Brexit: Emotions Trumped Facts During UK’s Referendum

Politics isn’t what I usually write about. To me politics and preferred policy options are consequences of how you see the world and the road you want to take. It’s something personal but can be a fun topic to talk about with all the different perspectives.

To me it’s a valid option to say you don’t want to be part of the EU. It also is a valid position to say that you never want to leave the EU. Of course many folks aren’t that black and white and most pro-EU folks like me have some bones to pick with the EU and its regulations (don’t get me started on the EU Cookie Law).

So then why do I care about what happened in the UK? Well, because I’m utterly appalled by the dialogue before and after the referendum. It was more about emotions and perceptions and not a good faith dialogue about what it means to be part of the EU and if the UK should leave.

What makes it worse is that people have publicly stated that they’ve used the referendum as a protest vote or didn’t think their vote mattered. As a result they now regret voting for the UK to leave the EU. I don’t know how big this group is and subsequently I don’t know if it would have meant a majority for the remain camp. But with how close the results are it does make you wonder:

brexit referendum results

Protest votes have their place in politics and can be a very useful tool to send signals to politicians about how the electorate thinks about them. But that only works in a multi-party system where conclusions can be drawn and policies changed. A yes or no referendum is not the place for a protest vote to show your dissatisfaction for ruling parties and their policies. Or for that matter dragging in anything else that isn’t relevant to the decision if the UK should stay in the EU or leave.

The articles that appeared after the referendum about what people were searching for made me look like I just swallowed a lemon:

google top search

To some extend I can understand that you might not have heard the term brexit (shorthand for a British exit of the EU). But the number two that reads “What happens if we leave the EU?” is just beyond me. That’s one of the questions you research before you vote on leaving or remaining in the EU. After the referendum results were announced the question “What is the EU?” was the second most searched for question in the UK on Google…

I place a large part of the blame on the media, especially the tabloid press in the UK. The tabloid press is infamous with the outright misinformation they spread. I’m more surprised when they get something correct than when they make mistakes. False balance and not properly challenging false claims by the media is also a problem. In this environment it’s extremely difficult for voters to figure out what the pros and cons are for a certain vote.

This then emboldens politicians, political parties, and groups to say what they want without serious opposition or consequences. An example of this was the brexit campaign making the claim that the UK sends £350 million per week to the EU. In reality this is £136 million a week, if you take into account rebates and what the UK receives from the EU.

This is less than 40% of the number claimed by the Leave campaign. This number was a big part of their campaign and they promised to divert this money to the NHS. The Leave campaign printed this in big bold letters on one of their campaign busses. But now Nigel Farage, one of the key figureheads for the Leave campaign, has backtracked on this promise by the Leave campaign to spend this £350 million per week on the NHS:

No I can’t [guarantee it], and I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes that I think the Leave campaign made

When it was pointed out that this was a claim printed on one of the Leave campaign’s busses Farage responded with the following:

It wasn’t one of my adverts – I can assure you! I think they made a mistake in doing that.

We have a £10 billion, £34 million a day featherbed, that is going to be free money that we can spend on the NHS, on schools, on whatever it is.

Yet I’m not aware of him disowning this claim when it mattered: during the campaign leading up to the referendum. That’s when you call out incorrect facts; even if they come from the side you support.

Though I’m not surprised by this behaviour and all the broken campaign promises as it’s ideology driving this discussion so facts are then often ignored. During the campaign before the referendum Michael Gove was confronted with the economic consequences predicted by experts he responded by saying “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Yes, experts can be wrong. But if nearly all of them are telling you it’s going to hurt you financially and will hurt the British Pound it’s best if you then listen. That way you consider all the facts, weigh your options, see what is possible for your preferred policy, and then you make an informed decision about what you’re going to do.

The financial market expected voters to heed warnings from experts and the polls predicted that the UK would vote for a remain. This caused the financial market to be blindsided by what actually happened. Which shows  in how stock market indexes around the world dropped last Friday:

world markets after brexit

The British Pound dropped as low as $1.32 versus the U.S. dollar, an exchange rate last seen in 1985. The pound also lost value faster than during the start of the financial crisis in 2008.

In one day markets around the world lost over $2 trillion as they responded to the news. The FTSE 100 in the UK dropped more than 8 percent when the market opened, wiping £120 billion off the value of the 100 biggest UK companies. The biggest opening plunge since the financial crisis in 2008.

How all this plays out is of course something we’ll have to wait and see. The current impact was extra severe as the financial market didn’t expect the UK to actually vote to leave the EU. But the increased uncertainty for companies will have an impact on the economy. It’s now a question of how big the impact will be and if we can prevent another recession. Though the first signals from companies do seem to indicate trouble ahead for UK jobs and economy.

Of course this hasn’t stopped the online comments claiming it’s the market being twitchy again. This ignores the global nature of today’s economy and that this was predicted, to an extent, by experts. With of course enough doom and gloom by certain groups of remain voters. They point to details like the divide between younger and older voters and the very clear remain vote in Scotland. There’s also a serious issue with actually listening to each other and understanding why voters react like they do.

With the rise of Populism in Europe and what that entails for politics I don’t see any improvements in the dialogue any time soon. I expect more entrenching of positions and more and more emotional exchanges. In such environments you fan the flames of hate and distrust. Combine that with a sense of powerlessness you can find yourself in a powder keg.

What this can lead to I’ve already experienced in my country with the shooting and killing of the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. Britain experienced this recently with the Labour MP Jo Cox being killed by a Brexit proponent (though that link is inferred from political affiliations and public statements). And the recent inept attempt in the US of a man trying to grab an officer’s gun so that he could shoot Trump.

It’s good to be passionate about what you stand for and be involved in politics. It’s fine to be a human being who has emotions and there’s no shame in acknowledging how they shape your worldview. But it’s not fine to only be driven by those emotions. Down that path lies the bad outcome of you ignoring facts and accepting whatever is convenient for your worldview.

You are free to have your own opinions and preferred policies. However, you are not entitled to your own facts to justify them. Though sadly facts are often the first victim in any political discussion nowadays.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.