UK General Election: The Case for Transforming Political Institutions

by Elbay Alibayov | Politics & Policy

General election in any country, let alone in the United Kingdom, is closely followed by observers from all walks of life. Among many other interests, it is one central subject of political risk analysis. This year’s election appears to pose yet another risk from within—as the analysts claim, the Risk of a UK Hung Parliament: “This Thursday, British voters will finally cast their ballots in what has been a short and chaotic campaign. While the snap election had earlier been forecast as the likely collapse of the Labour Party, the position of Labour has significantly improved as the Conservatives have made several missteps. Labour has recovered from its 20+ point deficit and, depending on the pollster, is now behind somewhere in the low single digits. A leftwing alliance between the Greens, SNP, and Labour has been discussed earlier, though none of the parties have made major moves in that direction. Markets are beginning to become concerned about the possibility of a hung parliament.” Markets should worry not. To the contrary, as I argue in this piece, the hung parliament is the best possible outcome – for the British political system, in the medium and long term.

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There is a claim in social sciences that luck opens space for agency—which means that key critical junctures (such as leadership change, whether through gaining independence and coups or by means of referendums and elections in democratic systems) where accidents determine which leaders prevail have long-term implications for a country’s future though a certain governance systems set and policies and reforms implemented. They cite newly independent South Asian (think of India vs. Pakistan) and African countries to prove the point: some were fortunate, like Botswana, to have pro-democracy reformists while others got authoritarian rulers (as in Zimbabwe) and dictators (take Congo)—and the rest followed from this point on.

Sounds interesting, but I do not think that it explains the interplay between all the factors involved. Against the African post-colonial example, I will offer the case of post-Soviet states. The republics which tended towards authoritarian rule and had corruption embedded in public administration even at the Soviet times remained authoritarian and with systemic corruption when they became sovereign states (take Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan). At the same time, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania got leaders who immediately put their countries on the path of democratic reforms and European integration.

The difference is easy to explain. The former group of countries have not had a meaningful period of market economy or democratic governance in the past, and the tendency towards tribalism or authoritarian rule has been characteristic there before becoming the part of Russian Empire centuries back. The Baltic states, to the contrary, have had a certain period of democratic governance in the twentieth century, and long established practices of checks and balances. Therefore a lot depends on the political culture and tradition—in other words, on political institutions as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour” (in Samuel Huntington’s definition).” Leaders matter, but whatever change-oriented they are not aliens but rather products of political culture and the prevailing public mood.

Consider the last presidential elections in the United States. Was it sheer luck that Donald Trump won the contest in 2016, or the electorate was ready to embrace someone who would not shy away from criticizing the political system (being “anti-establishment”), who would spell their anger at inequality, address their concerns and grievances?

The fact that Hillary Clinton, a strong establishment representative, was selected as a Democratic Party nominee was rather disruptive decision, considering the prevalent mood across the country (which itself is a manifestation of processes that are running deep in the American society but have not been appreciated, for long time). Bernie Sanders better reflected the general public’s (especially the young generation’s) aspirations and attitudes, and it is my opinion that the entire election campaign (ugly, negative and divisive as it was) and its outcome (shocking to many so much that even today they refuse to recognize the results and to accept the winner as a legitimate president) and the US policies today could have been different (for better or worse) if Mr Sanders was given an equal support from the Democrats so that he could be Mr Trump’s rival in 2016.

Therefore I think that Donald Trump became president not because of some abstract luck at the ballot boxes or some technical mistakes made by Hillary Clinton’s team, but because he was lucky that the Democratic Party was so narrow-minded to nominate a candidate destined to lose due to gross mismatch with the prevailing public mood. Luck is still in game, but its role is clarified, along with other critical factors.

And this brings us to the general election in the United Kingdom.

Among many changes experienced by humanity due to globalization and technological revolution, there is one thing that I find profoundly troubling—we are becoming lazy. At my primary school times the only instrument to help with the math was abacus; that is why people of my generation generally are good in calculating, especially when compared to next generations which were allowed to use calculators at class. The same goes for elections—instead of talking to people and analyzing the contexts we simply rely on what pollsters would say. With all due respect, they frequently get it wrong (at least this was the case in the last election and the Brexit referendum). And what is shocking is that it appears that instead of keeping their finger on the constituency’s pulse through continuous engagement and reflections, the modern politicians also follow the polls to guess what is going on out there (at least the reaction of politicians to results not predicted by polls indicates of that).

I also follow the polls, and what I see this time is confirming my analysis—that Britain is firmly heading towards a “balanced” parliament (meaning no total dominance of any one party, the hung parliament being an ideal). Paradoxically, and perhaps for the first time in modern history, the hung parliament is the best outcome to expect from the general election this year. Because it is the only situation which demands the coalition building (if not “national unity”, at least demands more search for a common ground) and independently of who runs the government they cannot impose their will because of the sizeable opposition (especially important to reinforce checks and balances) in place.

