Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit week begins - it's quite something to pull the rug out from under yourself

For the next week or so I will post interesting insights and observations around the UK's historic decision to leave the EU.

My initial reaction is not one of shock but frustration. Having the rug pulled out from under you is one thing, but managing to pull it out from under yourself, well that is something to behold, a truly bewildering achievement in recklessness.

When looking at the broader landscape in terms of net benefits to UK and EU citizens, I firmly believe the economic argument is in favour of remaining - few economists would disagree. Beyond the economics there was a strong case for unity on the social and political side of things, but it was in these domains where the debate got really heated, and it was in this heat that the facts got twisted.

It's interesting to note that immigration and sovereignty are both issues that have particular psychological characteristics which played very much to the 'Leave' camp's favour. Firstly, both issues generate an 'us against them' mentality. The world over, we tend to hold negative feelings against the 'other'. The 'other' may be a neighbouring country that we make jokes about, a group characterised by skin colour, or maybe a group tied together by a different faith, etc. So long as they have a marker to place them in a foreign group, they can be alienated and we can blame them for some of our ills. Consider the communists and the Chinese in previous times. The threat almost always coming from the outside in. In this debate we had two 'others' - the EU beaureaucrats and the immmigrants. Add to this the ability to put a face to the perceived problem and you're onto a winner. Faces win over statistics everytime. We see documentaries about illegal benefits cheats who come over from Romania, we feel threatened by hearing the immigrants language and their influence on our society, and we see how our neighbourhood is changing for the worse because of the 'other'. I'm not denying any valid truths behind these fears and views, but they do appear to be heavily distorted by a type of availability bias, which was easily manipulated by the leave camp. The positives are harder to bring to the foreground and so are overlooked or underweighted. Narrative and the personalised case carries outsized weight against the statistics. This is why a charity asking for donations to alleviate a famine will focus on the single case instead of the vast, faceless thousands. We connect to the story, not the statistics. Annoyingly the remain camp focused on the fear of leaving instead of focusing on the positive stories, which could have provided the required emotional counter punch to the half-truth claims of the leavers.

The other thing I noticed was that many in the leave camp were deliberately not interested in looking at net benefits but focused on one or two of the issues, and even then the focus was a narrow one. For example, if we take the immigration issue, it is clear that UK will never have full control over immigration unless we want to destroy the economy, simply because this will be a central negotiation point when it comes to agreeing our terms of trade with the EU.  Not only will the EU will have the upper hand when it comes to negotiations but they won't make it easy for us as we have put the whole European project at risk. Many voters seemed to switch off when it came to the 'experts' and expert opinion, deliberately blinding themselves to valid arguments in order to retain an odd type of internal coherence. It's not that they denied the facts, but they chose not to pay heed to them. It's the opposite of paralysis by analysis. Pick your own issues and chose your own facts. Hearts ruled minds and rationalism paid the price. It kind of proves that we haven't come as long a way from the Dark Ages as we like to think. One of the 'Leave' camp's ignorance blind spots, for example, was the absence of any type of substantive answer to the question, 'What will happen if we leave?' It's kind of an important one.

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