Tag Archives: uk referendum on eu

Heresthetics and referendums

Heresthetic(s) describes the importance of the order of choice on political choices. The Scottish referendum process could become a brilliant example ….

William Riker invented the term heresthetics (or heresthetic) to describe the importance of a particular kind of manipulation:

one can help produce a particular choice if one can determine the context of, or order in which people make, choices.

Put simply, if you want to make something happen, it may be better to influence the institutions in which people make decisions, or frame issues to determine which particular aspect of a problem to which people pay attention, than change their minds about their preferences.

The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence could provide a nice, simple, example of this process.

Ideally, you would want to know about people’s preferences in considerable detail. After all, life is more complicated than binary choices suggest, and people are open to compromise. Yet, we tend to produce very simple binary referendums because they would otherwise be very difficult for most of the public to understand or for policymakers to interpret.

So, the way in which we simply that choice matters (for example, in Scotland, it led to the rejection of a third option – super dee duper mega max devolution – on the ballot paper, and therefore limited the choices of people who might have that third option as their first preference).

So too does the way in which we make several simple choices in a particular order.

Imagine a group of people – crucial to the outcome – whose main preference is that Scotland stays inside the UK in the EU:

  1. In a referendum in which Scotland votes first, this group votes No to Scottish independence on the assumption that the result will best reflect their preferences (helping produce 55% No).
  2. In a referendum in which Scotland votes after the UK (and the UK votes to leave the EU), many people will change their choice even if they have not changed their preferences (they would still prefer to be in the UK and EU, but that is no longer an option). So, some will choose to be in the UK out of the EU, but others will choose out of the UK and in the EU.

So, the order of choice, and the conditions under which we make choices, matters even when people have the same basic preferences. The people who voted No in the first referendum may vote Yes in the second, but still say that their initial choice was correct under the circumstances (and quite right too). Or, there may not be a second opportunity to choose.

This dynamic of choice is true even before we get into the more emotional side (some people will feel let down by the argument that a No vote was to stay in the EU).

Further reading:

If you want the Scottish argument in a less dispassionate form, read this by Alan Massie. If you want something more concise, see this tweet:

If you want more on heresthetic, google William Riker and take it from there.

Or, have a look at my series on policymaking. In two-dozen different ways, these posts identify these issues of framing, rules, and the order of choice. Search, for example, for ‘path dependence’ which describes the often profound long term effects of events and decisions made in a particular order in the past.

Note, of course, that only some choice situations are open to direct manipulation. In our case, I don’t think anyone managed to produce a Leave vote in the EU referendum to get a second crack at Scottish independence 😉

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Filed under agenda setting, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Celebrate the referendum, and celebrate politics, even if it looks crap

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It’s hard to find anyone to say a good word about the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Yet, we should take a minute to celebrate, at the very least, the principle of a referendum. In principle, we’ll have most of the voting public coming together to make a decision on a matter of major importance to British politics. Leaders make their pitch, and we make an important choice. It’s as close as we’ll get to direct democracy in action.

Instead, it’s tempting to blame the referendum for such a bad-looking outcome: manipulative campaigners are stirring up division and fear, and lying about the likely outcomes; people with limited knowledge are basing their decisions on their values and emotions in the relative absence of ‘facts’; and, some people are exploiting the opportunity to be abusive or violent in the name of politics. Or, to put it in a far vaguer way, there is a bad ‘climate’ associated with the referendum, and it just doesn’t feel right.

However, if this is what we think of political elite behaviour, and of the limits to the knowledge and deliberative capacity of the public, I can’t think of any political mechanism that would help. For example:

  1. With representative democracy, we’d have 5-year elections in which people make uninformed choices about parties doing anything to get elected.
  2. With pluralist democracy, we’d have governments selling favours to vested interests.
  3. When developing new forms of accountability, we’d have fat cat quango chief executives lining their own pockets at the public’s expense, local community councils and partnerships manipulating processes to make sure that nothing bad happens in their own back yard, and service users cheating the system to get better public services than other people – and all of this would be overseen by parliamentarians and other politicians who don’t give a shit.

Consider the consequences of rejecting referendums

I think we often think the worst of people, and despair of certain political mechanisms, when they don’t deliver what we want. We fear the consequences of political outcomes that don’t reflect our values or interests and – particularly during a heated referendum in which so many people are involved – get a bit of a shock when we see how many people hold opposing views so passionately. For the people most engaged in debate, this can be a visceral experience that reduces our ability to take a step back and give us more time to consider events and their meaning.

Perhaps a small part of us thinks that our opponents are idiots, or at least that they would change their minds if they were more informed, less stupid, less emotional, and less vulnerable to manipulation by political leaders (and that the people who share our views are heroic deliberators basing their decisions on evidence).

If so, it might be safer and less worrying to hold on to political mechanisms which limit such debates, but only when the status quo suits us. When it reinforces a position to which we oppose, we are more likely to be up in arms, decrying the ability of a political class to close off debate, for their own interests, using institutions, biased arguments, and other resources to boost their power.

Instead, I recommend two things:

  1. Blame the worst offenders by name, rather than the mechanisms they use to get what they want.
  2. Consider how to make decisions by combining emotions and evidence.

 

Of course, this has been a big set-up for further reading:

There are some good concepts which help us think through these issues:

On the links between power and policymaking

On ‘framing’ to manipulate political debate and policy choices

On the role of institutions and ‘standard operating procedures’ to (for example) help close off debate

On the networks of influence in which only some people are members (in any political system)

On multi-level governance, complexity, and complex government (to show us that, while the EU looks distant and hard to understand, the UK suffers many of the same problems)

On the role of emotion and ‘irrationality’ versus evidence in politics and policymaking

(If you just want a source for the picture see here)

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Filed under agenda setting, UK politics and policy

The EU referendum: How do you decide?

