The D Files

The Truth Is In Here

Referendum Post-mortem

It has been a few days now since the UK referendum and although the country as a whole is still coming to terms with it, and the government tries to put a brave face on the chaos that follows, I thought I should try to work out what has happened, at least for my own understanding.

How is it that a fairly liberal Western country in which patriotism is rarely worn on a sleeve took such a sharp turn to the right?  I guess I'm trying to put into context the rage that some Remain voters now feel against Leave voters. Speaking for myself, I didn't feel anger so much as disappointment.  I think as a fairly recent immigrant I took it quite personally and as a liberal and my opinion of Britain as a tolerant and liberal country was shaken.

Since that initial feeling however, my own opinion following the recriminations and reaction over the past few days has been that the so-called lurch to the right does not exist.  In a binary choice people will always have to pick between two choices.  But people are not binary, and their motivations, both rational and irrational will factor in huge variations to arrive at their final choice.  Sometimes people just can't choose and either disengage or flip a coin.  People don't pick a political party or a candidate in a general election because they 100% agree with 100% of that candidate/party's proposals.  So it is with this referendum. 

Who are the Brexiteers? 

I think of those 17+ million who voted Leave, probably a tiny fraction are Euro-phobes - people with a deep hatred or unshakable cynicism of the EU that no argument can counter.  A slightly larger fraction would be people who are deeply Eurosceptic - they don't like the EU in it's current form and don't believe it can change for what they see as the better.  They probably won't be moved by argument either.  Another contingent are the nationalists - who believe that right or wrong the EU has no business interfering with the UK.  Again no argument can sway this because the premise is that the UK can only do what is best for itself if it controls everything itself. Considering that there is some overlap of the three, together I would be surprised if these 3 groups made even 10% of the Leave count. 

Those represent the die-hard Brexit crowd, most likely UKIP and ultra right-wing Conservative supporters.

At the opposite margin are probably 5-10% who made a choice that on balance, all things considered we might be better off outside, but not that much better off and it doesn't make any significant different to day to day life.  I call these the Euro-agnostics.  In between these groups the remaining 80-85% of the Brexit crowd create a spectrum.  Considering the history of this country I suspect the larger bunch leans away from the Europhobe extreme towards the Euro-agnostics.

In the same way of course, not all 16+ million who voted to Remain are all-in Europhiles.  I suspect that the proportions are mirrored almost exactly as in the Leave side - with most people in the middle - believing on balance that it is slightly better to remain in the EU, or Euro-agnostic by and large.

Coming back to the Leave voters, to understand the spectrum, I've been trying to understand the Leave campaign, its message, and the target audience. To my mind there are 6 broad reasons that people might have chosen to vote Leave.  For most people several of these would have been in play and they would be in different parts of the spectrum on individual issues.

I think in all cases though, the hope was for a strong showing of anti-EU sentiment but a loss overall.  Nobody was prepared for Brexit. 

So I think there were 7 Leave motivators: 

1. Genuine evidence-led belief

This must be a tiny, tiny minority.  Most people would not be able to sift through the mountains of data both for and against and come to a conclusion either way.  Even tackling a single issue like sovereignty took the collective experience and knowledge of many constitutional lawyers, and most people are not experts in any of the complex areas of our interaction with the EU.

The vast majority of people would take the opinions of others or their own biases and beliefs.

2. Patriotism

This covers the casual flag-waver to the most rabid jingoists.  This must have played a large part - particularly for older members of society who remember the glory days of WW2 or before.  Others will simply have been carried away by the "Take Back Control" slogans and the vague but enticing language promising a return to the glory of Britain as it used to be before the EU and the Common Market.

We also have to consider the political landscape in which this referendum is being held.  The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are not a Europhiles.  They have spent most of their careers using the EU as a punchbag.  So has most of the political establishment in this country for the past four decades. The atmosphere was toxic even before the starting gun was fired and some of the most Eurosceptic politicians started 'selling' EU membership benefits. On one hand we're too good for the EU and we're being held back and we can be great on our own, but on the other we were told that we should remain because it would be better for Britain.

After decades of blaming almost every challenge this country has faced and is facing on the EU and immigration, the PM tried to tell his supporters that actually we should embrace both - not because it was good for the EU or because we should consider ourselves as European, but from a purely narrow selfish national interest.  We started from a position of British exceptionalism, and from there I think the trajectory was clear.  Remain probably just hoped that young voters would turn out to vote Remain, and that other voters would be repulsed by the UKIP association and fear of the unknown.

