Brexit: The UK’s Culture Shock Moment?

Matthew MacLachlan

6 Jul 2016

If you remove someone from their closest friends and family, take away their familiar reference points and force them to find a new identity, that person will almost certainly experience culture shock.  It’s a common phenomenon among expatriates that we have a lot of experience in dealing with.

But can the same be said of an entire country?  Is the current antipathy towards Europe a result of Britain’s inability to adjust to new surroundings? Was the recent EU Referendum and the decision to leave the UK’s culture shock moment?

Culture Shock Brexit?

The second half of the twentieth century saw Great Britain lose the remnants of its empire, witnessed its closest neighbours, who had fought each other tooth and nail for centuries, forgive the past and unite to create, first Benelux, then the Common European Market, followed by the EEC and finally the EU.

Along the way, European members voted twice to exclude the UK.  And in 2016, as we considered whether we are part of Europe or an isolated island with our backs to the continent, we are still struggling to find our identity.  As a late joiner to the European party, has Britain been suffering from culture shock?

A Nation of Contradictions

And in 2016, as we again consider whether we are part of Europe or an isolated island with our backs to the continent, we are still struggling to find our identity.

It would certainly explain the independence movements in Scotland and Wales.  It would help us to understand how Britain can have one of the biggest overseas aid budgets in the world but suffer from, what many independent observers call, crippling xenophobia.  We would recognise the irony of proclaiming the “special relationship” with the USA while not-so-secretly despising Americans as uncultured nouveaux riches whom we would love to imitate!

British National Identity – Which One?

The British cultural identity is confused.  We are known for our queues but hate queuing – although we wouldn’t dare rebuke someone who jumped the queue to their face.  We are famous for politeness – and for our football hooliganism.

We insist on punctuality and arriving on time, but have the least reliable transport system in Europe.  ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, but we have a strong group allegiance.  We pride ourselves on having a world class banking system but allowed individuals to borrow beyond their means with the inevitable evictions and human misery.

In any cultural survey, our average score is usually somewhere in the middle.  Based on a mathematical average, the scales cannot cope with the contradiction that is the British culture.  Even the country’s name is a misnomer – we are anything but a united kingdom.

The Odd One Out?

A nation: A group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours (Karl Deutch)

Is there room in Europe for an eccentric cousin, who, wanting to be different, vocally despises the rest of the family, but then desperately wants to feel included and welcomed?  Geoffrey Wheatcroft in his Guardian article quotes the scholar, Karl Deutch’s definition of a nation: “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.”

We define ourselves by looking at other people and noting how we are different from them.  There was no concept of nationhood until religious, linguistic and cultural intolerance consumed Europe in the middle ages (ironically starting with Great Britain).

Until then, peoples of very different backgrounds, religions, languages and cultures coexisted, collaborated, fought each other, lived and died without any desire to form a “nation”.

Overcoming National Culture Shock

And maybe that is how we will find our national identity – by staying a part of Europe and comparing ourselves to those around us and admitting that they are different from us, but that is OK.

Once we are more confident in our identity, we can get around to working out the other contradictions in our culture.  Maybe finally we can start thinking about how to come out of the cycle of culture shock we find ourselves in, and start a cultural adaptation process to learn how to work with ourselves first, and then with the EU.