Friday 12 January 2018

Do you really want another referendum? Be careful what you wish for

Many people in my Twitter timeline have been calling for another referendum on Brexit. Since most of the people I follow regard Brexit as an unmitigated disaster, one can see they are desperate to adopt any measure that might stop it.

Things have now got even more interesting with arch-Brexiteer, Nigel Farage, calling yesterday for another referendum. Unless he is playing a particularly complicated game, he presumably also thinks that his side will win – and with an increased majority that will ensure that Brexit is not disrupted.

Let me be clear. I think Brexit is a disaster. But I really do not think another referendum is a good idea. If there's one thing that the last referendum demonstrated, it is that this is a terrible method for making political decisions on complicated issues.

I'm well-educated and well-read, yet at the time of the referendum, I understood very little about how the EU worked. My main information came from newspapers and social media – including articles such as this nuanced and thoughtful speech on the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership by Theresa May. (The contrast between this and her current mindless and robotic pursuit of extreme Brexit is so marked that I do wonder if she has been kidnapped and brainwashed at some point).

I was pretty sure that it would be bad for me as a scientist to lose opportunities to collaborate with European colleagues, and at a personal level I felt deeply European while also proud of the UK as a tolerant and fair-minded society. But I did not understand the complicated financial, legal, and trading arrangements between the UK and Europe, I had no idea of possible implications for Northern Ireland – this topic was pretty much ignored by the media that I got my information from. As far as I remember, debates on the topic on the TV were few and far between, and were couched as slanging matches between opposite sides – with Nigel Farage continually popping up to tell us about the dangers of unfettered immigration. I remember arguing with a Brexiteer group in Oxford Cornmarket who were distributing leaflets about the millions that would flow to the NHS if we left the EU, but who had no evidence to back up this assertion. There were some challenges to these claims on radio and TV, but the voices of impartial experts were seldom heard.

After the referendum, there were some stunning interviews with the populace exploring their reasons for voting. News reporters were despatched to Brexit hotspots, where they interviewed jubilant supporters, many of whom stated that the UK would now be cleansed of foreigners and British sovereignty restored. Some of them also mentioned funding of the NHS: the general impression was that being in the EU meant that an emasculated Britain had to put up with foreigners on British soil while at the same time giving away money to foreigners in Europe. The EU was perceived as a big bully that took from us and never gave back, and where the UK had no voice. The reporters never challenged these views, or asked about other issues, such as financial or other benefits of EU membership.

Of course there were people who supported Brexit for sound, logical reasons, but they seemed to be pretty thin on the ground. A substantial proportion of those voting seemed swayed by arguments about decreasing the number of foreigners in the UK and/or spending money on the NHS rather than 'giving it to Europe'.

Remainers who want another referendum seem to think that, now we've seen the reality of the financial costs of Brexit, and the exodus of talented Europeans from our hospitals, schools, and universities, the populace will see through the deception foisted on them in 2016. I wonder. If Nigel Farage wants a referendum, this could simply mean that he is more confident than ever of his ability to manipulate mainstream and social media to play on people's fears of foreigners. We now know more about sophisticated new propaganda methods that can be used on social media, but that does not mean we have adequate defences against them.

The only thing that would make me feel positive about a referendum would be if you had to demonstrate that you understood what you were voting for. You'd need a handful of simple questions about factual aspects of EU membership – and a person's vote would only be counted if these questions were accurately answered. This would, however, disenfranchise a high proportion of voters, and would be portrayed as an attack on democracy. So that is not going to happen. I think there's a strong risk that if we have another referendum, it will either be too close to call, or give the same result as before, and we'll be no further ahead.

But the most serious objection to another referendum is that it is a flawed method for making political decisions. As noted in this blogpost:

(A referendum requires) a complex, and often emotionally charged issue, to be reduced to a binary yes/no question.  When considering a relationship the UK has been in for over 40 years a simple yes/no or “remain/leave” question raises many complex and inter-connected questions that even professional politicians could not fully answer during or after the campaign. The EU referendum required a largely uninformed electorate to make a choice between the status quo and an extremely unpredictable outcome.

Rather than a referendum, I'd like to see decisions about EU membership made by those with considerable expertise in EU affairs who will make an honest judgement about what is in the best interests of the UK. Sadly, that does not seem to be an option offered to us.


  1. "Rather than a referendum, I'd like to see decisions about EU membership made by those with considerable expertise in EU affairs who will make an honest judgement about what is in the best interests of the UK. Sadly, that does not seem to be an option offered to us."

    Precisely. That's why a second referendum is the only option on the table to get us to a point where those with expertise can have some influence. Because if they just start making decisions against The Will Of The People, there will be riots. And more importantly, the Conservatives will lose votes, which May will never knowingly sanction. Whatever the cost to the country and indeed the world.

  2. "decisions about EU membership made by those with considerable expertise in EU affairs who will make an honest judgement about what is in the best interests of the UK"

    Maybe I'm channeling my inner Michael Gove here but it strikes me that this is precisely the sort of sentiment that got us where we are. Didn't we have exactly that sort of mantra in the decades leading up to the banking crisis?

    The problem with deferring to expertise for this sort of decision making is that we're looking at a problem that is too complex to be amenable to expertise. There is no external rationality available to us to make independent adjudication on even the question of "best interests", let alone the answer. Expertise is necessary as a part of the conversation but it can never formulate the whole issue. I'd be about as comfortable with relying on that as I am with relying on 'peer review' for judgments of applicability of research results to policy.

    The limitation of expertise is not that it is wrong sometimes about its own field but that it is too willing to extend its own narrow epistemological confines to the world at large. Expertise generally operates on areas where a preponderance of evidence can lead to one correct answer. With Brexit, it is possible that there was not a correct answer even if we could construct hypothetical impartial experts. With complex bifucartated issues, there are no right answers or not even any right questions.

    I'm not denying that the voice of EU expertise was missing from the pre-referendum debate. However, wasn't that the fault of the experts? I'd never heard about the Ireland issue either. Surely that can't be just because of the media's incompetence and venality (as boundless as those are). It seems to me that the experts on the remain side were simply not focused enough on the real problems and their communication. I saw no slogans saying, a divorce is too complex. Just very generic and unconvincing doom mongering.

    And maybe that's why a second referendum is a good idea precisely because enough information was not available before the first one. If the second one lost, we could conclude the electorate is willing to pay the price of Brexit for whatever symbolic (or practical) gain independence is worth. But we could not say that emotion won over rationality.

    Maybe that is the solution to all referenda, run them twice. First on the yes or no, and then on the law that would implement the policy with all its implications. That is the only way to mix in enough knowledge into the emotions.

    But ultimately, we're still dealing with the intrinsic limitation of democracy on issues where opinion is evenly divided. A slim-margin majority making winner take all decisions for all. Did you know that the UK has not had a government voted for by a clear majority of voters since 1936?

    BTW: I speak here as a remainer EU citizen who didn't get to vote.

  3. I suspect the idea for a second referendum springs from the widespread acceptance that the original Brexit campaign was a deeply dishonest one (spearheaded by a man who spent his early career publishing fictitious stories about the EU in The Telegraph). However, I see no reason the same thing would not happen again