I might also add that patriotism allowed the Leave campaign to promote Britain at the expense of the EU.  But it also prevented Remain from promoting the EU because it would diminish or appear to diminish Britain.  So the possibility of worker rights and environmental regulation being reduced after Brexit never became a mainstream message because to do so would imply that an unfettered British government could not be trusted with these matters.

3. Willful or non-willful ignorance

The referendum as an exercise in democracy was a failure and was always doomed.  The issues are consequences are far too complicated for ordinary people to understand.  It's not that people are stupid - well not all of them anyway.  It's that it is impossible to get all the relevant facts and information without a significant amount of investigation and determination whilst most of us hold down regular jobs and get on with day to day life. 

Politicians, economists and academics have the time because this is what they do.  Despite the TV and radio debates and other articles most people - including myself - would never get all the information to make a fully informed choice.  The best that could be hoped for is a basic understanding of the issues and how the two sides approached them. Consider the number of searches online on Friday, the day after the referendum asking "What is Brexit?" and similar queries.  A number of people either didn't vote or voted without understanding substantively what was at stake.

Depending on the attitude a voter started with, and the way TV debates tend to dumb down, you could imagine huge amounts of confirmation bias or confusion.  Some people simply didn't want to hear the other arguments, or dismissed them as "Project Fear".  Others, conditioned by decades of anti-EU rhetoric couldn't believe the Remain arguments. 

Many people acclimatised to a stable mature political system, probably just didn't care to consider - believing that regardless of the outcome, our politicians would make things work and everything would be fine.  I'm still amazed when I hear people say they aren't interested in politics and didn't pay any attention to the referendum until the last minute.  Even the warning from Remain that "Out means Out" and "No way back after Brexit" didn't have an effect either in galvanising the apathetic, or coerce the undecided to seriously evaluate the arguments.

Ignorance and voter apathy had a clear hand in this referendum, and although turnout was high by election standards for this country, only 71% turned out - the remaining 29% were probably the young urban crowd who are just too cool to vote.  I think they cost Remain the referendum. 

4. Put off by Remain campaign

The Remain campaign tried to present a generally technical argument - presenting 'facts' which were actually just projections, based on facts taking in a number of assumptions.  These were cast aside by the Leave camp as scare tactics when they raised negative consequences for Brexit. 

The Leave side didn't even try to offer facts - or where they did, they used dubious figures to direct the discourse to their advantage without any clear plan or mechanism, e.g. directing £350m of EU contributions to the NHS, or getting rid of red tape because 70% of our laws are imposed from Brussels.  Some of these figures were easily disputed, but the Leave campaign kept using them, and repetition became truth - even to the last TV debate the same figures were being used although with vague caveats.

"Take Back Control", "Britain can make it", "Don't talk us down".  As a purely marketing exercise this was exceptionally effective. They didn't try to offer an alternative or figures or anything that could be construed as a technical argument or detail upon which they could be exposed.  They didn't complicate the message.  They knew that their constituency was not interested in detail or explanations. The message was simple and easy to undertand and worked on an emotional level.  On any rational level with a smattering of fact-checking it was obvious that Leave were selling a fantasy: I doubt any of the campaigners like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove believed it and they probably didn't expect many people to believe it either.  Maybe people did, maybe they didn't but it was enough at least for many to give Leave the benefit of the doubt.

Remain were paralysed also because fundamentally it was Euro-sceptics selling the EU.  They couldn't make a good case because they didn't believe in what they were selling.  To effectively capture the pro-Remain voters they would need to highlight strengths and common benefits of the EU and the things it brings to EU citizens that are against Conservative (particularly) ideology.  All Remain wanted to do was highlight Britain's economic benefit in being in the EU.

5. Xenophobia and Immigration

I hesitate to put these together because they are not the same thing. I expect that most Leave voters are not xenophobic (and even fewer are racist) and are only concerned about numbers of immigrants - not immigration itself.  However, the larger than normal number of immigrants at a sustained rate over the past few years has fed xenophobia because the language, even from the PM has been that immigrants are a flood or a swarm, that they are abusing our welfare system and that they not contributing to society - taking but not putting in. 

