Taking the time to grieve?

referendum result

A note about the photo – it shows two Lib Dem activists, Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger, on the right, after the Brexit result was announced. This photo has been published in media around the world; an iconic image of the shock experienced by Remain campaigners.


Grieving is a natural process for dealing with loss. It can be painful. People often also deny reality, which lets us deal with it gradually. Ultimately grief is a healing process which enables people to process losses and move forward in a healthy way.

We’ve had a lot to grieve. Between 2006 and 2015 each local election seemed to bring losses. Some of the compromises of the coalition were painful. The European elections, the General Election and the EU referendum were excruciating.

We shouldn’t let the language of ‘LibDem fightback’ disguise the fact that we have taken a pounding, even as we welcome new members.

Activity is a great way to keep the lid on things, but that isn’t always healthy. I’ve heard suggestions that displacement activity as we tried to escape the losses we had already suffered might have undermined our 2015 election performance. Other areas where we might be harming ourselves include:

  • Diversity:

    Improving our diversity matters for a whole host of reasons. Some of the comments I’ve heard since the General Election about the lack of diversity among our MPs have had a whiff of attacking them for having survived. That’s understandable, but risks undermining our efforts to improve diversity.

  • EU debate:

    Part of me wants to make a strong case for setting aside the referendum because people were lied to and leaving is likely to exacerbate rather than help with the things that led people to vote Leave. The logic is impeccable, but is this just denial associated with grief? The risk is that it gets in the way of us providing a liberal vision for a Liberal future when it’s desperately needed if we are not to end up with those south of the border living in “narrow, insular Little England” (I assume Scotland will leave the UK and join the EU).

  • Voting reform and devolution:

    These both matter, and we’ve been advocating them for years. Feeling stung, it is absolutely natural to want fight familiar battles. I’ve heard people pushing for a general election under proportional representation before triggering article 50, and for really good devolution rather than the botched mess the Tories are offering. Is this grief causing us to call for what is unlikely to happen and making us seem irrelevant? Yet voting reform and proper devolution seem key to healing the wounds of Brexit: speaking out of vision rather than grief means we might actually be heard and make a difference.

  • Over-estimating our chances:

    There have been some exciting by-election results recently. It’s tempting to extrapolate from these to the next General Election, but this would be rash: is the desire another attempt to deny reality? We risk harming ourselves if we are too optimistic and then either resent targeting decisions, or are devastated when a General Election doesn’t produce a breakthrough.

On the morning when we heard the referendum result, I took a risk and sent an email round my local party which named the fact that I had been in tears at the result. It seemed, and seems, important to acknowledge the grief so we could own it and find a place of acceptance and move forward.

It’s been an agonising few years. Yet we have some core LibDem values which the country needs; can we find the confidence to let those values be heard?

If we are heading into a snap election, can we aside our pain to offer the things the UK needs now, rather than the things we would have seen as important if things had gone differently?



* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Diversity is not just adding more white cis abled het women, either.
    A LOT of the party seems to be falling into this trap, especially since we adopted the mechanisms for AWS…

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Aug '16 - 3:53pm

    “Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger , on the right “, the caption about the photo has provided a first !


    This piece is full of positive stuff , for sure ,and yet , the article is well meant , but overblown , grieving is not an appropriate metaphor when we live in troubled times of genuine loss of life from terrorist outrages , nor is it a way to relate to political change when in comparison with personal loss many go through !

    Some on here have likened the situation to a divorce , even this was too much emotionalism for others , but this , grieving analogy is too much , and going too far .

    Our party , at the very moment our country is crying out , not from ,loss but for, common sense , for stability and moderation , for radical and practical solutions to a number of issues , at the point when there is no opposition , and a new prime minister is wanting to reclaim the centre ground , and all some want to do is rerun the referendum again!

    Please could we not become the reverse but same as UKIP, a one issue party divorced not from the EU , but from the mainstream of the lives of people , with loss,not just of our EU status , but of a sense of political reality and priority !

  • Paul Pettinger 14th Aug '16 - 6:15pm

    Think the photo was taken early on when the small margin of victory for Remain in Newcastle upon Tyne was revealed. No idea who the two other chaps are – will have to say hello to them some time!

    Feelings towards the result could lead us to making poor decisions. The feelings and status associated with being on the losing side could be uncomfortable for some, but I think it would be a major mistake for the Liberal Democrats to accept the Brexit decision. Brexit may be highly likely, but it is not certain, and our job should be to help provide leadership to the 48%. They may not always be in the minority, especially once more of the practical consequences of Brexit are felt, while the European Referendum Act arguably requires a referendum on any new treaty with the EU (meaning a second referendum or crunch votes to repeal the Act in Parliament). And even if we still Brexit then the Party’s stance may assist it in gaining relevance and defining it more positively in the eyes of voters with a broadly liberal outlook.

