British Exit from the European Union and the Perceptual Divide

The parallel between the perceptual divide over politics in the U.S. and the divide that yielded the British vote to exit the European Union has been a theme of this blog.


As in the U.S. in the wake of the last presidential election, we have mounting evidence in the UK of the costly consequences of the collective decision reached in 2016.

And what we learn by examining the case of British exit from the European Union is that citizens reach opposite conclusions from the same body of evidence. This confirms the finding established by social psychologists: when views are central to a person’s identity, they revise their justifications for holding those views much more readily than they revise the views themselves.

Ultimately, in the face of contradictory evidence, people find psychological value in adopting justifications for their views that are based on faith and simply cannot be falsified.

Following from the inherent ambiguity of the June 2016 referendum on EU membership, the British government has been unable to determine how it wants to leave the European Union. Negotiations with the EU have not gone well for the British. Essentially every claim of the “Brexiters” about the ability of the UK to determine the outcome of negotiations has been proven false.

With the treaty process limiting negotiations to 24 months unless all parties agree to extend the deadline, time is running short. Allowing time for the required approval of a British exit deal by both the British parliament and the European Parliament, negotiations must wrap up within the next couple of months.

And yet the British government continues to fight with itself about what it wants.

Most recently, Theresa May, after locking in the members of her senior leadership at Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s country retreat, announced the outlines of a British plan. Within days, the plan was dead, rejected by members of her own Conservative party and the European Union alike.

There is now mounting attention to the prospect of Britain leaving without any sort of deal. This would mean that World Trade Organization rules would apply to British economic ties with European Union countries. There would be two sources of disruption: tariffs of varying levels on goods and customs inspections at the border as goods cross between the UK and the EU and from the EU into the UK.

Is this a big deal? Yes. An enormous deal.

With the UK’s current membership in the European Union’s customs union and single market, goods move across borders unhindered. Businesses have as a result developed supply chains in which inputs are sourced from across Europe, moving seamlessly and swiftly across borders. But now there would need to be inspections that would disrupt these flows. Recent reporting by Stephen Castle in the New York Times points to mounting concerns about miles-long backups of supply trucks at the Dover port of entry, potentially resulting in shortages of food (about 40% of the UK’s food is imported from the EU or through EU trade agreements with other countries) and medicines. Stockpiling is not an option due to both the absence of warehousing space and the limited shelf-life of the foodstuffs in question.

In a recently released study on food security after Brexit, the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London warns of the dangers of a “careless” Brexit. The study suggests that border inspections of trucks of only a few minutes each could lead to backups of supply trucks of up to 29 miles.

The alternative – to simply abandon inspections at the border in order to keep supplies moving – would not amount to the “taking back control” promised by Brexiters, but would instead mean “abandoning it,” as the study’s authors assert. Furthermore, eliminating controls could lead to a complete suspension of agricultural exports from the UK to an EU wary of accepting products from a country with no food inspection regime.

With much publicity focused both on the divisive and shambolic performance of the British government and the potential disruption to supplies of foods, medicines and other products, what has been the response in the British electorate? Has there been a convergence of perceptions around the notion that British exit from the European Union may not be in the best interest of the country, and that the decision to leave was perhaps a mistake?

Not quite.

The YouGov survey has tracked leave and remain voters over time. The most recent survey – from September 4 and 5 – shows that 46% of respondents believe it was the wrong decision to leave the EU, while 43% believe the decision was correct. The shift from earlier results is a marginal tilt toward “wrong decision.”

Stunningly, though, while 87% of “remain” voters believe the decision to exit was wrong (and only 7% now believe it was right for the UK to decide to leave), 84% of “leave” voters continue to believe exit was the right decision (with 7% considering it the wrong decision to exit).

The perceptual divide, in other words, remains entirely intact despite the evidence cited above.

What is fascinating is that there is broad agreement on several aspects of Brexit dynamics. First, 80% of “remain” voters and 71% of “leave” voters believe negotiations are going badly for the government, and precisely 58% percent of each group believe the EU has the upper hand in negotiations (hardly what politicians advocating for Brexit promised during the referendum campaign). And majorities of both remain (70%) and leave (59%) voters think it is unlikely that the British government and the EU will reach a deal in time for the scheduled date of British exit (March 29, 2019).

In other words, leave voters observe the same evidence as remain voters: the British government is faring poorly in negotiations; the EU has a much stronger bargaining position; time is running out for the UK to reach a deal.

But on the basis of this shared body of evidence, the two groups reach entirely different conclusions. What seems to change as evidence mounts is not the conclusions different groups of citizens reach, but their justifications for those decisions.

All of this casts doubt on the efficacy of fact-checking campaigns such as Gina Miller’s Dover-based “End the Chaos” project. The worthy goal is to provide straightforward, honest information in order to reduce the bitter divisiveness wrought by the Brexit decision. Sadly, it is not at all clear that good information can lead citizens to revise their positions.

For those interested in a short podcast on this topic, please listen to the forthcoming episode of the World Views podcast produced by the David L. Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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