That’s exactly what Britain needs to safely navigate a dual task of Brexit negotiations, on the one hand, and (re)establishing own bilateral and multilateral relations with the rest of the world (new tactical and strategic partnerships), on the other. Such a complicated endeavour demands a high degree of inclusiveness and consolidation, whereas it is apparent that the country (whether its political system or elites) is not ready for that, for a variety of reasons.

On the one hand, the British political system, its institutions are hopelessly outdated—so much that merely cosmetic or even not deep-enough reforms won’t do. For a long time Britain stood as an example of uninterrupted democratic governance with unique combination of localised features (such as monarch being the head of state, absence of a codified constitution, and a common law) which were interpreted as its ability to flexibly evolve, adjust to the changing environment while preserving its authenticity. Today, this system shows signs of decay; its public administration is plagued by inefficiency and incompetence (from policy to service delivery, and top down).

There is a need for fundamental, constitutional reform, and it has been evolving for quite some time. Britain’s membership in the European Union did not slow-down this process of decaying but somehow enabled it to go unnoticed—British politicians made it their golden rule (or an universal excuse) to blame Brussels for any failure at home, thus turning the spearhead of public criticism away from themselves. This game could not go forever, as the problems were mounting irrespective. Now, when the UK has opted to play solo, there is nobody to blame for the failures except for the national government.

Second and related is that the identity of the British political elites is outdated; it is out of touch with reality for quite a long period of time. They still appear to feel and behave like their predecessors did a hundred years ago, when Britain was the most powerful empire on the face of the earth. The world has changed since then; and there have been milestones, like each of world wars, end of colonial rule, new globalization, economic and social processes especially evident in the last, post-crisis decade etc. And here is the problem that they have not been appreciated as the incentives for adjustment. The shock of EU leaders at the behaviour of Prime Minister Theresa May as “delusional” is not accidental—it shows the big gap between the self-identity of British political class and the reality.

Everyone talks about economic effects of Brexit while in fact the reform of economic institutions is reliant on the reform of political institutions. They define the economic institutions, not the other way around. And the political reform is not going to happen (even if undertaken) overnight—it is an inherently cultural process, it will take generations to change the identity from one of self-centered “exclusiveness” to realistic and more inclusive one. It will also allow bringing political parties from the entire spectrum into the fore (environmentalists, leftists, social-democrats, conservatives, nationalists) so that to reflect the aspirations of all social groups, big and small.

In other words, inclusiveness is not luxury; it is demand of the day. The two-party rule does not meet this reality—the world today is much more diverse to be decided on a binary code of Left/Right (problems of the US point to and partly originate from the stiffness of this set-up). It acts more and more as a barrier, not enabler of change and evolutionary adjustment—the capabilities which define a system’s resilience.

Britain is indeed at its key critical juncture today. And it does not matter anymore, whether the citizens decided to leave or to remain in the EU, at the ballots a year ago. What matters is what you do with what you have got. And in order to get the best outcome for the British people, the political system has to start reforming. Inclusive government (whether through hung parliament and coalition government or/and a broad opposition alliance) can be the first step in this direction.

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Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights

This is a combined version of a series of instalments on the EU referendum, posted on PolicyLabs between 20 and 24 February, 2016. Their message became even more relevant since the debate has kicked off full steam ahead—with the growing confusion and polarisation among political elites and the constituency alike, as warned in these PolicyLabs posts.

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Introduction

Upon his arrival from Brussels the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he had secured a good deal for Britain and called for the referendum on EU membership to take place on 23 June. Even though the date of the referendum was confirmed only today, a debate was gaining momentum for some time already, with two opposing camps positioning themselves against each other in the halls, the media, and web-based networks. And although there is a long and zigzagging way to go, certain features of the campaign can be observed already at this point, and learning lessons now and taking timely corrective actions would definitely benefit the quality of future discussions and their eventual outcome. I will look at the debate from three angles: supply side of the politics (the Government, in this case the Prime Minister and his aides), intermediaries (campaigners from both camps and the media), and the demand side (citizens and their groups).

Part 1. Mistaking the shadow for the substance: the effects of priming

Setting the agenda, controlling the outcome

It appears rather odd to me, that after an over four-decade-long and quite happy marriage the fate of the relationship—whether to stay together or divorce—has been made dependent on the outcome of the Prime Minister’s on-going negotiations with the European leaders and the Commission.

According to Eurosceptics, the problems of Britain’s EU membership have always been of fundamental character; therefore they are much broader and deeper than present-day issues negotiated by the Government. This notwithstanding, step by step the public attention has been taken away from those big problems and ‘primed’ on the current negotiations results. The secret of priming lies in the associative nature of our memory and opinion formation, when externally introduced ideas have a capability of promoting certain causal interpretations and thus, invoking sequential thoughts and actions with relative ease. In this case, the public opinion on whether to leave or to stay in the EU is increasingly correlated with, and made dependent upon, the success of negotiations and the concessions to be made against the Prime Minister’s offers to fellow European leaders. This opens doors for mistaking the shadow for the substance, I am afraid.