  • I’m very sorry to have to say it but this article is well over the top to anybody who has suffered personal bereavement, to the dreadful tragedy of Jo Cox, and to the shocking terrorist events in France and elsewhere. That’s what real pain and grief is.

    I regret the Brexit vote. I’m contemptuous of the lies that the leave campaign peddled and I have no respect for Johnson B., Gove, Farage et al. BUT…..

    It’s no good this party flouncing off with overstatements which cut no ice with the electorate. What we need is a bit of dignity and a determination to make a pragmatic case for retaining the strongest links with Europe.

    It may be, as the article suggests, that Scotland could go in a different direction. As a Yorkshireman who has lived in Scotland for a dozen years part of me will regret this…. but it is becoming more and more apparent to me that this may be a natural evolution with a more liberal and social democratic Scotland developing in a different direction to a more xenophobic little England. Already there are already sharp difference in the attitude to Europe, to austerity, to local government and the governance of schools, to the health service (and the alcohol issue), and we have a government and local government elected on PR. I don’t want to spend the years I have got left living under a permanent Tory government with more privatisation and right wing notions.

  • David Raw
    You keep peddling this Xenophobic little England idea. England has a vastly larger, vastly more diverse population than Scotland. In truth is it not possible that openness to the right to reside is most popular in countries with much less immigration?

  • Definition of xenophobia : “dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries”.

    Seems a fair description of the Brexit reasons given to vote leave in England…..

    Definition of Little Englander : Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    “Little Englander” is an epithet applied in criticisms of British nationalists, English nationalists, or English people who are regarded as xenophobic and/or overly nationalistic and are often accused of being “ignorant” and “boorish”.

    Seems pretty accurate too.

  • Population of Scotland 5.2 million
    Population of England 53 million.

  • nvelope2003 14th Aug '16 - 9:21pm

    Paul Pettinger : Brexit is far from certain. There is plenty of evidence that those in positions of power are moving every muscle to prevent it and no opportunity will be lost or trick spared to make certain it does not happen in any meaningful way except in some outward form, in the same way that the voting system is fixed to ensure that only two parties have any realistic chance of power in normal circumstances. These things do not happen by chance – oh no.

  • @jedibeeftrix – apologies. We’ve had a puzzling technical fault this evening which it has taken the combined intelligence of the LDV team (well, mainly Ryan) to solve. The posts should appear normally now. Please drop us a line on [email protected] if posts are still disappearing from the home page on your browser.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Aug '16 - 11:55pm

    The population of Scotland , alluded to above , compared to England , is one tenth the size !

    So , how about our party putting our emphasis on the electoral system that gives the SNP more seats by a factor of six or seven times the amount , and more clout in politics, media , and general hot air , morning , noon ,night !

    How about our party putting our emphasis as much on the Democrat , as the Liberal , instead of talk in the past of ditching the word , and coming to terms with being in a new and very uncertain period , that needs democracy more than ever or the voice of people gets further ignored !

    And our party could really start getting noticed , with the support of the Remain voters , because we fight for the most internationalist deal possible , but the respect and eventually , the backing , of moderate Brexiters for being the only moderating influence in an age of extreme nonsense !

  • For goodness sakes get a grip. Nobody died and as one door starts to close, many others are opening. The Remain side lied too, the result must be respected, the form Brexit takes is unknown. As for voting reform, we had a referendum on a system backed by our leaders, we lost that one too. Are we still in denial about that one too. Was that the wrong question too, with voters that were just too thick to understand? Can we think of some more things voters have rejected and add them to our 2020 electoral suicide attempt? The party has to decide whether it wants political influence or be just a theoretical think tank with no electoral ambitions. If the former then some things have to take a back seat. Not forgotten just on hold. Start focusing on the things that really matter like the NHS, housing, transport, sustainable immigration, energy.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Aug '16 - 1:27am

    The AV referendum was on the wrong question. As the then President said at federal conference many Liberal Democrats preferred STV.
    How do you know that “nobody died?”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Aug '16 - 1:36am

    David Raw

    When you rightly said what you did on the article s being over the top , I had said just that and we were thinking in a very similar direction if you read my earlier response to the article, but you lose the plot a little ,with constant allusion to xenophobia , abhorant and increasing , but not the main Brexit stance .We must see England as the melting pot it is much more than the little England you suppose it to be becoming.

    Mark Wright

    Come on here more on this issue and help us generate more support for a balanced approach on this !We must stay true to the spirit of our pro Europeanism and realism !

    Stevan Rose

    We agree on much on this ,and often, see my earlier comments above , just after the article ,for another example . But on electoral reform , though , we must not believe that AV referendum was the end of it , we , as Democrats can fight for a better democracy , and , definitely emphasise all the things some of us , including you , correctly ,keep mentioning .

