become fixated on this issue, often appearing to lose touch with reality. We all know someone who has lost the plot since 2016, in a way that has never really happened in our lifetimes over any other issue.

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Yet it has happened before. I recently read Lady Antonia Fraser’s The King and the Catholics, a history of the campaign for Catholic emancipation, which finally passed into law in 1829 after years of division and bitterness.

The issue was deeply divisive because, like Brexit, it was tied up with Who We Are. Protestantism had long been central to British identity, while Catholicism was seen as “a form of national treachery”, in the words of the historian Richard Evans. But as Britain moved towards a more liberal and pluralistic society, the restrictions on religion became anachronistic. The Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone, anticipating Justin Trudeau, even argued that anti-Catholicism belonged to “the dark ages of superstition” rather than “the days of illumination, at the close of the eighteenth century”.

Like Brexit, it was a binary issue that one side had to win, and which dragged on for too long because neither was prepared to accept defeat; by 1827 the Bishop of Oxford was writing to Tory MP (and future prime minister) Robert Peel, referring to “The abominable Catholic question, which is now mixed up with everything we eat or drink or see or think”. Which certainly sounds familiar.

It led to shrieking in Parliament, a split in the Tory party and even violence between MPs, as well as a sort of Catholic Emancipation Derangement Syndrome, with King George III actually blaming the issue for his descent into insanity.

The king had had a period of mental instability in the 1780s, believed to have been caused by porphyria, a genetic blood disorder, or some form of bipolar disorder. Like most mental illnesses, bipolar has an underlying genetic cause but can be triggered by periods of intense stress, including work problems or the breakdown of relationships.

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The monarch had in January 1801 declared in an “agitated” voice that anyone who favoured emancipation was not his friend but his “personal enemy”. As Fraser writes: “the granting of Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom touched on a vein of developing paranoia in the King’s nature… It was this tragic paranoid condition which would rapidly turn to apparent madness” and, in 1811, a regency.

King George himself “was convinced that this nervous collapse was to do with the Catholic Question”, and at one point he warned Prime Minister William Pitt not to raise the subject “on which I can scarcely keep my temper”.

The mad king died in 1820 yet “the Abominable Question” continued to dominate politics, and his porcine successor George IV also grew obsessed and began taking laudanum to cope, only managing to survive the end of the saga by a year. Meanwhile, the issue had caused huge bitterness within the Tory party, with the reactionary “Ultras” utterly opposed to any change. At one point in Parliament, Ultra-Tory Sir Charles Wetherell made a furious denunciation of his own side, and “the frenzied gestures with which Wetherell accompanied his words were so great that his braces broke,” causing his breeches to fall down.

Meanwhile the vehemently anti-Catholic Earl of Winchilsea had accused the Duke of Wellington of introducing “Popery into every department of the State”, a virtual charge of treason, but rather than going on social media to complain the Iron Duke challenged him to a duel with pistols, despite being 60 by this point. The fight took place at Battersea at dawn; Wellington shot and missed, so Winchilsea fired his gun into the air and later apologised.

George III was not the only king pushed to the edge by division. In the 1450s the country had slid into fighting between dynastic factions under the rule of a listless young king, Henry VI. Henry’s grandfather Charles of France had believed himself to be made of glass, and the grandson may have inherited his schizophrenia, a highly heritable disease that can be triggered by stress (although historical diagnosis is fraught). King before his first birthday, Henry’s childhood had been marked by bitter conflict between uncles, great-uncles and cousins, and after the factionalism descended into violence the poor man finally sunk into a catatonic state, overwhelmed by the division.

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George III and Henry VI were extreme cases, but there is evidence from more recent history suggesting that the vulnerable psyche can only withstand so much political strain.

The most frequently drawn historical parallel with Brexit is the English Civil War, a conflict about sovereignty that pitted people against good friends and even family members. It hit Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount of Falkland, particularly hard. He had been a moderate peer and was originally part of the Parliamentary opposition, but felt he could not fight against his king. After the war had begun, a friend recalled him “Sitting amongst his friends, often, after a deep silence and frequent sighs [he] would with a shrill and sad accent ingeminate [repeat] the word ‘Peace, Peace’.” He declared that the “calamities and desolation” of the kingdom “would shortly break his heart”.

Before the Battle of Newbury, in 1643, Viscount Falkland had told friends that “he was weary of the times and foresaw much misery to his own Country”, and then charged straight into enemy lines, killed instantly.

More recently, Sheffield University’s Julie Gottlieb researched the extremely stressful period around the 1938 Munich Agreement, finding at least 110 cases of suicide in Britain linked to the crisis. She found that many of those involved already had an underlying mental illness, with politics acting as a spark, whereas in a period of political calm the illness may have been manageable.

Yet suicide declines during actual war between states, largely because feelings of solidarity and purpose increase, whereas what people find stressful about politics is the division; lots of British people have mixed feelings about the Blitz, for instance, but literally no one looks back fondly on civil war.

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The United States is further down the tragic road of polarisation than Britain, and where we have Brexit Derangement Syndrome, they have “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, as conservatives call it; the term is dismissive but the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has referred to “Trump Hypertensive Unexplained Disorder” and the clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning talked of “Trump Anxiety Disorder” to describe the extreme stress many Americans felt about his rise.

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey indicated record levels in 2017, with a five-point rise in self-reported political stress levels in just one year, and this trend correlates with rising polarisation and hostility between parties.

Two-thirds of Americans are worried about the future of the country, about 40% say politics causes stress and one in five that they lose sleep or feel tired as a result. One in six say it makes home life more unpleasant. Although a quarter of Americans have limited their interactions with friends or family because of politics, considerably more Democrats have done so, and white women were “significantly more likely” than any other demographic to report “serious election-related stress” during the 2016 election, especially “very liberal” or “very conservative” women.

The APA found that Democrats were far more stressed about the political climate, possibly because of a greater fear that they were losing. The problem is that modern media makes everyone think they’re losing; progressives and liberals on Twitter are determined that the world is going to hell, yet in terms of public opinion, and on most legislation issues, things are still moving in their direction.

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For many Republicans, 2016 was the “Flight 93” election, with a feeling that things were inexorably turning against them, and that this was their last chance to take control of the cockpit.

We’re also further stressed by politics because the general culture encourages us to catastrophise, focusing on the worst possible outcomes and playing on our fears of losing. Catastrophising is one of the nine “cognitive distortions” identified in The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff — the exact distortions that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy trains us to avoid.

Our media, therefore, acts as anti-therapy, causing us to adopt such patterns as “dichotomous thinking” — viewing events or people in all or nothing terms; “mind reading” — assuming you know what people are actually thinking, which is normally much more malevolent; and labelling (“racist”/“traitor”). All these are known to increase anxiety, and so create a wider feeling of poor mental health around politics.

The problem is that issues like Brexit, as with Catholic emancipation or the War of the Roses, are dichotomous — one side has to win. And as the thing drags on, for longer and longer, we all start to feel like we’re losing.