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EU: How to Decide?

17/06/2016 16:46 | Updated 17 June 2016

Facts matter in this referendum. Yet politics has always been about feelings and emotion as much as statistics and experience. Why else, for instance, would anti-immigrant sentiment often be highest in those areas with the lowest number of migrants and fly in the face of most, if not all, of the expert studies that have looked at the economic impact of immigration?

The columnist Jonathan Freedland has spoken of "post-truth" politicians, willing to play fast and loose with the facts. This can involve a blatant mistruth, such as the claim that as long as we are in the EU we do not control our own borders.

Or it can be subtler, such as the idea of "three million jobs being linked to the EU" included in the infamous government leaflet, and clearly intended to at least hint that these might be at risk in the event of a Brexit.

The referendum is as close as we have come to a "culture war" along the lines of the debates over abortion in the United States. While much of it is unhelpful - and potentially damaging to the British body politic in the medium term - we should equally not be blind to the fact that factors other than data play a role in shaping electoral choices.

Certainly, there are material issues at play. Those who have done badly out of globalisation are more likely to resent the loss of autonomy implied by EU membership than those who have benefitted from it. Small businesses might resent EU regulation more than their larger counterparts, particularly if they themselves do not trade with the rest of the EU. Those who travel widely across the EU might appreciate the benefits of membership more than those who do not.

But equally there is more to it than purely material calculation. The sovereignty debate, for instance, is not one that can be easily quantified and goes to the heart of feelings of insecurity and a desire to wrest back control.

For democratic politics to work, people have to feel as if they are adequately represented. This is something the EU has, to date, failed to achieve. The sense of losing control has nothing to do with the complex charts that describe decision-making in Brussels or the role of the European parliament.

It is more visceral than that and stems from a desire for self-government and a yearning for a - however illusory - sense of control that is a matter of temperament as much as anything else.

Ultimately, how much control you want your country to exercise over its own destiny is a matter for the heart as much as the head.

For some people, the feeling of reasserting control would outweigh some of the economic pain resulting from Brexit. To what extent this is the case is one of the central issues that will determine the outcome of the vote.

Whilst criticising the lies bandied about during this campaign, we should avoid the danger of dismissing the role that emotion might play in it.

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