In a series of editorials where leading writers are free to say what they want under a pen name, our anonymous columnist Little Bird writes about the failure of Brexit. 

Groupthink is a word worth remembering. It describes the phenomenon in which decision-making groups come to value a harmonious membership of the team and cohesion to its norms, above the quality of its decisions, and end up defeating their own object. It may seem a rather dusty, academic concept with a worrying Orwellian ring to it, but once you know about it, you will see it occurring constantly around you, and it explains many things that do not go well in the way our lives are managed.

In his book on the concept, published originally in 1972, Yale psychologist Irving Janis described the phenomenon as it arose at a clinic offering support groups for people who wished to give up smoking. Janis wrote that one group at the clinic developed a view that the best way to give up a heavy smoking habit was to cut down gradually over an extended period of time.

At a certain point, however, one member the group took issue with this and said he had, in fact, succeeded in stopping smoking completely since joining the group. He felt that others might also achieve the same. To the surprise of Janis, rather than celebrating his success, the group began to gang-up on this man and criticised him for deviating from the agreed approach. Eventually, unable to resist the collective pressure, the rebel folded and declared that he had started smoking again. He was applauded enthusiastically for returning to the fold. Janis pointed out to the group that resuming smoking seemed fundamentally at odds with their purpose. However, the group could not see it and simply reiterated the shared view that cutting down gradually was the only acceptable approach.

This is groupthink at work. The group had only one reason to exist, but the abiding need to be embraced by one’s fellow members, and to reject any threat to their cosy sense of solidarity, had taken precedence. Once such a consensus is established, glimpses of an alternative reality cause the members painful cognitive dissonance, reduced by shunning such challenges. As it frequently does, this led to very questionable decisions being taken.

As Janis pointed out, groupthink is a common problem in the political context. Being a member of the Cabinet for example, or a local council committee, presents a clear risk of falling into this trap. The sense of being part of a privileged group, a special and important club, is valued above the quality of its actions. US President John F. Kennedy’s White House features in Janis’s analysis for the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. By contrast, the same government’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year avoided the groupthink pitfalls by allowing dissenting voices to exist within the group, moderating the tendency to overestimate its own capabilities.

Groupthink in the 21st century

The concept is usually applied at this kind of level – the committee, boardroom, and so on. However, in recent times it has felt like the UK has suffered something very like groupthink in the context of Brexit.

More than any other modern political issue, at its heart Brexit became a question of tribal loyalty. The sense of belonging to one side or the other, and the commensurate rejection of all ideas and evidence that challenged your tribe’s consensus, overwhelmed all reason.

There were disagreements over the economic analysis and disputes over the social benefits or disadvantages, but the Brexiteer/Remainer divide was based on more than mere difference of opinion. Most of those in one camp utterly rejected those in the other, and friends and families found themselves deeply divided by the distinction, more than by traditional party loyalties. In fact, agreement over Brexit could bridge old partisan divides, creating common ground between Labour and Tory voters who would never have seen eye-to-eye in the past. It even provided PM Boris Johnson’s Red Wall of support, from Labour voters in the north, and from families who would have died before voting Tory in the past.

Such was the strength of the groupthink in each camp that normally tolerant Remainers would fall into another groupthink trap and stereotype their enemies, rejecting them as ignorant racists to a man, unable to see any justification for their sense of disenfranchisement. Perhaps even more blinkered, Brexiteers rejected any argument from Remainers, no matter how well-founded or supported by expertise and evidence, as being ‘Project Fear’, even rejecting expertise per se.

The nonsensical idea that Remainers were pretending that Brexit was going to be a disaster for some never-explained mysterious reason, while really knowing it would not, became the groupthink rallying cry of those wanting to leave the European Union. Anyone espousing arguments in favour of remaining was slated by Brexiteers on social media as a ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’, linked somehow to a weedy ‘snowflake’ culture incapable of seeing the UK’s strengths. Insults based on prejudices and simplifications flew in both directions in one of the bitterest periods of political dispute in our recent history.

