Brexit and Cognitive Biases- Part 1 My Position

Brexit and Cognitive Biases- Part 1 My Position July 1, 2016

I apologise for not posting recently. I have been a little snowed under preparing journal articles and on top of that I have found it hard to focus on blogging about research while the monumental EU referendum and its aftermath have been roiling over my home country. So, rather than continue and just ignore the elephant in the room I’ve decided that discussing ‘Brexit’ by focusing on the bonanza of cognitive biases that have been on display both throughout the campaigns and in responses to the results of referendum. For this first post however I am not focusing on cognitive biases (except to demonstrate my own) but rather staking out my own position.  Feel free to skip this if you have already heard enough people opine on the topic (I wouldn’t blame you with the wall to wall coverage) but I think this is sadly an issue that will not be going away anytime soon…

Photo by Chris Lawton
Not a flag I’ve ever been particularly fond of… and less so now. Photo by Chris Lawton

To begin with stating my position clearly: I was firmly in support of remaining in the EU. Not just because I strongly believe in the integration of the people of Europe as fundamentally a positive thing but also because of the clear mutual economic benefits it generated for the UK and the other EU countries. There was a consensus amongst international and domestic experts and financial institutions that Brexit would be severely damaging to the UK economy and destabilising for global markets and that has come to pass. The Leave campaign also indulged in the worst form of populism: promoting discredited statistics, making promises that were known to be impossible and encouraging xenophobic nationalism. The effects of whipping up such divisive sentiments amongst the population is now starting to emerge with racist and xenophobic incidents on the rise and tangible divisions between leave and remain voters felt in almost all communities across the UK. The Remain campaign was certainly not blameless either and it too made use of questionable statistics and engaged in fear-mongering, such as when David Cameron claimed voting to leave was supported by IS, but compared with the remarkable misrepresentations made by the Leave campaign it was relatively tame. I heard one political commentator describe it as Project Fear (Remain) vs. Project Hate (Leave) and to me that seems a quite fair description.

I am originally from Northern Ireland and was thus keenly aware of the destabilising impact that the referendum could have on politics there but this was mostly overlooked by English media coverage. One serious issue for Northern Ireland is that there are various aspects of the peace treaties signed in the 1990s that ended ‘the Troubles’ which make explicit reference to EU membership and EU legal frameworks. For instance, in the Good Friday Agreement both the British and Irish governments agreed “that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”. The rub here then is that in the referendum the majority of Northern Ireland voters (56%) opted to stay the EU which stands in opposition to the overall majority achieved primarily through votes cast in England and Wales. So if the UK does manage to extricate from the EU then there will be a substantial change to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of its people.

Setting aside the thorny issue of the majority remain vote and assuming that Northern Ireland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK, there are many controversial issues that will not to be addressed. And many of these have the potential to reopen old wounds and stir up sectarian feelings. To give just one concrete example, Northern Ireland currently has no physical border with the Republic of Ireland as free movement of labour is guaranteed within the EU and both countries are members. The existence of an open border has thus served as a viable compromise for Irish Republicans who, despite failing to achieve political unification, have seen the physical barriers between North and South removed. This has proven to have a potent psychological impact as last year, polls indicated only 14% of Northern Ireland’s population wanted to unify with the Republic but that was all prior to this referendum result. Now, there is growing uncertainty about what the implications will be for Northern Ireland and Republican parties are seizing on the opportunity to make a case for an independence referendum and the reunification of Ireland.

The key difference to the calls that are being made now and those made say 10 years ago is that people are starting to listen to them again. To provide some anecdotal evidence : I would estimate that it is probably around 15 years since I’ve heard any of my friends and family seriously discuss the possibility or desirability of unification with the Republic (for context I’m from an Irish Catholic family). But in the wake of the referendum I have witnessed not just the usual suspects of speculative journalists and Republican politicians discussing the topic but also family members, friends and acquaintances from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, many of whom are not particularly politically engaged. Unbelievably, a prominent Unionist politician Ian Paisley jnr. even recommended to his twitter followers that they apply for Irish passports, despite campaigning to leave and having spent his entire political career promoting the view that Northern Ireland is not Irish:

The intricacies of Northern Ireland politics are probably not of much interest to most people, even those in the UK, but my broader point is that the Northern Ireland case is just one example of how Brexit is unleashing a torrent of unintended destabilising forces. And for those of us from Northern Ireland that issues like border control and the possibility of unification with the Republic are back on people’s minds is really not a positive thought as it’s only just 20 years since peace was achieved and sectarian tensions are still simmering.

In addition to all of the broader social and political ramifications, personally, as a researcher at Oxford who works on projects funded by the European Research Council and relies on a decent exchange rate to help support my family while living in Japan, the referendum result is likely to have some direct negative impacts on my livelihood. Yet comparatively speaking, I’m pretty well insulated especially since I live and work in Japan. Rather, it is the people on low incomes in less economically well off regions, which ironically received the greatest amount of financial support from the EU but still voted to leave (see the graph below), that will be hit the hardest if a recession emerges. The right wing policies of the current Conservative government in the UK tend to seek to mitigate economic hardship by cutting various public services used primarily by those on lower incomes.

It’s also worth mentioning that at present, no-one has any idea what kind of deals and agreements will be arranged between the EU and the UK or, indeed, whether the referendum result will actually be converted into political reality. The Conservatives promised to implement the result but, if the economy continues to crash and dissatisfaction with the distortions of the Leave campaign continue to grow it isn’t an entirely foregone conclusion that the UK will actually leave the EU. That might seem like wishful thinking but many people seem to have misunderstood what a referendum is. The referendum actually has no legal force as it was purely advisory and thus could be understood as something like a colossal opinion poll of the population. The fact that various politicians promised to implement the decision doesn’t alter the core fact reality that the referendum result is not legally binding. Yet, it is also true that to ignore the result or to force a second referendum could prove extremely destabilising, as it would risk radicalising a large swathe of the population who already feel excluded and ignored by politicians.

There are now various popular online polls asking for the referendum to be re-run, with the most popular having 4 million signatures, but that figure is still dwarfed by the 33 million who did vote and polling suggests that around 60% of the public don’t want a 2nd referendum. There are many countries in Europe where referendums are re-run multiple times, but the UK isn’t one of them. Indeed, there has only ever been three UK wide referendums: on whether to join the European Economic Community in 1975 (majority in favour), on a proposed change to the existing voting system (majority against) and this on leaving the EU. So I don’t hold much hope that this result will be overturned but I do anticipate that there will be many further choices to make, which could include a further referendum to address whether or not to accept the potential exit deal that is negotiated. The thought of that also does not fill me with any hope as there is no sign that populist pandering and blatant misrepresentations are falling out of favour with most of the UK political elite.

The situation is continuing to evolve on a day to day basis and we have witnessed in recent days seen the leader of the Labour opposition party face an overwhelming vote of no confidence by 75% of Labour MPs but vow to remain on, while Boris Johnson, the ex mayor of London and one of the key leaders of the Leave campaign, just yesterday declared that he will not be standing as a candidate to be the next prime minister despite being the odds on favourite to win. In short Brexit has unleashed political and economic turmoil in the UK and, from my perspective, has damaged and diminished the reputation of the UK across the world. One need only look at the figures cheering the Brexit outcome (Putin, Trump, Marine Le Pen…) to recognise that this is not an outcome that bodes well.

Hopefully from the above my position on the fiasco is clear. I’m happy to discuss any alternative views in the comments but in the next post I’ll be moving on from my personal views to address the remarkable role that cognitive biases have played in the Brexit story.

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