From the outset, the dilemma of staying or exiting was formulated as of universal scale. And it was absolutely correct: Britain’s relationship with EU is the largest policy issue of the day because its outcome will decide which strategic path the country takes. This is a critical issue, with vested interests of a broad range of domestic and international actors involved. Britons believe that they add a unique value to the Union and therefore deserve a special, much fairer treatment. Thus, they expect meaningful concessions on a number of fundamental issues of concern.

Negotiations with the EU leadership and the heads of state, however, have not gone as successfully as intended. The most significant British proposals were dismissed right away under the pretext that the Treaty could not be revisited or precedents could not be set. This was a clear signal of where the negotiations were heading, which unfortunately did not get rightful attention at home. Today, there is no single proposal, whatever small and insignificant, where the deal is guaranteed. Even comparatively modest changes to Britain’s status are somehow acknowledged with sympathy by some countries, but not welcomed by others.

In response, British negotiators have dropped, ‘downgraded’, or replaced their demands after every unsuccessful attempt to renegotiate her status in all four major areas negotiated. Take just the relatively recent shuffling, from ‘repatriation’ of sovereignty through the exemption from ‘ever closer union’ to a group-bound ‘red cards’; from the tax and regulation ‘safeguards’ to the City, to mere recognition of the coexistence between euro and other currencies; from curbing the migration to  temporary and hardly target-hitting ‘emergency break’ with no clear mechanism behind it. And it goes on and on, leaving an impression that instead of sticking firmly to principal demands agreeable to both sides of British stay-exit divide, the negotiation team has embraced the strategy of easily accepting refusals, finding excuses, and tabling yet another, less radical offer—in a desperate bid to secure a deal, any deal, whatever the price.

This manner of dealing with difficulties of the external world has been famously observed by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He elaborated on Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: The fox tried hard to reach the grapes, but failed; then making light of it, he concluded that they were sour anyways. Sartre pointed out that it was not the quality of the grapes that changed in the meantime, but the fox’s perception of them—he transformed the reality in order to be able to cope with it. Sartre called this ‘escape behaviour’ from the world’s obstinacy [1]. Interestingly, a similar observation was made by Sir Harold Nicolson about ‘the average Englishman’ at the time, that ‘when faced with conditions involving tremendous and most unpleasant mental effort, he escaped from that effort by pretending that these conditions were easily remediable, or much exaggerated or actually nonexistent.’ [2]

Wrong association, irrelevant choices

Whether the above is a sign of skilful political maneuvering or the escape-behaviour, concerns us not at this point. Everyone understands the difficulty and intricacies involved in such an endeavour. This is not an easy task at all, to get a concession from 27 fellow members plus the Brussels based bureaucracy, in the environment where no one seems to live the easy times and thus tries to negotiate some ‘reforms’ to their individual or group benefit.

However, making the referendum dependent upon the outcome of negotiations has a two-fold repercussion for Britain. On the one hand, it affects the outcome of these negotiations: under the mounting pressure of public expectations at home, the British team behaves hastily and thus exposes its weakness of being desperately in need of a deal—something that their skilful European counterparts eagerly exploit. The art and craft of politics rests in making gains from never ending trade-offs, after all.

On the other hand, the public opinion on the fundamental issue is primed, made subordinate to some deal over the vaguely understood concessions which may or may not meet the level of referendum’s momentous decision. This situation resembles the observation made by the historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson: ‘The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take.’ [3] The reality is that, whatever issues are at stake at the negotiation table today, they still are business-as-usual of the politics, something that the officials from all member states are ought to do on an ongoing basis. They are rather technical by their nature and tactical by their level of significance, and as such, their outcome cannot and shall not determine the referendum’s result.

If we follow the behavioural pattern primed on the negotiations, then the rest appears quite predictable in the light of what is already unfolding upon the conclusion of the most recent round of Brussels talks: Britain will get the deal on one or more issues and this will create an impression of glorious victory, something that she desired on the whole. Even though it is utterly irrelevant to the subject matter, our intuitive decision-making nonetheless works so smoothly that no one will ever notice that from the outset they were simply bound to the wrongly imposed association: ‘[whatever] Concession—Britain’s demands met—We stay in’.

[1] For the interpretation of this episode from Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of Emotions, see: Robert C. Solomon, Introducing the Existentialists: Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger and Camus (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 1981), p.22; and Robert C. Solomon and David L. Sherman, eds., The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.170

[2] Harold Nicolson, ‘Is war inevitable?’, The Nineteenth Century and After, 126/749 (1939), pp. 1-14

[3] C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law, or The Pursuit of Progress (London: Buccaneer Books, 1993), p. 103

 

Part 2. Missing the forest for the trees: the limitations of framing

‘Either-or’ choice of a narrow frame

At the time being, the referendum debate in the media has taken shape of weighing advantages and limitations (or costs and benefits) of Britain’s membership in the EU, by the opposing camps, in order for the public to figure out the balance and make their minds. The approach being quite logical, it can be easily observed that the entire debate has been inadequately, or narrowly, framed.

