Voting for no deal

Most leavers are wrong when they say they voted for no deal. But they aren't necessarily being disingenuous. It is quite possible that many people are being quite sincere when they say that a no deal Brexit was what they always had in mind when they put their cross in the box in 2016.

The first claim, while difficult to prove conclusively, has a decent amount of evidence in its favour. Vote Leave, the official leave campaign, consistently insisted that Brexit would be a relatively smooth process, and that the EU almost certainly agree to arrangements which did not disrupt the flow of trade, having an enormous incentive to do so. While it is difficult to prove the general thrust of a campaign, particularly when many contradictory promises are made, the campaign leaflets are illustrative. They emphasized continuity in trade and cooperation, achieved by an alternative agreement.

Of course, the messages of the campaign itself does not necessarily imply beliefs on the part of the target audience. But polling taken in July 2016 about expectations of Brexit suggest that beliefs were indeed congruent with the campaign message. In this comres poll, 70% of respondents expected some sort of continued single market membership, either unmodified or with some changes on Freedom of Movement. More surprisingly, these expectations were not hugely divided by how people had voted. 61% of leave voters expected the same, with the bulk (54%) expecting single market membership with new rules on Freedom of Movement.                                                                                              \

But this does not in and of itself mean that leavers are being disingenuous if they say that 'no deal' Brexit was in fact what they had in mind when they voted to leave. Research on the psychology of attitude formation suggests that people's memory of past behavior and beliefs is affected by current attitudes. One example of this is an experiment carried out by Michael Ross in 1981. Half the participants were presented with information on dental hygeine, the other were not. They were then then asked how often they had brushed their teeth in the past two weeks. Those who had been given information on dental hygiene were significantly more likely to say they had brushed their teeth more often. While there are problems with this specific experimental set up, similar results have been found in numerous other experiments, particularly when memories relate to attitudes that are value laden.                                                                                                                                                     

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this extends to memory of attitudes and attitudes about the past, when these are in tension with current, more salient attitudes. Think about going for a meal and discovering that your favorite dessert had run out. It wouldn't be too strange to decide that you had never really wanted it in the first place. It's particularly easy to imagine this occurring when what is at stake is your own sense of self, and whether you were duped into false expectations. In the case of Brexit, current attitudes can be a strong part of people’s sense of self.

Finally, the contradictory and impossible nature of the Leave campaign’s promises, and absence of any specific conditional commitments as to the relative importance of leaving or what would be done in what circumstances allows for the selection of certain real past memories which are more consistent with the present reality. You could remember the campaign promise that the mechanisms for maintaining the regulatory framework of the single market would not apply after Brexit, but fail to recall how important you thought this was, relative to other, contradictory promises (continued market access). 

This is important when thinking about how to argue the case against no deal. Arguments which start from the premise that leavers are being disingenuous if they say they voted for no deal are not necessarily true (though some prominent politicians and journalists almost certainly are being disingenuous). In any case, that is unlikely to work well as a persuasion strategy. Prominent political actors who are dishonest should be called out for it. But when addressing the broader base of leave voters, assuming sincerity is the better strategy.                                                 

Selective mercantilism

As Johnson’s government turns up the heat on no deal rhetoric, an old trope has returned to temper fears: don’t worry, once they know we are serious about walking away, German car manufacturers will come to the rescue. More broadly, so the argument goes, the UK’s trade deficit with the rest of the EU gives the British government a substantial advantage in any negotiation, because European exporters stand to lose more than British exporters from any uniform reduction in the volume of trade.

There are two obvious problems with this. The first is that the argument confuses absolute values with proportions. Yes, the U.K. exports less to the rest of the EU than vice versa, but the EU represents a substantially larger proportion of the U.K.’s export market than the other way round. 46% of U.K. exports go to the EU, whereas only 8% of rEU exports go to the U.K. Once you factor in U.K. exports that go to countries which the U.K. has trade arrangements agreements with by virtue of EU membership, the figure for the U.K. is even larger.

But the second problem is perhaps more fundamental. Why do exports matter more than imports? ‘They sell more to us than we sell to them’ could easily be rephrased as ‘we get more of our stuff from them than the other way round’. If a good is being is being imported, it must represent some kind of a gain for the consumer: either in price, quality, choice or simply availability of a particular commodity. If this were not the case, why would anyone buy the good? Replacement, where possible, would come at a cost.  And the sudden shock of a disruption to trade could lead to shortages. What’s more, long supply chains dependent on imported goods would mean disruption would hit export industries too.

Brexiteers seem to have fallen for the old mercantilist fallacy: that national wealth, like that of an individual firm, comes from accumulating profits (in this case from exports) rather than efficient resource allocation. But this mercantilism is in fact rather selective. The very same Brexiteers explicitly reject this argument when arguing in favour of the so called WTO option.

