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The high stakes of the EU referendum

Four weeks ago we launched the Brexit Divisions project to explore the strategies and stakes of the upcoming EU referendum. Looking back, this is what we’ve learned.

A spectator at the tug-of-war competition put on by the Great Britain Club of Minden, Germany in 2013. Oliver Hallmann/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

There’s a referendum coming.

And as the director of British Future Sunder Katwala has pointed out, it may still be quite a good referendum, too. One that encourages democratic engagement. One that may increase people’s knowledge and understanding of Britain’s place in the EU. One that will pitch arguments against each other and let them battle it out in public to settle a thorny issue decidedly.

But it is not yet.

Sundar Katwala, director of British Future

Intriguingly, in a country where the EU has always been the object of both profound detestation and (somewhat less profound) embrace – not to mention the darling subject of outraged tabloid covers – Brexit leaves significant swathes of the population relatively indifferent. A mere 27% think it is one of the most important issues facing this country at present (YouGov). A staggering 68 polls between September 2015 and March 2016 have shown there is no clear winning camp. And up to a fifth of the population is still undecided.

If there is one thing that most worries observers, then, it is a short winning margin delivered by a low voter turn out. Unsatisfyingly, problematically, it would be akin to “a not proven verdict from a hung jury”, to quote Katwala again.

So what does engage and mobilise voters? How and when can referendum campaigns shift public opinion? Which stories, narratives, facts and fictions shape the way people make sense of EU membership – and thus the choice at hand?

What will shape the referendum campaigns? Key ideas

In our first guest edited week with openDemocracy and at a related public event on Brexit Divisions, we – staff at the UCL European Institute and a number of expert commentators – wanted not only to raise awareness of how pivotal this drawn-out contest will be. We also wanted to offer critical analysis of it by drawing on some of the sharpest minds on both sides of the debate.

Perhaps not surprisingly, despite the wide range areas of expertise the project gathered, a number of key points have emerged as particularly salient. First among them is the extent to which the emotions will be key in this referendum – a not uncontroversial issue, and one with significant implications for political decision-making tout court. Secondly, just as other EU referendums have been elsewhere, this referendum will be much more about Britain, its identity politics, sovereignty, and current political landscape than about its relationship with the European Union. Thirdly, the campaign will hinge on questions of trust: do citizens still trust their leaders, do they feel represented by them, or will we see an anti-establishment mood carrying the day?

Interestingly, all of these three points relegate evidence, facts, and actualities to a second order. Political opinion-formation and decision-making in popular referenda, they suggest, are not just or perhaps not even primarily about the actual issues at stake. Rather, what will make all the difference is how the campaigns can influence voters’ perceptions of these issues. In other words, how they manage to present or “frame” the question at hand. As our co-editor Ece Özlem Atikcan explains, framing occurs when, in describing an issue, the speaker emphasises a subset of (only potentially relevant) considerations – with individuals then focusing on these considerations rather than the actual question at hand when making up their minds. The relevance of this may not hit home immediately, but the consequences are all but insignificant.

Let’s take the three key points in turn.

Emotions and politics

It is no longer radical to say this, but in defiance of virtually the entire history of western political thought, in which emotions were assumed to be irreconcilable with good decision-making and good government, feelings have unabashedly taken centre stage in contemporary politics. Of course, on an abstract level at least, we still tend to assume that any deliberative process should rest on even-handedness, careful consideration, and reasoned discussion. We still fear, as did Aristotle, that the “wild beast” of unconstrained emotion would distort “the rule even of the best men” – that it would give unfairness, uncertainty, and prejudice free reign. And who would wish to be at the receiving end of those?

However, the emotions are enjoying something of a renaissance in our political lives these days. They tend do so in three ways, all of which have particular resonance with regard to the Brexit campaigns.

First, and Laura Cram’s piece serves us a potent reminder of this, it is virtually impossible to create a sense of societal belonging – national or otherwise – without the intervention of empathy, of “entering into the sentiments of others”, as David Hume once put it. Yet if this is already a tall order in an increasingly heterogeneous national society, it is even more so in a multi-level, multi-national union such as the EU. As even the staunch pro-European Jacques Delors recognised drily, people do not tend to fall in love with a common market. Indeed, foreign secretary James Callaghan, overseeing the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership in 1974-75, specifically defined the EEC as a mere “business arrangement”, as Andrew Glencross reminds us. It is perhaps the aspiration to go beyond this that enrages the Leave campaign more than anything else. In any case, Callaghan’s is a sentiment that continues to resonate with voters today, as a tweet we received in response to Laura Cram’s piece made very clear. When it comes to Europe, Britons do business, not empathy:

And yet, secondly, emotional resources are also intimately bound up in decision-making of any kind, political judgements included. From cognitive neuroscience to social psychology, research suggests that sentiments such as desires or fears decisively shape the choices we make. Emotions are particular modes of thoughts, rather than the opposite of thought. The really important question is thus to what extent and under which conditions they may contribute to making just decisions. This is particularly prevalent in the “opinion-based democracies” we live in, as Pierre Kanuty puts it. It is in this sense, and in no contradiction to the above, that Dan Stewart recently argued in The Times that “European membership is chiefly an emotive and not an intellectual argument.”