Communication experts claim that frames are unavoidable, in part because they help simplifying the decision making process. As defined by political communication expert Robert Entman, ‘to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.’ [1] The problem is that framing (whether intentionally or not) may distort the picture and risk hijacking the outcome sought—an insignificant fraction selected as representing the whole entity is given undue prominence, and in that way a decision is eventually taken. The narrow frame may also take from the table the most valuable choices to consider.

One manifestation of narrow framing is that the EU referendum’s choice has been taken as strictly ‘either-or’ business. Such an antagonistic stand-off ignores the complexity of the modern world and results in a simplistic stock-piling of arguments on the opposite arms of a balance. This is not much useful approach for the purpose of the referendum because both sides will present narratives abundant of facts and figures in support of their stance and will turn it eventually into a negative sum game, the decision theory’s situation with no winners. Continued in this fashion the discussion won’t help Britons making informed decision at the ballot box this summer (or any other date, to this matter).

The frame translates itself into two options currently debated. Even if the conditionality on negotiation results is taken out, they still do not offer a set of plausible alternatives for the public to consider. One is to stay in the EU simply because it has been more beneficial for Britain to team up with the continental Europe. This sounds as a ‘passive acceptance’ attitude, which simply surrenders to the prevailing circumstances, something like escape-behaviour. Another option is to exit from the EU because playing alone, with no commitments attached, has always been in Britain’s best interest. This is a ‘predetermined negation’ attitude towards EU which builds on the notion of Britain’s perceived comparative advantages. If we look closer at these options they do not appear to represent the reality, nor do they meet the overall intention of the referendum.

The two options are lacking a strategic perspective, the single important feature of such an endeavour as referendum. Even an unsophisticated analysis makes it obvious that these options do not stand the test: both are viewing the British/EU relations as static (based on the assessment of present moment’s snapshot or, at best, on the most recent trend) and rather one-sided (concerning the two entities only, without taking the global context into equation). In other words, this frame does not take into consideration the dynamic and evolutionary nature of political processes that are never satisfied with status quo, do not accept anything as a permanent fix but rather view them as temporary solutions to be challenged in the future, once the opportunity avails itself.

This is especially evident in the light of the most prominent of British claims—about the regaining her sovereignty.  It has also been the longest maintained concern with regards to her membership in the European Union: it is enough to recall the annoyance of European politicians at the British demands for long term sovereignty safeguards in advance, during the entry negotiations back in the 1970s. At the heart of this British quest essentially lies the same central question that was formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than two centuries ago: ‘How to find a form of association, which will defend the person and goods of each other member in the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.’ [2] This is what shall be debated. Otherwise, why to bother at all with holding such a high-profile, expensive, time and effort consuming event, which also happens to raise expectations evoked by zealous argumentation of the opposing sides?

A need for strategic focus, broader perspective

It appears that, as a result of narrow framing very important other options were left aside, thereby limiting the choice spectrum. Two of them deserve special attention. One option is to stay in order to continue the attempts at reforming the EU and getting Britain a fairer deal, from the inside. This has been a long-standing argument held by the integration proponents—that Britain stands better chances to succeed with the reforms when it is a member state. It resembles a somewhat ‘resilient’ attitude towards the rigidity of the EU’s governance. Another option is to exit the EU but leave the door open for pursuing the negotiations on a comprehensive revision of the Treaty and Britain’s place in the reformed Europe, as an outsider. To me, this option would stand for an ‘evolutionary’ attitude—one built on both the cooperation with neighbours and the strengthening of domestic societal and institutional adaptive capacity.

A detailed assessment and comparison of these two sets of options (one that is currently at offer and another briefly presented above) is beyond the scope of this article, but one example would help underlining the principal difference. Suppose that you are driving round a place you have not been before. What would you use as guidance: street signs or a map? The former is rather straightforward and easy to follow, but once you face an unexpected obstacle, you are lost. The latter, to the contrast, demands some effort to comprehend but offers various choices for navigation and thus, allows adapting to the changed circumstances. Perhaps it would be fair to say that a direct, narrow guidance is useful for tactical decisions, while mapping is the relevant guidance for deciding on strategic and complex issues.

Away from narrow frames, at this point it is possible to share two thoughts on shaping the future discussion. First is that the EU referendum debate shall adopt a forward looking approach—the one that looks beyond the referendum day and into what is going to happen after the decision is taken.  Then people will come to the ballots with realistic understanding of the consequences of their decision. Moreover, they will do so upon reflecting on the strategic choice and being prepared to answer the critical question: How do we want the European Union, Britain, and their relations develop in the decades to come?

