‘Brexit’ and Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s deal with the EU have dominated the news cycle for a good week now, and this has been accompanied by plenty of chatter in the commentariat about the prospects for the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ sides. If you are keeping track of this – believe me, there are better things to do – you would be forgiven for thinking this referendum is genuinely up-in-the-air. Ignore them. It isn’t.
To start with, Cameron’s so-called ‘renegotiation’ is an utter farce. All it addresses is the largely invented problem of migrants draining the welfare state. Countless studies have shown that it is not our welfare state which draws migrants to the UK, but instead our relative wealth, opportunities and, crucially, English being our first language. While I have no problem with British natives being first-in-line to receive welfare, the renegotiation does nothing to address the real problems of the EU. From the left, it doesn’t tackle the institution’s consistent bias towards privatisation and austerity, as we have seen in Greece, Italy and Portugal. From the right, it doesn’t repatriate powers over much of our law-making ability, and, in general, it does nothing to address the lack of proper democracy, accountability, the power of lobbyists or increasing federalism. But none of this matters, and here are the reasons why:
- The Leave Campaign: The main risk for the leave campaign was that they were always going to perceived as a lunatic fringe full of ‘little-Englanders’ and conspiracists. The Brexit campaign has responded to this with a spectacular lack of self-awareness, and filled the movement with just that. Prominent figureheads are Nigel Farage, the climate-change denying Nigel Lawson and, as of yesterday, George Galloway. The only credible and fairly well-known names backing the campaign are Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Kate Hoey and Frank Field, but even the latter two aren’t major enough to carry real clout and are seen as on the fringe of their respective parties. Perception matters hugely, and no one wants to be seen as a narrow-minded, slightly weird racist due to their stance on the EU. This is made even more pertinent by the relative strength of the In campaign. They can pick up plenty of votes simply by saying, ‘Do you want to be here with all the major party leaders, business people and celebrities, or over there with George Galloway lapping milk from your hands?’
- It’s about loss aversion, stupid: Even if the Leave campaign weren’t a bit of a mess, I would have no doubt that we would vote to remain. If there is one thing that decides elections, it is uncertainty and the fear it causes. So often in politics, people lose sight of this simple fact and start analysing every facet of the opposing sides’ arguments, but this is nearly always a waste of time. It was obvious to any serious observer of the Scottish referendum Better Together would win as soon as it became clear the Yes campaign didn’t have a plan for an alternative currency. People hold what they know dear to them, especially in a modern world gripped by uncertainty. This observation was clearly documented by Kahneman & Tversky with their 1979 theory of loss aversion. Put simply, Kahneman and Tversky argued that people feel twice as much psychological hurt in losing something than they do pleasure in gaining something. When looked at through this prism, it is obvious that we will vote to stay, especially because the gains of leaving are speculative. Possible losses are trade, economic security and influence and national security. All of these are concrete, and translate into people’s fears for their jobs and lives. Possible gains, on the other hand, are speculative trade agreements with ‘the rest of the world’ and repatriating legal powers which few people understand anyway. Control over borders will be the only thing seen as a gain by many, but this will not be enough to trump the fears of the majority concerning economic well-being.