Their argument relies heavily on modelling done by Patrick Minford, which assumes the U.K. will embark on unilateral free trade. The idea here is that while the U.K. could not force other countries to eliminate barriers to U.K. exports, the U.K. could unilaterally eliminate barriers to imports. The argument does not take into account non tariff barriers (particularly in the form of regulatory alignment) which do require agreement, but let’s leave that one aside. The point is that for unilateral free trade to represent a gain, you have to assume that reducing import costs is beneficial. So much so that it might be worth giving up the leverage of being able to reduce barriers in order to get a trade agreement. This is what Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees Mogg, John Redwood and others have argued.

The logical corollary of this is that increasing such costs represents a harm. This is surely hard to reconcile with the first, previously mentioned plank of no deal rhetoric: that the UK’s trade deficit is a negotiating advantage, because all that really matters is exports. You could perhaps try and make an exotic argument about both being important, but one mattering more than the other, but at that stage the arguments become increasingly arbitrary. The only realistic way of reconciling these two views is to say that yes, exports aren’t really the source of wealth, but perhaps the rest of the EU is stupid enough to think that that is the case. But perhaps this is just taking bad arguments a bit too seriously.

The Legitimacy Zugzwang

A close friend of mine remarked earlier today that he is increasingly worried about the effect Brexit will have on social cohesion. If it goes ahead, the economic shock will likely lead to a significant amount of dislocation, and if it doesn't, the existing betrayal narrative amongst leavers is likely to get worse. They may blame not just politicians, but liberally minded people in the country at large. Increasingly I think there is no outcome that a large portion of the population won't see as fundamentally illegitimate. Any move on Brexit is likely to make social cohesion and belief in the legitimacy of government worse.

Amongst Conservative Brexiteers and the leave supporting press, there has been a decisive move towards describing anything other than the most extreme rupture with the European Union as an act of betrayal. In their minds, nothing else will fulfill the mandate of the referendum.But the corollary of this is that any 'legitimate' Brexit for leavers will so egregiously exceed general expectations of the referendum mandate that it will almost certainly be seen as illegitimate by most remainers. This is not the same as saying they won't like it: they will see it as an extreme development achieved without proper democratic consent.

Add to this the increasing awareness of electoral misconduct by Vote Leave and the memory of the way in which the campaign was run and it's easy to see why the legitimacy of the vote might be called into question. And any residual sense of legitimacy of the process will then be tested by the severe shock of an abrupt departure from the EU.

This was not always the case. When May first came into power in 2016, it may well have been possible to put together a compromise position in favour of EEA membership (the so called Norway option). Sure, lots of people wouldn't particularly have liked it. Remainers like myself might well have thought the process was pointlessly damaging: a large amount of effort, and a very unpleasant campaign would have occurred, all to keep things more or less as they are, albeit with less influence than as a full member state.

Certainly many leavers would have disliked it, but it's quite plausible that it would have been seen by a broad enough chunk of the population as acceptable enough that politics could move on to other things. Indeed polling immediately after the referendum suggests this is exactly what many leavers expected to happen, and many prominent leavers had at one stage or other advocated something along these lines. Even the withdrawal agreement, something that in all likelihood would mean a final settlement with the EU which was hugely damaging to the UK in terms of trade, influence, rights and opportunities could potentially have been regarded as an unfortunate compromise.

Now, it is not only difficult to imagine such a compromise: even if one were reached in Commons, amongst the wider population, it would be viewed as illegitimate by either remainers, leavers or both. Arguably, a second referendum could shift this. But I wouldn't be so sure. The margin of victory in a second referendum would likely be small, and there is every reason to think the campaign would be equally dishonest. Leavers could easily dismiss a narrow remain victory as an illegitimate result,either by questioning whether a second vote should have taken place, or by quasi conspiratorial appeal to an establishment set up (conspiratorial ideas about 'the establishment'/the elites form an important part of Brexiteer rhetoric, regardless of their resemblance of actual power relations). Remainers in the event of another leave victory are likely to accept leaving as a politcal reality, but still see the likely tactics of the leave campaign as anti-democratic.

This is not to say that legitimacy questions can simply be tossed out the window. Perhaps the consequences of one group seeing the process as illegitimate are more severe than those of another.  And a second referendum may deliver a less bad outcome in terms of percieved legitimacy of government policy. But all arguments to this effect must now be comparative. And in absence of a compelling comparative argument, it increasingly seems to make sense to just push for the best outcome in practical terms, which means remaining a member of the European Union.