To tackle the concerns about immigration rationally would mean a discussion about the way successive governments have exploited the issue and also how they have failed to put together policies to tackle demands on schools, healthcare and housing.  So again, Leave campaigners could exploit the matter freely and immigrants became a convenient scapegoat with which to beat the anti-EU drum.  Like most populist movements they successfully dehumanised the issue to a matter of numbers or nationalities - focusing on the potential succession of Turkey and other Eastern European countries joining the EU, whilst saying nothing about the migration crisis caused by war and economic turmoil, or Britain's woeful response to the Syrian refugee crisis and it's shameful obstructionism on the European migrant crisis.

The troubling thing is that the Remain camp - run by the Tories did not want to take on this issue honestly because it was their manifesto to cut immigration.  Yet they did nothing even about the immigration that they could control (non-EU).  Why? Because whether Leave likes it or not, we need the immigration, and Remain could not - would not discuss it because it would be self-encriminating.  For them it was a no-go area.  Leave won this by default.

6. Protest vote about some other issues

The Leave victory has been interpreted as a vote against the establishment.  I can see it partly as that, although I'm not clear about which establishment and what the outcome was meant to be to those who chose to use this as a protest vote.  Was it an actual vote against the EU establishment - the supposed anti-democratic beaurocrats? Was it an anti-austerity vote?  Was it a vote against globalisation?  A vote against capitalism?  Was it a vote against the Tories?  A vote against all the UK mainstream politicians?  It could be any or all and possibly some others.

If it was an anti-EU vote, I think it is a fair view - the referendum was about the EU so I'm not bothered by that - although the reasoning for the protest might be of interest.  To me all the other protest votes come down in the Willful or Non-willful ignorance category. 

Either they didn't understand the nature of referenda or they voted strategically expecting (as most did) that Remain would win and that they would be part of a significant minority and thus grab the attention of whoever it was that they were protesting against.

Referenda are a dangerous idea - they are an example of direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy, where we choose people who are supposedly smarter and better informed than us to make difficult decisions on our behalf).  But the more complex the decision, the less effective will be the decision making.  People can and do make the 'wrong' choice.  Binary referendums are even worse - strategic voting simply doesn't work and the closer the two sides are, the more unpredictable strategic voting becomes.  Referenda are devised on the premise that a well-informed electorate makes a considered decision about the issue and votes honestly in the way they really feel.  This referendum was probably the worst case scenario played out to the world: it was complex, emotive, had huge repercussions that could not be properly foreseen and most people would not be able to understand them sufficiently to make an informed choice even if they had the time - which in most cases they didn't.  I can understand the argument that it should never had been held - and is probably the reason why it hadn't been held until now.

But returning to the protest votes, in actual fact, even if anyone honestly held the belief that the EU and the 'establishment' needed a kicking, a logical assessment shows that such a protest vote is useless - it has boosted the Leave count, and mixed as it is with all the other types of Leave vote is indistinguishable for the protest to work.  Far better to spoil the ballot or simply not vote.  If they were protesting the Tory establishment, they would know that Boris Johnson, an Etonian Bullingdon Club member was poised to become the next PM.  He is as establishment as they get.  They were never going to knock out the Tories and stop austerity because the referendum was not party political.  Leaving the EU is not going to overturn the way capitalism works.  Nor is it going to stop further globalisation.  The EU didn't in the past four decades write the rules of how the world economy is run.  If the EU completely disintegrated, capitalism as practiced today would still be the dominant political and economic force.

7. Curiosity

I think (hope) that this is a minority group.  I read somewhere that someone voted Leave just to see what would happen!  I think this is dangerous (for much the same reason that I said strategic voting doesn't work).  Yes, I also find Leave interesting especially since such dire consequences were spelled out and so much doom and gloom was predicted.  If the experiment could be run in a test tube without consequences for the real world it might be fun.  Unfortunately there are consequences and there is no changing of your vote if you don't like the outcome.

So there you have it, my seven reasons to vote Leave.  Now the UK is full steam heading for divorce from the EU.

Or is it?  I believe that the so-called establishment including Boris Johnson, are now looking for an "exit from Brexit".  Some way to pull the country back into the EU (or at least the Common Market) and get out of delivering the type of Brexit the Leave side were selling in the campaign.

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