  • It’s even less likely that the majority of Scots will want so-called ‘independence’ (EU control) now.

  • Jenny Barnes 15th Aug '16 - 8:40am

    I always thought that “little Englander” was a label for those who thought England more important than the British Empire. I think it’s about time we got over the end of Empire.

  • @ Jenny Barnes.

    Quite right, Jenny, the definition of Little Englander has got nothing to do with numbers, and I’m surprised some folk think I need to be told that the population of England is ten times the population of Scotland – I had noticed.

    Little England is an attitude of mind not a question of numbers – and it may have passed by such as Glenn that Scotland does indeed have a diverse population.

    The heart of the matter is what emerges over the next couple of years in the negotiations. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe – my own authority by 2 to 1 and in next door Edinburgh by 3 to 1.

    Five million is a perfectly viable population for a country in Europe.

  • @David Raw

    Do you have a feeling for when we might expect Holyrood to request a second independence referendum?

  • @ Lorenzo Cherin “So , how about our party putting our emphasis on the electoral system that gives the SNP more seats by a factor of six or seven times the amount , and more clout in politics, media , and general hot air , morning , noon ,night !”

    Err,…. no……. it’s a factor of 2 to 1, so don’t exaggerate. As for the Lib Dems – (and I like Willie enormously) – I’m sorry to say they are cutting very little ice up here post referendum. Last week in Ayrshire and in Renfrewshire the party’s vote dropped to a little above 1% in two local by-elections (and in a PR system) – LDV has been remarkably reticent on this.

    We already have PR in Scotland at both Government level and at local government level. The problem with the Westminster voting system is not so much that it over represents the SNP, but that it over represents the Tories. A self governing Scotland wouldn’t have that problem.

    This is a burning issue that the party (in Scotland and in England) needs to tackle before the metaphorical dustbin lorry of history turns up. To my own personal knowledge many of what’s left of the Lib Dems in Scotland feel that. Despite what one poster says, there has been a distinct weather change here post referendum whether we like it or not and it’s time some of you in England took the blinkers off.

    It’s perfectly possible to have a liberal society in a country with a population of five million (indeed it could be easier). One doesn’t have to be in the SNP to understand that.

  • @ John Peters Nicola is very shrewd. She will only do it (despite whatever Westminster might try to assert) when the EU negotiations are over and when she thinks she can win it.

  • David Raw.
    the Little Englander epitaph was coined mainly to describe people opposed to Imperial military actions, most particular to Gladstone’s opposition to the Second Boar War.

    Also in what way is the rise of the SNP not nationalism and not indicative of little Scotlander thinking, which I don’t think there is anything that wrong with. Of course you can have a social democratic country with a small population. In truth it probably does help. What I was questioning was your assertion that England is especially Xenophobic and inward looking in context of the UK when it not only as a vastly larger population than Scotland, but also a vastly more diverse one and a vastly larger global significance. Also why am I supposed to see your whining about the English as proof of open minded liberalism!

  • @David Raw

    It’s not for me to judge the shrewdness of politicians who only call referendums when they think they can win them. 🙂

    The initial post Brexit referendum spike in anti-Union sentiment does seem to have dissipated somewhat.

    As always, however trite, only time will tell.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '16 - 3:11pm

    Interesting article. Grief, and pseudo-grief, can certainly impair objectivity. It can also enable each side of a debate to paint the other as denialist. Well, frankly, people can be denialist about the Holocaust or about climate change – but to call someone a denalist because their view on the best tactical response to Brexit differs from your own is just ludicrous.

    We have some posters above who say we “must” accept Brexit and make the best of a bad job, and others who say we must reject Brexit and fight unceasingly to have it thrown out. There’s no “must” about any of this. To jump one way or the other, simply to wrap oneself up in a comfort blanket of false certainty, would only alienate one half of our supporters or else the other. The national recruitment leaflet now available just says we will “carry on fighting for Britain to play a positive role in Europe”, and that is wise.

    Nobody knows how events will play out. Nobody knows whether ceaseless pressure to maintain necessary European links might eventually lead to a less bad Brexit, or to the abandonment of Brexit. Nobody knows whether ceaseless warnings on the perils of Article 50 might eventually push May to think hard and long before going for it very gingerly, or to think hard and long and never go for it. Let’s keep fighting, and let’s get a grip!

  • So far as I can see Liberal Democrats are virtually the only Party in England that is clearly in opposition to Brexit. Caroline Lucas was a very good speaker in the campaign, but since I have heard little from the Greens. 7/10 Corbyn continues to be pathetic, meanwhile Brexiters continue to snipe at their opponents, yet offer nothing for what is to happen to the UK, its economy and how it can contribute in international affairs.