Andrew Glencross and Paul Cairney give some advice on how to wade through all the information on ‘Brexit’ to make an informed choice. Andrew offers a more thorough discussion in Remain or Leave? A MOOC on the UK Referendum on EU Membership.

We often hear that citizens don’t have enough information to help them make a decision about the EU referendum. Yet, there is too much information. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to  wade through all the campaign claims and evaluate them

We also hear that what we need is an ‘objective’ guide; someone to pull together all the evidence so that people can read it and make an informed decision. This will never happen. There is no objective guide. Indeed, the whole idea of objectivity is misleading. Anyone presenting ‘evidence’ on the debate is giving a partial story. This is clear when you hear people making the best, most optimistic, cases for or against evidence. If you want a well-rounded case, you don’t ask David Cameron or Boris Johnson.

It’s less clear when alleged experts join in, but the biases are still there. Everyone tells you some things and leaves out the rest; they describe to you one simple part of a complicated picture. Then, another expert will tell you the direct opposite. So, there will never come a point when you read enough to make a decision based on ‘the evidence’.

What can you do instead? We suggest two strategies.

Strategy 1: engage critically with any information you receive

Don’t take it at face value. Instead, consider:

Who is giving me the information and to what extent can I trust them?

This is relatively easy when you read a Remain or Leave pamphlet or listen to campaigners in debates. Set your trust levels to low (often, these messages simply reinforce what you believe, or annoy you). Or, at least, try to combine their accounts to see if there is any middle ground (which is not always possible).

It’s harder when people are brought in as ‘experts’. For every business guru, lawyer or university professor on one side, there seems to be an equivalent on the other (although, in some cases such as economic matters, there seems to be an imbalance towards Remain).

Still, it is not a good idea to assume that, just because Professor Something said something it is true. What you should think about professors is that they have excellent reputations based on research and scholarly excellence in a particular field – not that everything they say is gold. Beware, in particular, the Professor with expertise in one field (such as law or economics) trying to give you his/her views of another (such as economics or law).

What do people really mean?

What tends to happen in this debate is that no-one wants to give any ground; on both sides, the goal is to win at all costs. As a result, the debates tend to be very limited and partial, producing more heat than light before another topic has its moment in the limelight. Simple examples include the debate on how many EU migrants actually work in the UK (should we rely on national insurance numbers issued or exit surveys at airport?) or the question of whether the EU has secret plans for a common army (more cooperation in defence can go ahead without UK participation, but that does not mean the outcome will be an EU army).

How much of the information is based on what they claim to know versus what they predict?

Some problems are easy to spot: beware any prediction of Armageddon or of a better world. If a prediction for a new world seems too good to be true, you know to reject it. If someone says that everything will be unambiguously terrible, you can dismiss them quite easily. It’s harder to spot expert predictions based on one part knowledge and nine parts soothsaying. A good general rule is that a prediction becomes less useful for every year into the future it goes. If the future involves people, it is not easy to predict.

How does this information compare with other information?

One way to deal with information from one source is to compare it with as many other information sources as possible. So, for example, if you hear a point made in a debate, or read it in a leaflet, you can compare it with the thoughts of, say, critical media commentators and academics (e.g. UK in a Changing Europe, or the Centre on Constitutional Change). Or, you can simply ask yourself: is this an assertion, with no evidence, or can they back up what they are saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a good enough strategy on its own, largely because:

  1. Much of the relevant information is not available. We don’t know how people will behave after the vote – how, for example, the negotiations with the EU would progress after a Leave vote, how businesses and ‘the markets’ would react, or even if the vote prompts a further referendum in Scotland.
  2. There is too much information to process.
  3. We have to trust some people to give us useful information; to give us an account of the evidence on which we can rely.

Strategy 2: find ways to simplify your decision, to make it ‘good enough’.

So, we need an additional strategy to act intelligently but quickly. Forget the usual bunkum about some people thinking with their hearts and other people with their heads. Forget the idea of staying awake from now until the vote to make sure you’ve considered every Leave and Remain statement.

Instead, we all use short-cuts to make sure that we pay attention to some information and ignore the rest – and, for all of us, those short cuts include our established beliefs (we tend to reject some information if it contradicts our beliefs) and our emotions. Don’t feel bad if you feel passionately about something and can’t quite explain why. Don’t feel inadequate if someone else tells you that their decision is somehow more ‘rational’. Instead, seek simple ways to combine emotions with ‘rationality’:

  1. Work out your priorities. For some, it’s about the future of immigration. For some, it’s about the economy and certainty over trade. For others, it’s about ‘sovereignty’ and a desire to have policy decisions made in Westminster. For you, it may be about all of these things, but they may not be as important as each other. It is worth considering these priorities before you engage with the information.
  2. Work out what you are willing to give up. There is no realistic scenario in which everyone will be better off after a certain vote, or that everything will improve in each area. Rather, we are making important choices about what we are willing to give up to secure something else. For some, the uncertainty about the economy seems to trump all else. For others, it is about a principle that is more important than a guaranteed outcome.
  3. Identify your ‘gut feeling’ about which way to vote and ask yourself why you feel that way.
  4. Don’t be too annoyed. It is easy to decide to vote one way or another because someone in the Leave or Remain camp annoys you, or they appear to present misleading material, or give you a message in a patronising way. It’s not about them – otherwise, I think that most of us would spoil our ballot papers.

Then vote. It really is that simple.

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Filed under UK politics and policy