Brexit: populism without agency

I've just finished reading Jan-Werner Müller's What is Populism? Not that he needs my endorsement, but it's a great book. Concise, compellingly written and with what I think is an important and useful analytic framework for thinking about how populist movements work. The central theses (or definitions, depending on how you think about them) are threefold. Firstly, populist movements claim exclusive moral representation of 'the people' over and above other parties, political groups, institutions, laws or processes.  Secondly, a particular subset of the population is talked of as if it was the whole population, and those who do not conform to this idea of are not of 'the people'. Thirdly, because populist movements are by nature anti-pluralist and seek hegemonic power, and because they are often rooted in conspiratorial thinking about institutions and rule by law and processes, populist movements should not be viewed as democratic. They undermine the norms and institutions of a society that make democracy work, and are therefore not merely 'illiberal democratic' but 'undemocratic'. 

It isn't much of a leap to apply this to thinking about Brexit, indeed Müller has done so on many occasions himself. Think of Farage's appeal to the idea of the 'real people' who voted Leave on the night of the referendum, the labelling of those criticse Brexit as 'enemies of the people,  or attacks on judges, civil servants and even Parliament itself as thwarting the 'will of the people'.  But I think there is a genuinely interesting and unique (albeit worrying) dynamic to Brexit which makes it different from other populist movements. Typically populist movements seek to establish the hegemonic control of a defined group or party with a leader. It is that group and/or individual which represents the ‘Will of the People’. With Brexit, this is not quite the case. Yes, Brexit has Nigel Farage, but he is nowhere near gaining actual political power. Rather, with Brexit, political legitimacy is driven by the idea of Brexit itself, with the referendum as its foundational myth.  Brexit, not a party, or individual, represents the will of the people. Political legitimacy, at least within the right of British society and politics,  is established by proving not that you represent particular needs or interests, or that what you advocate is in any practical sense a good idea, but that you are a firm believer in the cause and what you advocate represents the true spirit of Brexit. It does not matter, for example, whether membership of the Customs Union is a good idea or not: what matters is whether it is consistent with the principles of leaving the EU.

This, I suspect, is not merely the result of  a conscious effort of committed populists, but the curious circumstances of the referendum and its tensions with parliamentary democracy. There were some individuals, like Farage, who always used this kind of populist language and fundamentally espoused a populist idea of political power and legitimacy. Farage talked about his supporters as if  they were the only authentic members of the population long before they could plausibly be argued to represent the majority of the population. For anti-immigration, ethno-nationalist parties like UKIP this kind of thinking goes hand in hand with a moral justification for their platform. But for some, the overtly  anti-parliament, anti-pluralist bent may have been partially accidental. The reason for this is as simple. The 2016 referendum had no legal status beyond being advisory. Leave won, but without the support of the then government, or the majority of MPs, or any mechanism for these two facts to automatically change. What Brexit was supposed to mean was simultaneously vague, at times contradictory, and also all encompassing. This set up a situation where there was almost certain to be a crisis of political legitimacy. No government could ever deliver the kind of Brexit promised by Vote Leave, and socially liberal MPs could not get on board with Brexit as an all encompassing mandate for social conservatism in any aspect of life even tangentially related to the EU. Two sources of political legitimacy therefore came into conflict: legal and parliamentary legitimacy on the one hand, and the idea of Brexit as the will of the people on the other. Moreover, as long as there was no legal means for those in favour of Brexit to force their desired outcome, and so long as it was possible that Brexit might be abandoned if public opinion changed, Brexiteers could never be confident of their victory. In this context, it made strategic sense for Brexiteers to try and delegitimise parliamentary and legal impediments to Brexit, provided they were ruthless enough to do so. It was, in other words, a curious alliance of committed, outright authoritarian populists and those willing to use their methods in the circumstances they found themselves in.

This is important for thinking about how power in the UK now works, because it means that, unlike a country where a single, normal populist party is dominant, actors actually have remarkably little agency. Political legitimacy is established on the right by proving commitment to an idea, and proving the consistency of what you say with the spirit of that idea. But deviation can quickly result in a loss of authority. Theresa May tried to establish her authority this way (think of the ‘red lines’, the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ line, or her ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech) but her authority evaporated when the reality of the withdrawal agreement set in. Liam Fox, an arch-Brexiter, was dismissed by fellow Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party as infected by remain sentiment in Cabinet, when he tried to refute the old myth about GATT 24. Even Rees-Mogg found himself having to back-track after briefly indicating support for the Withdrawal Agreement, when he realised his supporters would not go along with his justifications for doing so. And Michael Gove was given a hard time in the Brexit supporting press for arguing in favour of a possible (extremely short) additional extension of Article 50. 

This sets a very dangerous process of radicalisation in progress, of what was already a radical idea. Power and the legitimate exersize of power requires adherence to an idea, with individuals competing to be truest to it. Once this is accepted as the way in which political legitimacy is established, it does not necessarily matter (at least within the Conservative Party) if it is believed to be good or bad anymore. Soviet officials knew that policy had to be sold as true to the spirit of Marxism Leninism long after too many people actually believed in the state ideology. And in the British Conservative Party, it is not clear that anybody would have the agency to do anything differently, even if they wanted to. 

