Brexit Referendum: Positive Principle, Destructive Discourse

The grey man of politics, Sir John Major, was on the Today programme last week railing against the big bag of soundbites that has been opened by the Leave campaign in the run up to the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.[1] He then proceeded to inform the supporters of a British exit from the E.U. that if they’re so concerned with undiluted sovereignty then they can find it in North Korea. Soundbite much?![2] Putting aside the argument that sovereignty and isolationism are not the same thing (and the distinct likelihood that North Korea is influenced by a large, powerful, and economically significant neighbour anyway), let’s just add this to the long list of ridiculous rhetoric that has been spouted by both sides in the debate. Previous entries on that list include Michael Gove’s claim that voting to remain in the E.U. would mean being ‘hostages locked in the back of the car driven head long towards deeper E.U. integration’,[3] George Osborne’s clear-as-mud claim that every family in the U.K. will be £4,300 a year worse off if the country leaves the E.U.,[4] and Nigel Farage’s incomprehensible waggling of a U.K. passport whilst arguing that a major reason for leaving the E.U. is to reduce sex attacks by foreigners.[5] Blimey, it’s even enough to get bureaucrats to emerge from their smoke-filled backrooms and start commenting.

So why do the politicians insist on talking like this? Well, it’s all part of ‘project fear’, which is something that both sides like to claim the other lot are engaged in. And both sides are right. The referendum debate has, to a large extent, become a game of one-upmanship in which the campaigns compete to promote the most lasting fear in the electorate. And, from their perspective, it probably makes sense to do so. Both sides have political advisers, campaign managers, and strategists who are aware that the fight probably isn’t over the roughly 40% of voters on each side who’ve already made up their minds.[6] Rather, it’s over the 20% in the middle, of which approximately three quarters say they don’t yet know which way they’ll vote. That 15% or so of the electorate probably contains plenty of people who we might call cautious, or even conservative (emphasis on the small ‘c’). They don’t want to decide which way to vote until they feel comfortable that they’ve got enough information, or at least a good reason for their decision. This means that if one side can successfully populate the public narrative with more reasons why things will be worse if the other side wins then they may well be home and dry. This, I think, is what happened in the Scottish independence referendum; the ‘no’ side made a more convincing (and louder) case that the economic risk of breaking up the U.K. was too great. Thus, those who waited until late in the campaign to decide their vote were more likely to oppose Scottish independence.

And how did the ‘no’ side manage to make their case more convincing? Well, in part, they got more ‘respectable’ voices to make it. Lots of economists, business leaders, and consultants releasing reports about, and estimates of, the potential costs to the Scottish economy of breaking away from the U.K., which is a trend that’s being replicated in the current referendum campaign. This will, I think, benefit the Remain campaign. Not only do they have more famous and more establishment politicians on their side, but they also seem to have more economists and business leaders too. And the thing about those cautious, or conservative, voters I mentioned is that they are the people who are most likely to be swayed by economists and business leaders, or ‘respectable’ voices. So, as we approach the referendum on the 23rd of June, I think we’ll see more of those undecided voters coming out in favour of remaining. They might take it right down to the wire, but I suspect they’ll swing it for staying in. This is the first, and most important, advantage that the Remain campaign has. On top of that, they also benefit from having government resources[7] and, I suspect, more money on their side, and they seem united in comparison the competing Leave campaigns.

So, is it all doom and gloom for the Leave campaign? No, I don’t think so. To my mind, they’ve got four things in their favour, which are, from least to most important: protest votes, committed supporters, media narratives, and demographics. The first of those is the counterpoint to the observation that the Remain campaign’s establishment status will sway cautious voters. On the flip side, it might inspire a backlash, though I suspect that the overall effect of looking ‘respectable’ will benefit Remain. Second up, the committed supporters extend from campaigners to voters; people who are opposed to E.U. membership seem to be more passionate than those who support it. This makes them more likely to turn up to vote and, potentially, to convert others to the cause. Still, in the same way that being ‘establishment’ may alienate some from the Remain campaign, being too passionate may alienate others (and, perhaps, particularly those cautious voters I keep going on about) from the Leave campaign. Third, on the press narratives front, many years of anti-E.U. articles in a lot of the major daily newspapers is part of what led to a referendum in the first place. Still, the press is often self-interested when it comes to public opinion and, if it looks like Leave isn’t a sure bet then they might hedge their bets. So, if the first three points don’t definitely favour Leave then it comes down to demographics, which is the big plus for them. It’s well known that opposition to E.U. membership is stronger amongst older people and men, and that those people are more likely to vote (or at least claim that they will). However, assuming that the polling companies have addressed the problems that underpinned last year’s general election polling miss, their results suggest that the two sides are pretty much neck and neck. This is even after weighting to account for demographics.

If even the benefit of having older (male) supporters doesn’t bear fruit for Leave then it comes down to those cautious undecided voters, who are the main targets of the ongoing rhetoric of fear on both sides. It’s sad that it’s come to that because, I think, having referendums on significant issues (especially constitutional matters) is a positive principle. It’d be great to figure out a way to engage in a less destructive discourse around such votes, but I still think that it’s good to have a discourse that will feed into a popular decision. It’s not the only way to do make such a decision, but it’s one, and it’s appropriate for some occasions. So, the two campaigns will keep banging their rhetorical drums. Remain’s drum is a bit bigger and more impressive but Leave’s drum is being beaten more frantically. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of the contest will be but, on balance, I think that the advantages of the Remain campaign will outweigh those of the Leave campaign. Indeed, if the trends of the last five years are anything to go by, the U.K. will still be part of the E.U. on the 24th of June, and for some years to come.


[1] I originally wrote this post for a foreign-language blog but, alas, they couldn’t get a translator so I’m sticking it up here now instead.

[2] And my repeating it here undermines any claim I might make to disapprove of soundbite politics.

[3] Putting aside the second part of the sentence, it’s the choice of language in the first half of the sentence that one might consider to be a bit over the top.

[4] As I understand it, the claim was predicated on a predicted decrease in the future growth of the U.K. economy if the country leaves the E.U. and, I must say, I’m baffled by why anyone would take a long term economic projection with anything less than a big pinch of salt. There were lots of assumptions involved in making that claim, and we don’t know if they’ll hold in reality.

[5] Incomprehensible because I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of waving a U.K. passport around whilst talking about sexual assault gave the intended impression. Also, and much more importantly, evidence suggests that most sexual crimes are committed by people known to the victims.

[6] Though shouting their respective messages probably won’t undermine the support they’ve built up so far.

[7] Hence the Government’s booklet in support of the U.K. remaining in the E.U. which did seem somewhat unfair to me.

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