Another insight is that the discussion shall look beyond the EU/Britain relations, to adopt a balanced view of national, European and global goals and interests. Today, cost-benefit analysis of British membership in the EU accounts for only one dimension and does not take into consideration the broader context. These relations, being multifaceted and quite nuanced in their own right, occur in a complex political, security, social and economic environment. Moreover, this environment is very dynamic and full of uncertainty—it is rapidly changing across broad variety of factors and is continuously influenced by competing (sometimes even conflicting) interests of domestic and international actors.

[1] Robert M. Entman, ‘Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm,’ Journal of Communication, 42/4 (1993), p. 52

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract on Principles of Political Right, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Classics, 1968 [1762]), p.51

 

Part 3. Bird in the hand: the hidden workings of mental habits

Threats and opportunities

In the management theory, the notion of risk is closely linked to the effects of uncertainty on the organisation’s goals and includes both threats and opportunities. This makes perfect sense: In the complex and highly unpredictable world we live, it is difficult to know for sure whether what we see (let alone something that we try to foresee) is going to turn bringing benefits or losses, or both. It demands not only good evidence but also sound reasoning. However, it appears that due to certain sense-making mechanisms of our mind we frequently tend to hold to our initial judgements and easily dismiss any argument to the contrary, without attempting to think creatively. As a result, we miss opportunities. I will illustrate this thought on two examples which are metaphorically very close.

First case is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. When asking the Three Weird Sisters about threat posed to him, Macbeth receives two foreshadows. One of them warns that he will be safe as long as Great Birnham Wood does not move uphill to attack him. Woods attacking the king does not match with Macbeth’s predefined understanding of things and he, without giving it another thought, dismisses it outright: ‘That will never be:/ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound roots? Sweet bodements, good!’[1] Later he falls on his sword because of this overconfidence.

Now consider the case from The Histories of Herodotus. Greeks are warned that Persian king Xerxes is preparing for an unprecedentedly large-scale assault. Athenians send for an advice from the Oracle of Delphi and hear bad news that the land will be destroyed, but they will be granted a wooden wall by Zeus, as protection. They fail to make sense of it, as it does not match their mental models. Here is when Themistocles, the man who is able to see the things from a different perspective, argues that ‘the “wooden wall” meant the fleet and that they should ready themselves to fight by sea.’[2] As the story goes, the Athenians followed this advice and indeed saved their land because they took advantage and themselves surprised the invaders.

The uncertain future, therefore, is initially neutral. It is up to us actually, whether we turn our knowledge about it, whatever obscured and fragmented, into advantage or fail to prepare and thus end up being caught off guard. As one of the most influential risk authors these days, Nassim Taleb, holds in his Black Swan, ‘the idea that in order to make decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the predictability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty.’[3] This brings me to our cognitive strategies, those which we engage in making decisions on daily basis. They have direct bearing on the way how Britons will vote at the referendum.

The flows of our reasoning process

Findings of the most recent polls by YouGov [4] and Ipsos MORI [5] have confirmed the trend that was in making, at least since the last summer—the share of those willing to leave the EU is consistently increasing at the expense of those willing to stay. There is a variation, though: the former puts the ‘Leave’ camp ahead of the rivals, while the latter narrows the ‘Stay In’ camp’s lead to approximately the same percentage-point gap.  There is no contradiction in this; in fact it is something expected in polls, due to randomness of data collection (for example, the British Polling Council’s Inquiry found the variation missing in the polls leading to the 2015 General Elections as their shortcoming).  What is much more intriguing is that the trend may turn somewhat misleading and raise the exaggerated expectations. There are psychological factors in play.

Whatever the respondents say in advance, let along in the situation when everything is rather cloudy, is merely an indication, and the indication which is time bound—it reflects what is there right now. This uncertainty also encourages the poll respondents take on gambles much more eagerly than they would do otherwise. In reality, making your choice at the referendum is a much harder task than deciding at the election ballot, and there is high chance that people would tend to play safe on the day, at least for two reasons.

First is that by its nature (once in a generation event and with no third option to choose from) referendum puts huge responsibility for the consequences, on the voters. Even at individual level, normally we know what we are doing but are not in full control of consequences—some of them are unpredictable, or unintended. This spirals to another degree of significance when millions of individuals driven by their personal intentions combine together in one single act, the outcome of which, even if not set in a stone, still will determine the development direction of Britain for decades to come.

Second reason is that people are offered to trade their wellbeing (something they keep dear to their hearts) as it stands at present to the one they aspire for. This requires an individual to be mentally ready, if not eager, for such a change—and this is not our strongest feature: people are resistant to change, they prefer stability over it. This manifests itself in various ways. For example, numerous experiments have proven that we are very reluctant to give up what we posses, irrespectively of what is offered instead (in reasonable proportions, of course). Or, take our strong desire to stick with current state of affairs and endlessly postpone the game changing decision.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (the former is the Nobel Prize winner in Economics) explain many of these mental habits as influenced, at least partially, by loss aversion. [6] They claim that loss aversion is inherent to human decision making, deriving from the evolutionary history when people had to treat threats as more urgent task in hand. Moreover, it has been experimentally demonstrated that the pain of loss is twice as strong as the pleasure of gain. Then the wisdom of ‘a bird in the hand worthy two in the bush’ proverb becomes even mathematically proven.