Now, perhaps Johnson will be different. It is possible that as someone who was so clearly the face of the Leave campaign that he will indeed have some authority to shape what happens next. This would in and of itself hardly be reassuring, but I suspect that the debate has become so radicalised and he has so tied himself down in opposition to Withdrawal Agreement, that even he no longer has much control of the process. We do, fortunately, still live in a multiparty democracy, and the popular appeal and perceived legitimacy of Brexit may be waning. Let's hope that's enough. 

Gender differences in attitudes towards Brexit

Since the referendum of June 2016, there has been a huge amount of discussion of the demographic breakdown of the vote and current attitudes towards Brexit. This has not been limited to conversations amongst academics but features significantly in the broadcast and print media. It has been important for internal party debates, particularly within the Labour Party, about which direction the leadership should take, and has also featured heavily in the moral discussion of the referendum, be it talk of the vote of the 'left behinds', the more troubling tendency to paint the leave vote as somehow more authentically of the people, or, on the remain side, the significance of the youth vote.

What's striking is one notable absence: gender. This seems like an odd omission, given the well established trend of populist and nativist movements to be male dominated.  I had the impression that there was a significant difference between men and women in attitudes to Brexit, but could not find much in terms of charts, graphs or metadata to confirm or deny this. I remembered that Yougov has a poll tracker of attitudes towards Brexit, which it normally breaks down its responses by gender. The question posed is "In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU? Respondents can answer either 'right', 'wrong', or 'don't know'. I trawled through the last year's worth of data and produced a weighted mean for each result by gender. As the overall picture of attitudes has been relatively stable over this period (though the lead for 'wrong' has increased slightly), this made sense as a time period for measuring differences in current attitudes by gender, rather than changes in attitude over time. All data is given as percentages, weighted by sample size. They are as follows:

Right Wrong Don't Know
Men 43.746.7 9.7
Women 37.5 48.314.0
Clearly, women tend to have less positive attitudes towards Brexit. The most significant differences are the lower levels of women who say that Brexit was the 'right' choice, and the higher number who say they do not know. When 'don't know' is removed (though perhaps it shouldn't be) the difference in levels of support for right vs wrong becomes more pronounced. They are as follows:

Right Wrong
Men 48.4 51.6
Women 43.7 56.3

For those interested, the raw data used is produced below. I've tried to find every single Yougov poll done in the last year, but there are a couple of omissions, either because I've been unable to find the polling data or because it is not broken down by gender.

Date Men right Men wrong Men DK Women right Women wrong Women DK Sample Size
23 July 2018 / YouGov 47 43 11 38 49 13 1650
9 August 2018 / YouGov 45 45 10 38 46 16 1036
13 August 2018 / NC 45 44 10 41 46 12 1660
21 August 2018 / YouGov 45 45 10 37 50 13 1697
29 August 2018 / YouGov 45 47 8 39 47 14 1664
4 September 2018 / YouGov 43 48 9 41 47 12 1883
13 September 2018 / YouGov 44 48 8 37 48 15 1620
19 September 2018 / YouGov 45 46 9 36 49 15 2509
1 October 2018 / YouGov 44 47 9 40 46 13 1607
9 October 2018 / YouGov 44 45 12 36 49 15 1647
15 October 2018 / YouGov 43 44 13 41 46 13 1649
23 October 2018 / YouGov 46 45 9 37 48 15 1802
5 November 2018 / YouGov 46 43 11 36 48 16 1637
27 November 2018 / YouGov 44 48 8 39 48 13 1737
4 December 2018 / YouGov 40 50 10 35 48 16 1624
14 December 2018 / YouGov 45 46 9 37 48 14 5043
4 January 2019 / YouGov 43 47 10 37 49 14 25537
7 January 2019 / YouGov 43 46 11 36 51 13 1656
14 January 2019 / YouGov 42 49 9 39 47 14 1701
4 February 2019 / YouGov 43 47 10 36 49 16 1851
23 February 2019 / YouGov 42 47 11 37 48 14 1672
15 March 2019 / YouGov 43 50 7 39 48 14 1823
25 March 2019 / YouGov 43 48 9 38 48 14 2110
3 April 2019 / YouGov 43 47 10 41 46 13 1771
11 April 2019 / YouGov 44 48 8 38 48 13 1843
3 July 2019 / YouGov 45 47 8 37 48 14 1605
17 July 2019 / YouGov 46 45 10 35 50 15 1749
Weighted Mean 43.71562555 46.65833593 9.671929848 37.50304271 48.33015735 14.01256387 73783
* Number Cruncher Politics