    Brexit has been deferred to 2017 at least, but without a policy there could be further deferral; as it is the process will run into German and French elections, where ‘let’s not be beastly to the Brits’ is unlikely to be a great vote winner. During all this deferral, uncertainly increases, forward planning stagnates and UK Science will not be winning EU grants, because projects will not be able to give sufficient guarantee of the UK position. In such circumstances, where impending Brexit will be increasingly be cited as a reason for lack of investment and development, support for Brexit is likely to decline.

    Liberal Democrats can stand out as the Party that clearly opposes Brexit both in terms of pragmatic policy and Liberal Principles.

  • @ Glenn, I enjoyed reading your post,

    the Little Englander epitaph was coined mainly to describe people opposed to Imperial military actions, most particular to Gladstone’s opposition to the Second Boar War”.

    One or two small problems :

    1. Which ‘Little Englander’ died ? Was there an epitaph ?

    2. I don’t think w fought wild boars between 1899 and 1902 under the Tory Government – although the German aristocracy (who opposed the Second Boer War) did hunt them.

    3. Mr Gladstone (a Liberal) died in 1898 (having retired as Prime Minister in 1895). He had nothing to do with the Second Boer War, though the Liberal Party was split on the issue.

    4. The use of the term, ‘whining’ is a little disappointing. It does nothing for Anglo-Scottish relations and reduces the force of your comments.

  • David
    How does suggesting you may be a whiner have any bearing on relations with Scotland? I was unaware either of us were that vital to keeping the union together. I never say anything rude about the Scots or Scotland or even Scottish nationalism or for that matter any other large collection of people.. Whilst you consistently make sweeping, usually insulting generalisations, about the English and England. Which is why we keep having variation on these exchanges.
    By the way I support Scottish independence and always have done.

  • @Lorenzo. I had originally wanted to post well said but we’ll have to disagree on voting systems. I think there’s a huge danger of over-promoting a policy that most voters think has been thoroughly rejected. I would probably go for a radical policy to replace the Lords with a chamber elected in a similar manner to the Scottish Parliament and save voting reform for the Commons for another day. In the manifesto but not a highlight. But well said on the other stuff!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Aug '16 - 10:47pm

    David Raw

    You are as often , grabbing at something I say with gusto , missing the point! The SNP does indeed have six or seven times the number of MP s in the Commons , as our party does, but not six or seven times the number of votes !

    Stevan Rose

    You are a gentleman , and thank you , disagreeing with you or you with me , is amongst friends and colleagues !

  • Lorenzo

    I don’t wish to prolong this, but I’m afraid your maths has let you down. You say, ” the electoral system that gives the SNP more seats by a factor of six or seven”. Not so.

    The SNP obtained 50% of the popular vote in Scotland in 2015 and won 56 out of 59 seats. Back in the dark ages In my Grammar School maths class, with or without gusto, 50% of 59 on a proportional basis would be 29 (or 30 with a fair wind). That is a proportion of 2 to 1 – not 6 or 7 to 1.

    Now when I come out of retirement (like Mr Gladstone), I might just make you Minister of Culture but only if you stop exaggerating ……. but Chancellor of the Exchequer ? …. sorry, I will not. Too much gusto in your abacus.

    Don’t count on it though.

  • John Barrett 16th Aug '16 - 10:36am

    As everything that happens now gets blamed on Brexit I am sure that a poor performance in the Olympics would have been explained by a demoralised post Brexit spirit in the team. Happily that is not the case and our team is doing really well.

    One ‘political’ aspect of the Olympic games is that there has been little or no mention (even up here in Scotland) of the home nation status of individual competitors. Everyone appears to proud to be British. Nobody more so than Andy Murray, who has repeatedly said how honoured he was to be the flag bearer for team GB and to win gold for Britain.

    With all the post Brexit discussion it is easy to forget that the people of Scotland also voted to remain part of the UK and that most people in Scotland do not want another referendum on independence.

    I suspect most people in the UK, on either side of the debate, do not want another referendum on the EU and now want to see all politicians working towards a future based on the EU referendum result.

    It is without doubt that both sides lied during the debate, it is pointless now going on about which side lied more effectively.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Aug '16 - 2:26pm

    David Raw

    Thank you for the potential offer of minister of culture , yes , a much better fit than Chancellor of the Exchequer !

    I am not known for exagerating at all. Gusto , for sure , but not that . I think we are at cross purposes . I mean the SNP has six or seven times the number of seats we have in the Commons , which is so , not , as you , correctly point out , or so it seems , for example ,that they have six or seven times what they , the SNP should have !

    I agree with you on many things and disagree with you on some strongly too. But on this you can be always right and me always wrong , except when we are both right !

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