This, thirdly, plays directly into the question of mobilisation. In campaigns, emotions will trump facts. In order to reach, engage, persuade voters, campaigns need to employ emotive arguments. Not all of course! For the Remainers in particular, as Roland Rudd insists, “rose-coloured glasses” will not do. For that, the EU’s firmest bid for legitimacy in the public eye – the relevance and quality of its performance, or ‘output legitimacy’, as political scientists have it – is simply not in the best place right now. Nor are ‘love letters’ from Europeans likely to do them any good, as our public debaters rather firmly established (the only exception being Kalypso Nicolaïdis’ open letter in these pages, which is such an irreverently wonderful read that it has become the most widely shared of all our contributions).  

What is important however is that the facts are delivered with conviction, vision, emotion – thus the recommendation from former Dutch politician and campaigner Thijs Berman. You simply do not counter anger and frustration effectively by citing a treaty article, no matter how relevant. Instead, powerful language, symbols and optics are what is needed. Former special advisor Ayesha Hazarika concurs, and incisively suggests this is precisely what the Remain campaign most struggles with.

Ayesha Hazarika, former special adviser to Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband.

What is the emotive punch line, the positive case, that could enliven its rational and intellectual argument, make it raw, drive it home? Remain needs to make a case that “speaks to Britain’s heart, as well as to its brains”, to quote Dan Stewart again – uncannily echoing Ed Milliband’s head, heart and soul appeal to Scottish voters in that other referendum not too long ago (more on which here). And it needs to make it clear and concise, in terms that are neither too abstract nor too complex, as Ece Özlem Atikcan and Charlotte Anderson revealed with reference to previous referenda. In contrast, the Out campaign, which is passionately, fiercely convinced, cannot win on passion alone. It needs to draw up a reasonable scenario of what Out would look like. It also, one should add, needs another act of empathy: to convince, the most passionate campaigners need to understand the mindset of the as yet unconvinced.

Mark Wallace, executive editor of ConservativeHome and founder of the Better Off Out campaign.

In this sense, the oft-maligned ‘project fear’ does of course work. It works by conjuring up a powerful emotion that will cause a gut reaction at the moment of decision-making. The uncertainty of what ‘out’ looks like is, after all, Out’s weakest spot. And it does not get better by denial. As both sides recognise, the very public debunking of the other campaign’s ‘facts’ – or uses thereof – can have an unwanted and unintended side effect. Effectively, it shows that one side effectively buys into the other’s ‘frame’. Aiming to debunk ‘Project Fear’ might thus still be a poisoned chalice for Leave. Is it this that has led VoteLeave’s Chief Executive Matthew Elliot to claim, in these very pages, that StrongerIn was not prepared to have a “reasoned debate”? Be this as it may, as Sunder Katwala augurs, banking all on fear will likely not be enough for a decisive win to remain.

An insular debate

We have also heard from campaigners involved in other EU referendums, and these comparative examples seem to confirm that referendum campaigns are rarely exclusively about the actual issue. They are always bound up in the domestic context, influenced by secondary concerns including policy preferences, social anxieties, external events, party politics or charismatic leadership. As our debate has brought home time and again, the UK’s referendum on EU membership is not just about the country’s relationship to the European Union. Rather, as Sunder Katwala put it in the debate (and in his British Future pamphlet), the referendum may be much more closely about Britain: about British identity, about Britons’ vision for the future, and the country’s desired place in the world. In that sense it is a literally an insular debate, one that is predicated – as indeed the Scottish referendum was – on a deep-rooted and historically grounded sense of national exceptionalism (Andrew Glencross concurs).

In other words, to counter Leave’s patriotic case for walking out, Remain needs to make a patriotic case for staying (Rudd). This of course is the downside of ‘project fear’. All too easily, In may be seen to belittle Britain’s capacity and license to go it alone, to play (one might add, somewhat impertinently) with the big boys. As Renaud Thillaye hints, this is effectively Michael Gove’s line: that Brexit would reclaim a British identity that is more acutely marked by its exceptional history of independence, exploration and exploits (including, Gove thinks, the successful export of self-democratic government, prosperity and peace to nations such as India). And more: it is a narrative that seamlessly links popular sovereignty – “radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed them in the hands of the people”, in Gove’s own words – with parliamentary sovereignty and national freedom.