Towards a two-pronged choice architecture

People’s inclination for taking the loss avoiding, conventional choices at critical moments will play its role on the referendum day. Benefits of the EU membership are known; that is to say, Britons hold them in hands and they are tangible. To the contrary, benefits that are going to accrue after breaking from the EU are yet to be experienced. This makes the job of Eurosceptics much harder. Going back to the poll figures, I would suggest that, considering the above mathematics, only a two- or three-fold percentage point advantage prior to the referendum day would be enough for them to hold a hope of winning the vote.

The insight for the campaigners from both camps is that they shall make all efforts to ensure that the debate enables people to overcome various mental traps of intuitive decision making and to make choices which are informed by what they want to have in terms of their wellbeing, rather than being driven by what they may currently (rather short-sightedly) prefer. Consider the following.

Think of people making choices about their summer vacations. Every year they decide whether to stay somewhere close to home or to go abroad, and where to go, where to stay, what sort of activities to undertake, and so forth. In so doing, the majority do not engage in complicated calculations but rather allows their emotions of that moment to drive their decision making, even though they try to make their decisions sound as well-reasoned. And sometimes they are: like, for example, driving to some local resort and camping over there, in order to save money for children’s education. What is characteristic of this process is that everyone knows that the decision they make has only an effect limited to this year (except for some really disastrous choices or simply bad luck) and the next year they will be free to do something different.

Now suppose that the same people are given a chance to permanently change their residence, for a better life (as the offer claims). This is an opportunity with an array of attractive features but also unpredictable consequences. Plus, it means leaving behind the house they have lived for years and are somehow accustomed to, the social environment and neighbourhood friends, the job, you name it. Most importantly, this is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime choice which cannot be revisited on an annual basis, and therefore the responsibility for the outcome is enormously high. As one can imagine, people may have numerous reasons to opt for the offer or to turn it down, and they will do so by exercising their right for a free choice. Moreover, there is no right or wrong choice, as long as people know what exactly they are going to gain—and not only at the point of trade but many years down the road.

Freedom of choice has always been highly regarded by people. It is also one characteristic feature of democratic society we take pride of. However, as famously noted by Dostoyevsky, there is price to pay: ‘What human being wants is just an independent choice, whatever the cost of this independence and whatever it may bring about.’[7] But here is the trick with the referendum—because, unlike ordinary everyday situations, in this case it is not enough anymore to merely employ some intuitive methods and quickly form a judgement. This task requires some considerable mental activity, an effortful computation, lots of evidence and perhaps, some guidance. In short, this implies that people who make life-changing decisions cannot be left alone in respect of their freedom of choice—they shall be assisted.

In the case of the EU referendum such an assistance shall come from the intermediaries—the campaigners and the media. I shall note that the idea of (implicitly) assisting people in making their policy choices is not new; almost a decade ago the behavioural scientists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced ‘nudging’ as one method of helping people make policy choices that are in their best long-term interest.[8] What I suggest here is a bit different: it is not about directing people towards a certain predefined ‘default option’, but about setting a fair competition between two camps in introducing their respective choices, and doing so in close cooperation with citizens and their organised groups. To borrow from Robert Buckman, a businessman who put knowledge management at the heart of building a successful enterprise, the best way to address the organisation’s growth (read, the competitiveness and market survival) challenges is to follow its customers: ‘Look where they are going. What do they want right now? In five years from now? In ten years from now?’[9] Similarly, the job of the campaigners is to learn what people need and want, immediately and in a medium term period, and to demonstrate how each offer meets their particular requirements and expectations.

It should be made clear to Britons what do they get as a result of their choice. Their concerns and expectations differ quite significantly between various social groups and across the localities—it is very clear from the publications in the press, interviews, and the on-line discussions and is something that should have been expected in this respect. Therefore, costs and benefits of each choice shall be made relevant to the concerns and aspirations of every large group of stakeholders—something that is known in policy analysis as ‘net assessment.’ Generalisation and vague statements won’t do in such situation. Whatever the referendum’s outcome, the debate will be considered meaningful and achieving its primary objective (that is, to help people make decisions which are based on full and relevant information tailored to their circumstances) only if Britons make their rational judgement on the day—the one that treats the threats and the opportunities equally.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tragedies of Shakespeare: Complete Works, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, eds. (London: Macmillan, 2007), act 4, sc. 1 [97-107], p.1897

[2] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Tom Holland (London: Penguin Books, 2014), bk. 7 [141-144], pp.496-497

[3] Nassim Nicolas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 211

[4] YouGov trackers on the European referendum, available athttp://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/y0omer21fg/YG-Trackers-Europe-Referendum-050216.pdf

[5] Ipsos MORI database on the EU membership research, available athttps://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2435/European-Union-membership-trends.aspx

[6] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Penguin Books, 2012), pp. 282-284

[7] Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), pt. 1, ch. 7 [translation is mine – E.A.]

