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Dropping the ‘B’ bomb: whatever you do, don’t mention Brexit.

This week I was running a workshop with a very nice group of people from the British Army, when I accidently mentioned Brexit. I didn’t mean to, it just slipped out. The moment the word puffed into the room, 35 people in front of me went through the following.

  • Okay this talk just got way more boring.
  • Oh which side is she on? The right side the wrong side?
  • Can we please talk about…anything else, anything at all?!

Well that’s what I assumed they were thinking… so I did some quick back-peddling, repeatedly saying “whatever side of the debate you’re on”, and went back to the seemingly less controversial topic of abortion and hoped the moment would pass, and everyone would be far too polite to mention it.

How did the UK’s relationship with Europe – a deep world of customer agreements, trade tariffs, visa requirements and other arcane policy, become so toxic a topic that it cannot even be spoken of, its name ‘tabooed’ in fear of a clutch of death eaters¹ apparating into the room at its mere mention?

One of the characteristics of social (or political) systems that work for the few and not the many, is that certain views and voices come to dominate at the expense of others; and almost always these voices and views are at the extremes. Brexit has become a battleground of the extremes, and in the UK the moderate, confused and curious have retreated to safer(?) political ground rather than tread in these dangerous waters, shifting focus to other issues such as inequality, mental-health and climate change.

While this retreat may feel like both a relief and good judgement (really, global climate change makes Brexit look about as important as the debate over weekly or fortnightly bin collection) this retreat leaves the extremists in charge. To tackle complex problems (like Brexit) we need more confused uncertain conversations about Brexit; we need to reclaim it from the extremists who peddle certain doom for those on the wrong side (not their side) of the debate – we need to be allowed to talk about it as we would something as real and important and complex as the weather or abortion.

So, fair warning – maybe next time I am talking about tackling complex problems, about what it takes to change systems I’ll let the Brexit word slip out…or maybe I should just stick to the safer ground of global climate break down.

¹ Note – for those less familiar with Harry Potter, this all means ‘really bad stuff.’