Britain: narcissist nation

The country's inflated sense of self-worth is beginning to look clinical
October 13, 2016
Click here to read more from our November 2016 issue

Rarely have Europeans, including this London-based Dutchman, been granted such deep insight into the darkest corners of the English psyche (I am going to leave out the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish). The charitable view is that many English people have a superiority complex that prevents them from being realistic about their country’s place in the world. As the Brexit saga drags on, one wonders if parts of the UK’s political and media establishment, if not the whole country, are not in fact in the grips of collective clinical narcissism.

Diverging slightly from its usage in popular culture, psychotherapists employ the concept of narcissism to describe people with an unstable sense of identity. Feelings of vulnerability, dependency and helplessness can overwhelm them and for this reason narcissists cling to notions of grandiosity. They cannot consider others except as instruments to be manipulated or enemies to be fought. Marked by a mixture of bravado and contempt for those perceived as weaker, narcissists cannot accept criticism and feel no interest in others—let alone empathy.

So let us map this on to the Brexit debate. Grandiosity came in two forms. For “Leave,” Britain is a great country and if things don’t feel that way it must be because of the European Union. Being special, other nations will rush to strike deals with the UK post-Brexit. The UK, being a very special country, needs the EU far less than vice versa so Europeans will give Britain a great deal, too.

“Remain” grandiosity was more implicit, but still there. The most revealing example was probably David Cameron’s threat in Brussels to back “Leave” in the referendum unless he got “a better deal for Britain.” This was reported not as blackmail but as a demand for “concessions.” The implication: its very membership is a favour granted by the UK to the EU.

This inflated sense of self was built on by the “Remain” camp when it began to argue that the UK should stay so it can run the EU. Gordon Brown wrote a book called Britain: Leading Not Leaving while Edward Lucas of the Economist let it be known that “Britain’s size, experience and friends make us the continent’s natural leader.” In this atmosphere it became very hard for Remainers to put forward the most powerful argument for the European pooling of sovereignty. That argument is so simple that Jean-Claude Juncker needed just two sentences for it in this year’s State of the Union: “Today Europeans make up 8 per cent of the world population—we will only represent 5 per cent in 2050. By then you will not see a single EU country among the top world economies.”

Compare that to the Spectator’s Toby Young gushing about the UK becoming the world’s third economy, Andrea Leadsom promising to make the UK the “greatest country on earth” and Boris Johnson’s Union Jack draped bluster. The case for European integration rests on the recognition of one’s own country’s growing irrelevance. But this simple insight remains a national taboo in Britain. A few important exceptions such as David Miliband aside, it seemed nearly impossible for most English politicians or pundits to say: look, seen from China or Brazil the difference between our country and Belgium is a rounding error; 0.87 per cent of world population versus 0.15 per cent.

Instead the public was fed one appeal to grandiosity after another, helped in no small part by wilful blindness in the media. Had English journalists fanned out across the continent in the months before Brexit they would have found out what the UK is only now slowly discovering: the EU is not an amorphous “block,” but a community of nations, each fighting its own corner. Do 450m EU citizens really want to be “led” by the UK—especially after the Iraq and Libya debacles? Why on earth would EU nations encourage their own Europhobes by giving the UK a sweet deal?

A week of interviews in each European capital was enough to see that the UK would be on its own post-Brexit. But investigations of that kind require a genuine interest in others, and empathy. To be fair, there were excellent reports in among others the Economist and the Financial Times. But the billionaire-owned tabloids and broadsheets were only too happy to continue indulging their readers with the sort of distortions that make the EU look terrible and, by implication, Britain superior: at least we are not “Yurup.” Indeed, the run-up to the referendum felt almost like a public school parlour game “who can think up the most outrageous analogy?” Boris Johnson and his minions went for the Second World War, of course, while the economics commentator of the nominally pro-European Guardian settled for “Soviet Union without a Gulag.”

And so now the English are on their way out of the EU. Everybody in London I speak to, be they “Remain” or “Leave,” assumes I must be sorry to see the UK leave. The truth is, I am with two thirds of Germans and three quarters of French who according to a poll taken in July do not, on balance, consider Brexit a loss. “Leave” and “Remain” supporters also keep asking me almost eagerly when my native Netherlands is next, even though the only Dutch political party to want Nexit polls at less than 20 per cent.

Rather than accepting itself as a country dependent on its neighbours like the rest of us, the English got lost in themselves, and then chose isolation. It will not be splendid.