[8] Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

[9] Robert H. Buckman, Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 235-236

 

Part 4. The questions to be answered

So far, the battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has been taking place in shallow waters. Some of the reasons behind making the debate about such a momentous decision so irrelevant and misplaced were discussed in this paper. They include the priming of the referendum on the outcome of on-going renegotiation of Britain’s status and narrowly focusing the debate on two tactical options, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the issues involved and seeing the outcome of the would-be referendum in a long term strategic perspective. There are also technical issues involved, such as those related to the quality, or usefulness, of information offered to citizens.*

Most importantly, it appears that the British society is not prepared to take the decision of such a life-changing magnitude yet.

European countries are struggling with numerous problems, trying to recover from the crisis that hit their economies so hard. At the same time, they are working to respond to a broad range of newly emerging political, security, economic, and social and cultural challenges. From increasing authority transfers to Brussels and concerns over  the ‘insufficient legitimacy of supranational institutions’ [1], to the unpopular austerity measures (which some activists from the left regard as the manifestation of ‘departure from the welfare state’ [2]) to the growing inequality (as between the EU economies, so within each given country), slower than expected (and indeed imperative) growth dynamics, high unemployment among the youth, to the cultural-identitarian concerns and failure of multiculturalism, to the rise of radical movements on both left and right—all this are legitimate concerns of Britons, as well as other Europeans, whether from the EU’s core or its periphery. Most of those problems are not unique to Britain, or to Europe as such—they are being witnessed across all the industrialised countries.

One group of questions is about how much of these problems can be attributed to the EU: What are causes of these problems and what are their effects? Where do they originate from? And to what extent the solutions are in the hands of the European institutions and how much is in hands of national governments?

Another group of questions is concerned with the reform: How the EU shall be reformed in order to be better suited to address the mounting and unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century? What is the role of Britain and other leading countries (such as Germany and France) in the reform process and, later on, in the reformed Europe? What kind of reforms to address Britain’s domestic problems the Government shall undertake on its own, within its sovereign responsibility? Is it possible to undertake two sets of reforms—domestic and common European—simultaneously and, above all, harmoniously?

These are not easy questions to answer, but these are the only relevant kind of questions to be posed and reflected upon. And if no one is ready to offer the answers today (what seems to be the case), then perhaps the best course of action would be not to rush with holding the referendum and instead to engage in a properly administered policy analysis deliberative process, in order to bring clarity and separate the wheat from the chaff. Such process shall normally involve two groups of audiences, where the communication is maintained as within each group’s members, so between the groups. One group comprises scientists, politicians and advocates [3] and another group is of citizen and institutional stakeholders.

This process requires a good organisation behind it. Considering vested interests of various groups and the enthusiasm with which both camps, and their affiliates and associated media outlets are going to convince citizens in the rightness of the choices promoted by them respectively—the role of impartial professional assistance to the constituency will be of paramount importance. And it sounds logical that this should be the Government’s responsibility to provide such an objective and balanced information by means of an ad hoc committee comprising the representatives of all parties and interested sides, along with independent policy analysts and subject matter and communication experts.

Interestingly, the findings of this process will help decide on the final set questions about the referendum itself: Does the referendum, as it has been set today and whatever its outcome, offers the solution? Does it serve the interests of citizens of the United Kingdom? Or is it a manifestation of political struggle of political and economic elites? For example, there has been an argument set forth by Andrew Glencross, that the ‘the simplicity and decisiveness that a referendum, particularly one that spurns the EU, promises is merely a mirage. … British political parties are presenting an in/out referendum as a simple solution to a complex problem. The reality is that direct democracy cannot resolve the Europe question – and nor should it: political and economic ties with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring British political conversation.’ [4]

Whether to hold the referendum in the end or to abolish the idea and to find some other mechanism/solution is a crucial decision, which can only be reasonably decided upon the policy deliberative process suggested herein. If the decision (as informed by various forums) is to run the referendum, then it would not be late to hold it, say, in March 2017 – still well within the timeline initially promised by the Prime Minister, when the citizens would be in good position to take their well-informed decisions on the United Kingdom’s future. It is important to remember that the real decision Britons will take is not about an immediate ‘leave or remain’ choice—it is about forward-looking ‘what and how’ strategic alternatives.

* Policy analysis issues will be addressed in a separate post.