This of course is becoming a core territory of the referendum battle. The French ‘non’ campaign to the constitutional treaty successfully played on an undertone of citizens once again becoming masters of their own destiny (Kanuty). Similarly, the Leave campaign is all about re-taking control from Brussels, returning law-making capacity to the British people (rather: parliament) and holding the law-makers to account according to the chief of Vote Leave Matthew Elliot. It claims nothing less than the reinvention of national democratic sovereignty: of making Britain great again.

The spanner in these works of course is the Celtic fringe argument, astutely pointed out by former Irish MP Joe Costello. This describes the possibility that an overall vote for Brexit, which would overturn “Bremain” majorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could trigger a second Scottish referendum, eventually leading to the break-up of the UK. Given the enormity of the irony this would represent – the potential extrication from two unions at the same time – it remains one of the campaigns’ most fiercely disputed arguments.

A final consideration is the influence of the domestic political constellations of the day, contingent as they may be. With a Conservative party so deeply divided that the contest sometimes resembles a leadership contest, not to mention two rival and publicly opposed Out campaigns, the fact that the Labour party stands relatively united behind the Remain case could make it an extremely important player in the debate. Indeed, it could even make Jeremy Corbyn, its highly controversial new leader, more of a pull or push factor in this than Boris Johnson – a fact the speakers at our public debate rather relished. Being however only a recent, and at this time rather expedient convert to the cause, Corbyn’s lack of personal commitment and the party’s lack of campaign engagement in the more deprived regions of England, fails to breathe life into ‘In’. Add to this the hesitation arising out of Labour’s disastrous experience of campaigning with the government in the Scottish referendum, and we have yet another key factor likely to shape Britain’s most existential vote in generations, which has nothing at all to do with the referendum question at hand.

Trust and representation

On a party political note, then, the final question marking our Brexit debates in these pages and out in the public lecture theatre is the following: to what extent do voters trust and feel represented by those leading the campaigns that are to shape their votes?

Trust is an overburdened term. Some have suggested that trust is key to the secular and political organisation of Europe’s modern societies – not least John Locke, who was the first to define the relationship between (a restricted group of) citizens and their representatives in parliament as a “government of trust”. But today’s democratic institutions are rather marked by ever greater delegations of trust; its reversibility (at the next elections, say); or even by mistrust – represented not only by the vote of confidence, but by an ever growing popular distrust of the political class.

As Pierre Kanuty describes for France, the referendum debate plays on an imagined divide of “elite vs. the people”. Tapping into pre-existing disaffection, the chief executive of Vote Leave indeed accuses the “the establishment” of effectively trying “to drown out those fighting for the best interests of ordinary British people”. This does not need to correspond to actuality: the Eton and Oxford educated Mayor of London, after all, can hardly be called anti-establishment. Yet while people’s instinctive distrust of the elite could be expected to give an exclusively political leadership of the campaign the “kiss of death”, as Joe Costello put it, boldness and charisma may just carry the day. Returning to the image of the radical and liberal citizen throwing off the shackles of unjust authority, even cabinet minister Michael Gove managed to breathe an air of anti-systemic excitement into his decision to campaign for Leave.

And yet, both campaigns worry about trust in the messenger. Most campaigners are university educated, most voters are not. To expand on Ayesha Hazarika’s point, both sides need less men in suits boring people with bean-counting business statistics. But this is not where the representational risks end. Polls suggest time and again that the younger the voter, the higher their preference for Remain. And it is of course the younger generations that have to live with the consequences of a potential Brexit. This has led some to call for a youth-led, ‘call a granny’ campaign, and others to suggest that over 65s, rather than 16 and 17-year olds, should be barred from voting.

What remains the case is that, while the subject is incredibly complex and the decision far-reaching, it remains a challenge to both campaigns to counter voter disengagement. Anger against the political establishment cannot mask uncertainty about an overly complex world, to which some specialist guidance remains a necessity, as Thijs Berman noted. The two points of most concern to voters – immigration and the economy – are heavily contested between both sides. The messages employed on either side do not as yet seem to sway the undecided – indisputably the core constituency of the campaigns – one way or another.

An inconclusive conclusion

There is a referendum coming. While likely called because of political expediency and accident, rather than vision, and while possibly a major political gamble, it could just end up being an opportunity for a healthy public debate and democratic engagement with an issue that has haunted British politics for decades. Right now, however, what prevails is a major sense of uncertainty. All polls suggest that this will be touch-and-go, that a decision with enormous consequences might effectively be won on a whim.

If there is anything we take away from this project then it is that more debate is in order, much more. A debate that is able to tackle the thorny, intricate, unwieldy questions that both sides need to answer if voters are to make up their minds. We haven’t seen that yet. Indeed, at our event the two Chief Executives of VoteLeave and StrongerIn were both meant to be key speakers. Both pulled out less than 24 hours before, citing the sensitivity of the subject. Let us hope they, and the campaigns they lead, will be braver next time.


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