The EU referendum result was a seismic moment for the UK, but how long will it take before acceptance of Brexit sets in, asks James Sproule
The European Union referendum has been an event like no other. The decision dominates thinking and actions across the political and business landscape. Looking ahead, we have to realise that the situation remains fluid. In order to enhance our understanding, it is useful to consider how leaders and broader populaces are likely to react psychologically.
In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a model explaining five stages of grief. She was exploring the idea from the point of view of an individual’s crisis: the loss of a spouse, or diagnosis of a terminal disease. But the lessons of this analysis have considerable relevance today. Examining these five stages and their relevance to the Brexit vote we can assume
Denial Many people could not believe the UK would vote to leave the EU, or indeed now that we will ever actually quit. They sincerely believe parliament will overturn the result. Anything is possible, but this remains unlikely.
Anger At some point denial is no longer sustainable. The resulting frustration leads to anger, directed in particular at the politicians seen as being responsible. We must realise there is also going to be a huge amount of anger aimed at those same politicians from the rest of the EU, in particular from our closest friends (northern Europeans). The UK was a force for economic liberalism and a less liberal EU will be a less comfortable place for our friends.
Bargaining The third stage involves the hope that the calamity can be avoided and promises are made that past behaviours will be changed. Perhaps the UK will opt for some form of associate status; perhaps the EU will make a grand gesture that addresses British concerns. In the Kübler-Ross model this bargaining comes to naught.
Depression The bargain does not work, leaving many people to wonder, “Why bother with anything?”; despair takes over. People may become silent, mournful and sullen. The risk here is that if business leaders are in despair, recession is that much more likely.
Acceptance Finally, people embrace the inevitable future. Kübler-Ross found that often the people most affected by a crisis were among the first to accept its consequences. If this is true, it may well be that the UK arrives at an emotionally stable point where they can take calm, retrospective views before the EU as a whole accepts the new realities.
How long will it take for an event of this magnitude to pass? A period of weeks seems a hopelessly optimistic expectation. With luck, at least some people will reach acceptance in the coming months, while for others nothing less than years has to be the realistic prospect. Remember, this is a process, and heartfelt convictions of today will slowly evolve.