[1] Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, ‘Beyond authority transfer: explaining the politicisation of Europe,’ West European Politics, 39/1 (2016), pp. 23-43 at 23

[2] See, for example, Thomas Fazi, The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent and How We Can Take it Back (London: Pluto Press, 2014)

[3] According to James Throgmorton, these are the must-talk-to audiences in policy analysis process, see James A. Throgmorton, ‘The rhetorics of policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 24/2 (1991), pp. 153-179 at 174

[4] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317

 

Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights (Part 4)

Part 4. The questions to be answered

So far, the battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has been taking place in shallow waters. Some of the reasons behind making the debate about such a momentous decision so irrelevant and misplaced were discussed in this paper. They include the priming of the referendum on the outcome of on-going renegotiation of Britain’s status and narrowly focusing the debate on two tactical options, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the issues involved and seeing the outcome of the would-be referendum in a long term strategic perspective. There are also technical issues involved, such as those related to the quality, or usefulness, of information offered to citizens.*

Most importantly, it appears that the British society is not prepared to take the decision of such a life-changing magnitude yet.

European countries are struggling with numerous problems, trying to recover from the crisis that hit their economies so hard. At the same time, they are working to respond to a broad range of newly emerging political, security, economic, and social and cultural challenges. From increasing authority transfers to Brussels and concerns over  the ‘insufficient legitimacy of supranational institutions’ [1], to the unpopular austerity measures (which some activist from the left regard as the manifestation of ‘departure from the welfare state [2]) to the growing inequality (as between the EU economies, so within each given country), slower than expected (and indeed imperative) growth dynamics, high unemployment among the youth, to the cultural-identitarian concerns and failure of multiculturalism, to the rise of radical movements on both left and right—all this are legitimate concerns of Britons, as well as other Europeans, whether from the EU’s core or its periphery. Most of those problems are not unique to Britain, or to Europe as such—they are being witnessed across all the industrialised countries.

One group of questions is about how much of these problems can be attributed to the EU: What are causes of these problems and what are their effects? Where do they originate from? And to what extent the solutions are in the hands of the European institutions and how much is in hands of national governments?

Another group of questions is concerned with the reform: How the EU shall be reformed in order to be better suited to address the mounting and unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century? What is the role of Britain and other leading countries (such as Germany and France) in the reform process and, later on, in the reformed Europe? What kind of reforms to address Britain’s domestic problems the Government shall undertake on its own, within its sovereign responsibility? Is it possible to undertake two sets of reforms—domestic and common European—simultaneously and, above all, harmoniously?

These are not easy questions to answer, but these are the only relevant kind of questions to be posed and reflected upon. And if no one is ready to offer the answers today (what seems to be the case), then perhaps the best course of action would be not to rush with holding the referendum and instead to engage in a properly administered policy analysis deliberative process, in order to bring clarity and separate the wheat from the chaff. Such process shall normally involve two groups of audiences, where the communication is maintained as within each group’s members, so between the groups. One group comprises scientists, politicians and advocates [3] and another group is of citizen and institutional stakeholders.

This process requires a good organisation behind it. Considering vested interests of various groups and the enthusiasm with which both camps, and their affiliates and associated media outlets are going to convince citizens in the rightness of the choices promoted by them respectively—the role of impartial professional assistance to the constituency will be of paramount importance. And it sounds logical that this should be the Government’s responsibility to provide such an objective and balanced information by means of an ad hoc committee comprising the representatives of all parties and interested sides, along with independent policy analysts and subject matter and communication experts.

Interestingly, the findings of this process will help decide on the final set questions about the referendum itself: Does the referendum, as it has been set today and whatever its outcome, offers the solution? Does it serve the interests of citizens of the United Kingdom? Or is it a manifestation of political struggle of political and economic elites? For example, there has been an argument set forth by Andrew Glencross, that the ‘the simplicity and decisiveness that a referendum, particularly one that spurns the EU, promises is merely a mirage. … British political parties are presenting an in/out referendum as a simple solution to a complex problem. The reality is that direct democracy cannot resolve the Europe question – and nor should it: political and economic ties with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring British political conversation.’ [4]

Whether to hold the referendum in the end or to abolish the idea and to find some other mechanism/solution is a crucial decision, which can only be reasonably decided upon the policy deliberative process suggested herein. If the decision (as informed by various forums) is to run the referendum, then it would not be late to hold it, say, in March 2017 – still well within the timeline initially promised by the Prime Minister, when the citizens would be in good position to take their well-informed decisions on the United Kingdom’s future. It is important to remember that the real decision Britons will take is not about an immediate ‘leave or remain’ choice—it is about forward-looking ‘what and how’ strategic alternatives.

* Policy analysis issues will be addressed in a separate post.

[1] Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, ‘Beyond authority transfer: explaining the politicisation of Europe,’ West European Politics, 39/1 (2016), pp. 23-43 at 23

[2] See, for example, Thomas Fazi, The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent and How We Can Take it Back (London: Pluto Press, 2014)

[3] According to James Throgmorton, these are the must-talk-to audiences in policy analysis process, see James A. Throgmorton, ‘The rhetorics of policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 24/2 (1991), pp. 153-179 at 174

[4] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317