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In our new book, National Populism: the Revolt against Liberal Democracy, Matt Goodwin and I critically examine some of the myths which surround the Brexit victory, such as the claim that it was heavily based on ‘angry old white men’.

However, rather than expand on this psephological analysis, I want to offer some reflections about two linked issues.

  • Why did the vast majority of commentators fail to see Brexit coming?
  • (And especially) Why did pro-Remain arguments from expert sources and others fail to sway the vote sufficiently to ensure victory?

The first question is typically answered by noting that opinion polls failed to allow sufficiently for low turnout among Remain-supporting young people, and the way that large numbers of habitual non-voters trooped to the polls to vote for Brexit.

A common answer to the second question notes that a growing number of people have become alienated from mainstream politicians and are distrustful of what they see as elitist and politically correct agendas.

More specifically, the Brexit campaign was helped by factors such as a highly partisan section of the tabloid press, unexpectedly large financial resources, a charismatic leader in the shape of Boris Johnson and – last but not least – a willingness to lie about issues like the potential to control immigration without harming the economy, and how British money being paid into the EU budget could be transferred to the NHS.

These are perfectly good arguments, but we can gain deeper insights into these two questions if we examine them through the prism of psychological theory.

One set of insights comes from theories known by terms such as ‘confirmation bias’. These hold that people tend to take on information which conforms to existing views, filtering out ‘dissonant’ facts and opinions.

This is not simply a feature of how the less educated process extensive and, in this case, often polarised information.

Indeed, there is evidence that educated partisans are particularly likely to assess information in this way, as they have a strong belief both in the rightness of their views and their ability to judge.

The fact that academics and other experts heavily interact with people holding broadly similar views reinforces this tendency towards ‘group think’.

So whilst the failure to see Brexit coming in part reflects polling errors, it also stemmed from an inability to take on board the strong appeal of radically different points of view.

These observations relate to my second opening question about the resilience of Brexit support in the face of extensive pro-Remain opinion.

Of relevance here are approaches known by names like ‘moral foundations ’ theory, which hold that people have deep-rooted values that underpin their views on key issues.

For example, conservatives tend to stress authority, community and tradition. Social democrats stress equality, rights and internationalism. Critics argue that this approach over-simplifies underlying ideologies.

Social democrats, for example, can care about community and most western conservatives are not politically authoritarian.

However, moral foundations theory rightly points to the way in which attacks on people’s basic values are resented as an attack on their identity, and therefore strongly resisted.

Yet experiments which have asked conservative and social democrat participants to try to change opponents’ opinions reveal that only a small minority try to do so by tapping into the other side’s underlying values.

The Brexit campaign was no exception. I’ll take two examples. First, the Remain camp frequently ignored the immigration issue, though it was the prime concern of most voters according to opinion polls.

When it was addressed, it was often linked to charges of racism, or ‘Little Englander’ xenophobia. A small minority of Brexit voters can reasonably be termed ‘racist’, but most saw themselves as raising legitimate issues, like the skill set needed by immigrants or whether groups can be assimilated, particularly some Muslims.

Psychologists point out that such reasonable views can be accompanied by ‘implicit bias’, involving tendencies such as homogenising and stereotyping immigrants.

But the fact that these prejudices are unknown to the holder means that they often react to the charge of being ‘racist’ by further resentment towards liberal elites. In a political campaign there is always a judgement to be made about whether to respond directly to the opposition’s agenda.

However, if a decision is made to engage, then it is important to campaign in ways that, at least in part, link to opponents’ values.

In the case of immigration, this would require both an economic argument about the need for unskilled migrants, in say care homes, and demonstrating examples of happy and thriving multi-ethnic communities.

Or consider how to respond to the charge that the EU has undermined sovereignty. A braver Remain leadership would have spent less time trying to frighten voters with predictions of economic doom and more addressing the specific point.

It is not difficult to show that contemporary states cannot be truly sovereign, and that by ceding power in some spheres Britain can gain overall.

For example, its international influence will be far greater as a member of the EU than alone – an argument that would have resonated with voters who had strong views about past British greatness.

More could also have been made of the way in which international groupings like the EU are better able to take on tax-avoiding multinational corporations, or provide shelter from future trade wars or unfair competition launched by mega-economies like the US and China.

Although many Brexit voters were willing to pay an economic price to regain sovereignty, this does not mean that they were not concerned about issues like growing inequalities and future prosperity.

Given the evidence that we present in National Populism about the widespread alienation from the political mainstream, elites and experts it will not be easy to conduct successful future conversations of these types from the top down.

However, in the event of a second referendum the Remain camp would be more likely to succeed if it takes on board a better understanding of how to engage in successful attitude change. Otherwise, the result is likely to be yet more dialogues of the deaf.

By Roger Eatwell, emeritus professor of comparative politics at the University of Bath.


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