Groupthink was also evident at the organisational level among the decision-makers of both campaigns. The Remain campaign, led by Prime Minister David Cameron and his team, clearly underestimated the strength of their opponents, another feature of groupthink. Instead of seeing the scale of the threat, he and his colleagues enjoyed the comforting fiction that his own supposed credibility as PM and some dry economic arguments would overcome decades of denigrating the EU by the Tory Party and its media supporters. As a result, Cameron never really put sufficient effort into his negotiations with the EU and the campaign never really found its rhythm or an effective strategic direction.

On the other side of the battlefield, the Brexiteers wilfully donned blindfolds and stuffed their ears to promote the view that their confused mix of ideas about the enormously complex job of leaving the EU would magically form into a coherent plan with no meaningful difficulties to hold it back. Leaving the single market would cost nothing in lost trade. Countries would line up to do huge trade deals with us. Our status as a global power would be restored. Masses of additional paperwork would not cause queues at ports. Completely re-writing the country’s laws would in no way overwhelm our governmental systems. Having to duplicate the EU’s regulatory system on our shores would reduce red tape, not increase it. Blocking immigration would have no detrimental effects on economic growth. The EU would roll over and grant our every wish because Germans want to sell us their cars. Nothing to fear here, not in the bold, patriotic Brexit gang.

Extreme loyalty to the cause, no matter what

The lack of reason inherent to this way of thinking meant extreme loyalty to the cause and became the predominant value in the Brexit tribe. It has also dominated that tribe’s management of the country since the referendum. The capacity to follow (without questioning) the Brexit leaders, and to spout the consensus of falsehoods and fantasy they chose to promote, became the ticket for a job in a succession of Brexit-dominated governments. If your team depends on a complex delusion for its legitimacy, you cannot afford to have dissenting views being spoken aloud, undermining the very thing your power depends on. The emperor’s nakedness cannot be revealed by members of his own entourage before the child in the crowd has even commented. Consequently, competence to perform a role or solve policy problems has been far less of a priority and the impact has been obvious to see, which means the tendency towards groupthink has continued to affect issues well beyond Brexit itself.

As time has passed since the referendum in 2016, the difficulties of sustaining this groupthink without reality breaking through have become greater and greater. The Covid pandemic offered a useful smokescreen for a couple of years by providing a convenient all-encompassing scapegoat for problems that might otherwise be attributed to Brexit.

Now that the smoke has started to clear, there is mounting evidence that the UK is suffering more severe problems than necessary as a result of the economic consequences of leaving the EU. Last month, for example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that the UK’s growth in 2023 will be worse than any other country in the G20 apart from Russia, a country bearing the load of an unprecedented level of international sanctions. This illustrates that we have, in effect, sanctioned ourselves but the national groupthink prevents us from admitting this.

Such is the self-deceit that the short-lived PM Liz Truss stood outside Number 10 and claimed that her top three priorities were growth, growth and growth – while refusing to acknowledge the obvious illogic of maintaining this position while inserting trade barriers between yourself and your largest local market.

Unfortunately, we now all belong to the group, willingly or not, where the consensus view is that the decision was taken, has majority support from the public, and cannot be reversed. Moreover, where evidence arises to show it was a mistake, we seem driven to find other ways to explain it or excuse it, as long as we do not endanger the supposed Brexit consensus and return to the disharmony of 2016.

The longer we persist with this, the more the damage will be done. For example, on December 31, 2023, under the Government’s Retained EU bill, more than 4,000 EU laws will be revoked in one go, punching a hole through our legal system and leaving chaos in its wake.

Trade unions have described this as a “countdown to disaster”. Legal experts say it is reckless and even the Government’s own assessor has said the law is unfit for purpose. Yet, the amount of coverage given to this time bomb is barely noticeable. Some readers may remember Y2K, another ticking time bomb, at the start of the millennium. That turned out to be a false alarm but reports on it flooded the media. This time, the Brexit groupthink blindness means the topic is kept in the shadows.

The question is, how long must this continue? What will it take to burst the groupthink bubble? Do we have to wait for a whole generation to pass in order to put this behind us? If we are going to resolve our crises, these are questions we must answer as soon as possible.

It is time to stop being afraid of the debate and the differences of opinion and face the reality: Brexit did not work.

By Little Bird