The conceptual paradox of trusting in Brexit

What the UK government is asking for is not trust but blind faith – literally like turkeys knowing they will be on the Christmas menu with some choice in the various permutations of vegetable.

Volker Patent
19 December 2018


Turkey! Flickr/ MyLifeStory. Some rights reserved.

Following the debacle of seeking concessions in Europe when it was apparent that parliament would not support her Brexit plan, is increasingly leading to calls for a second referendum. Theresa May is rejecting this proposal despite cabinet ministers joining the growing chorus.

The argument for denying a second referendum is that this would be a breach of trust against the electorate. The official government response to a petition on the parliamentary petition website similarly states: “The British people must be able to trust in its Government both to effect their will and to deliver the best outcome for them. As the Prime Minister has said: “This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took. In upholding that directive to withdraw from the European Union, the Government is delivering on that promise.”

The idea of trusting politicians may elicit wry smiles. However, such a response provides little intellectual satisfaction and does not engage the government’s call for trust at face value. There are still unresolved questions about the underhand manner in which the Leave campaign engineered a leave outcome to the first people’s vote, and one of its leading proponents, Boris Johnson is currently being taken to court over making false claims with the intent to deceive the electorate.

The court did not hear the case against Aaron Banks, but as the inquiry into Cambridge Analytica has highlighted, electoral distrust in the remain cause was engineered by targeting psychologically volatile voters to change their vote on Election Day. There are some profound questions relating to the standards practised by politicians particularly but not exclusively on the leave side. The incompetent manner of the previous Brexit secretaries, Davies and Raab also pose questions about competence and just how trustworthy the current set of politicians involved in Brexit are. Some might suggest the above provides sensible reasons for not trusting politicians with Brexit.

What does trust psychology say?

Trust psychologically is about the suspension of doubt in the context of uncertain and risky decisions. It is defined psychologically as having the following three aspects (Dietz, 2011):

1. A confident expectation that the recipient of trust will deliver a positive outcome, or at least not a negative one.

2. A willingness and decision to be vulnerable in a situation of risk, in which outcomes are uncertain.

3.  A demonstration and expression of trust through a commitment to risk-taking behaviour – trust as an action.

Theresa May is asking the public to place trust in her government's handling of Brexit. However given the emerging realities of both her Brexit deal and a ‘Hard Brexit’ it is clear that both lead to adverse outcomes, at least economically, including the dreaded backstop, loss of any ability to influence the EU while at the same time taking rules. One can, therefore, be confident that the government as the recipient of trust would deliver a highly unfavourable outcome and on that basis, trust in the government's Brexit plans would seem to be wholly misplaced.

For people to be willing to become vulnerable involves a choice. Theresa May’s stance of her Brexit or hard Brexit is at best a Hobson’s choice and not really a choice at all. For remainers neither of these choices are palatable and for leavers to have to choose between a ‘vassal state’ Brexit and a hard Brexit does not give them any options either.

Furthermore, outcomes of both forms of Brexit may be uncertain, but it is highly likely neither will lead to the prosperity and ease of future trading arrangements that once formed the economic rationale for Brexit. What is certain is that there will be varying levels of adverse impact, with Hard Brexit leading to the most disruptive outcomes.

Once either form of Brexit occurs people in this country will no longer have any choice as to the consequences, and so they cannot be said to be genuinely willing since the effects will be inescapable for most people in the UK for generations.

Many voters (especially those below 18 years of age at the 2016 referendum) did not have a say in the decision that will impact on their livelihoods.  On these grounds and the lack of choice involved in being willing, what the government is asking for is not trust but blind faith. It is literally like Turkeys knowing they will be on the Christmas menu with some choice in the various permutations of vegetable.

Finally, the demonstration and expression of trust through a commitment to risk-taking behaviour (e.g. Brexit via May’s deal or Hard Brexit, cannot be assumed from the 2016 referendum). It is not clear what the will of the British people is at this stage. A second referendum would enable the public to demonstrate said commitment and only then could one consider that the public is placing trust in the government to push through either its negotiated deal or a hard Brexit contingency plan.

The problem with asking the public for trust is that it is an impossibility on the grounds above. Moreover, research shows that political trust in OECD countries is at its lowest for generations (Only 42% of people in OECD countries trusted their governments last year, OECD 2017). Austerity, nepotism scandals, mismanagement and betrayals of promises line the path to the election of despots and of divisive identity politics in Europe as elsewhere. The consequence of Brexit will be felt by people who have no means to buffer themselves against the effects and will perceive Brexit as yet another betrayal. Brexit in itself is a product of failed political trust and will only accentuate the escalating spiral of distrust that has engulfed British politics. 

Repairing trust?

To repair trust in the political system is likely to be difficult if not impossible.  High political standards should be expected from all politicians and need to be protected. Rogue politicians such as Boris Johnson should not be condoned and instead be held to account. A government can also build trust by acknowledging that Brexit was a reaction to austerity, but its implementation will very likely lead to more hardship.

Any remainer rhetoric needs to be supported by deep investment in services and communities as well as accessing European funding for deprived areas. While there are many problems with EU governance, Britain could have a role on the main table and be part of efforts to transform the EU rather than to sit on the sidelines, with little influence or power. 

We should also demand that media provide more balanced coverage and to protect the public against fake news and biased reporting, particularly in the tabloids, the Sun, the Express and Daily Mail. It is not acceptable to tolerate the media’s abuses of their privileged position and to exert undue influence over a country’s politics. There has been a quiet acceptance of kingmakers in British politics by politicians who often rely on press coverage to undermine political opponents.

Finally, Theresa May and her government's invitation for voters to place trust in their handling of Brexit is a request for abdicating responsibility to a process over which people will have little control. With trust so low historically they might as well be asking us not to distrust themselves instead. Fundamentally they know the outcomes of any form of Brexit will be so bad that any rational analysis will highlight these shortcomings. To wrongly suspend our misgivings – that is why they need our trust. 

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