Amidst the plots and subplots, claims and counterclaims, one refrain is heard more and more frequently in the EU referendum debate. Pundits and ordinary voters alike seem to have developed a craving for “the facts.” It is a craving that is hard to satisfy effectively, for many reasons. Yet, solid empirical data is arguably more necessary in this referendum than in normal elections.
In the UK, both interest in, and knowledge about the EU are low. Ignorance afflicts all groups, from the young to our elected representatives in Westminster. The 2016 Audit of Political Engagement found that only 38 per cent of people were confident about their understanding of the EU.
Many people – and numerous sombre newspaper editorials – have bemoaned the current state of the campaign. The references to Hitler, the constant distortion of the economic facts and the disguising of speculation as analysis are all preventing the emergence of a proper debate over the true costs and benefits of EU membership.
The tone of the campaign is partly a reflection of the changing nature of politics across the western world. Social media, ranging from the self-curated virtual newspapers on our Facebook feeds, to the twitter “echo chamber” have allowed people to surround themselves with voices expressing similar views to their own. More and more of us are simply not confronted with dissenting opinions. Facts are not checked and purveyors of inconvenient facts are routinely traduced.
Partly, too, the facts are genuinely elusive. Even for experts, understanding the nature and implications of British EU membership is extremely difficult. First, analysis of what membership has meant involves considering what might have happened had the UK not joined. Economists have deployed sophisticated methods, including one going by the name of “synthetic counterfactuals” to compare the performance of states that joined the EU and those that did not.
Yet whilst we may be beginning to understand the past, a significant part of the debate on British membership hinges on what may happen if we leave. And there are no facts about the future, even if campaigners on both sides are happy to claim otherwise. Profound disagreements over the kind of deal Britain might obtain in the event of a Brexit mean that the basic assumptions underpinning competing claims are easy to pull apart.
And of course the further into the future we try to peer, the less persuasive our claims become. The Treasury’s study of the implications of leaving attempted to predict economic performance up to 2030 and concluded that it would lead to a loss of £4,300 per household. Putting such a specific figure on such a long-term prediction appears — at a minimum — overly confident.
Even when it comes to the present, knowledge is not easy to come by. Take the much vaunted claim that the UK pays the European Union £350 million a week. The figure is incorrect. Margaret Thatcher’s rebate means we pay significantly less than this figure. What we don’t know, however, is how much of what we do pay comes back to us. The Treasury only keeps figures on “public sector receipts”, which do not include, for example, grants from the EU to companies or the income going directly to UK universities. Consequently, no one knows for sure the total net contribution the UK pays.
So who and what do voters trust? To work out what to believe it’s important to establish if there’s evidence for the claim. The evidence needs to be proportionate – big claims need big evidence. And inevitably, people are often as swayed by the messenger as the message. There is significant evidence that neither campaign is fully trusted.
Clearly, then, it’s important to try to read as diverse a range of sources as possible and to pick sources that owe allegiance to neither camp. The project I lead aims to provide voters with unbiased, independent and, importantly, authoritative information from academics whose careers have been dedicated to understanding the EU.
Facts matter more in this referendum than in any other popular vote. When it comes to elections, people have their own past experience and that of their families and communities to draw on. In contrast, we hardly ever vote on matters related to the EU. Elections to the European Parliament are fought over national issues, and so have no reservoir of knowledge or traditions of voting to draw upon. Facts, in other words, may be elusive but, they are pretty much all we have.
Anand Menon, Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs and Director of The UK in a Changing Europe.