Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Why has Brexit proven to be so divisive?

Referendums are relatively recent innovations in the UK political system and we’re not really used 
to them. They involve voters far more directly in political choices than do UK General Elections.

In the latter, because of our first past the post electoral system it is normal for the winning party to poll less than fifty percent of the vote; since the Second World War the only government backed by more than half the voters was the 2010-15 coalition and that involved two parties. Nevertheless, as long as a government can command a majority in the House of Commons no-one makes much of a fuss and it is allowed to enact radical policy changes such as nationalisation or privatisation, to change criminal and civil laws or indeed to sign foreign treaties such as the one which took the UK into the EEC in 1973.

Note that this acceptance of General Election results comes despite the fact that the majority of voters didn’t vote for the government, whereas in both the 1975 and 2016 EU referendums the majority of voters by definition did vote for the winning outcome.

Note also that all political parties can and regularly do make undeliverable promises and predictions during elections in an attempt to persuade voters to vote for them. To hear some of the post-referendum angst you would think no politician had ever misrepresented the facts before, whereas in fact it is the normal state of affairs and everybody knows it.

A General Election is a very blunt instrument, since countless issues may influence votes and campaigns are usually very diffuse affairs. A referendum by contrast focuses on a single issue which is itself resolved into a single yes/no question. It is a great deal easier to decide how to vote on a single issue than to balance up the various party policies with which you agree and disagree in order to decide which party overall is the best (or least evil). In spite of this no-one ever suggests it’s too difficult for the uneducated to work out how to vote in an election.

You perhaps begin to see that objections are made to the results of referendums which would rightly be considered absurd if made in the context of General Elections. Why is this? I suggest because emotions are much more thoroughly wound up by referendums.

The Scottish independence referendum was, for many who experienced it directly, a profoundly unpleasant and divisive process. It was, in the main, divisive because of the emotions that were in play, not because of disagreements about facts. However much we may rationalize our instinctive position, human beings are strongly driven by visceral loyalties. This quickly turns unlikely allies into ‘us’ while former friends may suddenly become ‘them’. When emotions are involved, rational dialogue flies out of the window and we may resort to strong language to describe people who disagree with us. This is reinforced by modern social media echo chambers in which we only talk to people who do agree with us, while the best we may manage with our opponents is to talk at them and shout louder and use more rude words if they don’t seem to listen. But in General and Scottish Elections there’s always a political choice available to the electorate between parties who do and don’t support independence. Not so with the EU.

By the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate had been denied any say for over forty years as the EEC steadily morphed into the EU and the EU in turn began to transition towards federalism. All major UK parties supported EU membership. They mainly selected candidates who agreed with party policy; hence the House of Commons came to be dominated by those favouring membership. The UK government even signed a rebadged Lisbon Treaty without the promised referendum on the EU Constitution. In short, Eurosceptics never had a chance at any stage to record their objections to the changes in the EU. This built up a great deal of alienation.

So take the emotional and unusual environment of a referendum, heavily season with decades of denial of choice, mix well with issues of identity and democratic principles of self-government, throw in deliberate attempts to stir up emotions on all sides and don’t be surprised when you get bitter division. Naturally this division makes it much harder to accept the outcome of a referendum than the outcome of an election. Before you know it, the losers are demanding another one, just like Scotland.

I strongly believe that a European political class which had a better understanding of the people they governed could have avoided all this unpleasantness and found ways to head off the least desirable EU developments. But elites don’t tend to think that way.