Mayvin Brexit

Brexit: the EU Referendum as a participative event

Mayvin Associate Sue Belgrave explores the EU referendum as a participative event.

“Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented as though we were starting from scratch when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing options. What we dream of is already present in the world.” – Rebecca Solnit

Planning and delivering a large scale participative event has a seductive energy which can easily result in scant attention being paid to ‘what needs to happen next’ with serious consequences which may even ‘risk the farm’.

After Brexit, which can be viewed as an ill-conceived and not well executed participative event, people are now divided; the majority supported a view which was not aligned with that held by the leadership team.

Within that majority there were three distinct groups; those who held long-standing in principle objections, those who opposed the leadership position on specific and pragmatic grounds, and those who are on the margins: dispossessed and disengaged and who used the opportunity to powerfully protest against the whole system. This last group is likely to prove to be the hardest to reach.

A passionate minority supported the leadership team but the decision was taken to respect the majority view. Now the leadership team has two immediate responsibilities;
to ‘keep the buses running’ and to ‘contain the anxiety in the system’.

This is complex. The system took a while to get into this fix but the old order has been disrupted; it’s going to take a while to realign. What the leadership team does will impact the realignment.

What needs to happen next? What might be the options for the leadership? The leadership team needs to:

  • Create a holding position ‘to keep the buses running’.
  • Be honest in acknowledging the lack of understanding of what was going on in the system and avoid token gestures.
  • Begin a process of listening (not talking) and to begin it now. This is not a one-off: this is a big commitment which may lead to a major cultural shift and maybe even a rethink of values. There may not have been enough thinking about the inauspicious event which created the current turmoil and it’s important to learn from that. This new listening process will needs some long hard thought if it is to make a difference.
  • Identify representatives (ask for volunteers or elect people) who may join in working out the way forward and engaging those who are currently disengaged.
  • Rebuild trust in the system, and for the long term, there is no quick fix.
  • Look for things which might represent a common cause for all parts of the system.
  • Establish a mechanism for regularly communicating what is going on even when nothing is going on.
  • Read Barry Oshry’s book “Seeing Systems” for its elegant explanation of what it’s like to be a Top/ Middle and particularly a Bottom in any system.


Red Flags to look out for: things that are not going well

  • Signs of antagonism or increasing intolerance between those who have opposing views.
  • Disengagement of those who supported the leadership position.


Things to feel optimistic about

  • The possibility of a society with less inequality and more mutual respect and understanding emerging.


How is the Brexit story unfolding so far?
Well the ‘buses are still running’ and as far as the other options are concerned perhaps those are truly down to us. Maybe this is the moment when we, as individuals or in our communities, in whatever way we can, have to step up and work to create the society we want to live in. It’s not about waiting for ‘them’ to sort it out: it’s down to us.

by Mayvin Associate Sue Belgrave

Read Sue Belgrave’s first blog on the topic: Brexit as a Large Group Intervention