Since everyone‘s chipping in now, and despite my own deep reservations about the utility of a referendum as a way of resolving the UK’s relationship with the EU, it is still prudent to make plans for such an eventuality: As David Cameron’s ‘tantric‘ speech looms ever closer, so the likelihood that it will offer a popular vote in some form on membership appears to increase, even if more through thoughtlessness than intent.

Into this mix, we might also add that I’ve been reading a book (for fun, mainly): Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman writes about the way we think (with an instinctive ‘gut’ and a more rational ‘head’) and about the biases that this thinking contains.  In particular, his ideas about availability and “What you see is all there is” are potentially very helpful to us.

Firstly, let’s consider the situation. We have no final decision about a referendum, but we do have indicators pointing that way. We also know that a formal campaign will be bound by the Electoral Commission‘s rules, which will structure debate (and spending on campaigning). We can be confident that any referendum topic presented is likely to be read as ‘in/out’ by most voters and participants, even if membership is not mentioned, and that voting will be shaped by attitudes towards domestic politics before the EU qua EU (a la Second Order voting). Finally, let’s assume that my own position is one of supporting membership, even if all the points here could apply equally well to the anti- position.

Now let’s bring in some Kahneman. He tells us that people are generally lazy in their reasoning, using heuristics to take short-cuts, and rationalising on the basis of what information they are presented with. In evolutionary terms, this has generally worked well, but it is not necessarily appropriate to all situations, hence the emergence of more rational approaches alongside it. While we might like to think that people act and make decisions on a purely rational basis, that’s evidently not true, so we might better assume that people will make decisions in the easiest way possible. As Kahneman says, faced with complex decisions, we often substitute a simpler decision: thus “should the UK remain in the EU?” becomes “do I like the EU?”, since the former requires an evaluation of costs and benefits, while the later is simply affective and can draw on “what I know about the EU”.

So far, this doesn’t look too good: both pro and anti sides spend a lot of time trying to build big banks of research to justify their cases, when it might just come down to ‘chat in a pub’ type attitudes (i.e. over a pint, you will views on most things, without developing a wide-ranging evidence base to support).

But it is also important to recognise that this also opens up a set of opportunities, of which I list three.

  1. Most people have shallow preferences on the EU. It has a low salience, as compared to other issues, so we might expect that while attitudes are currently more negative than positive, that can be easily moved, as in 1975. Associating high salience issues with a pro-EU position would therefore help;
  2. In the current open field of public debate, there is scope to set agendas and develop peoples’ heuristic models. Witness the slow-drip approach of some newspapers and of some sceptic pressure groups, building an image of the EU as bureaucratic, interfering, undemocratic and wrong: none of it is killer stuff, but it has become the default mode for media reporting of European affairs. ‘Brussels’ has a bad name in large part because communication of the alternative is much more complex and journalists use shortcuts too. However, this does not mean that other heuristic models cannot be developed, built around positive values of cooperation, consensus and outputs;
  3. What you see is still all that there is, so there is much scope to put things in peoples’ way to affect their thinking. The closer this comes to a vote, the more available it will be and the more likely to affect behaviour. This might include stressing the positive associations of a choice (e.g. for pros, the access to markets and funding, or the halo effect of membership on the UK’s international standing) or the negative associations of a choice (e.g. the costs of non-membership, in economic and political terms). Even if these associations are not substantiated in fact, they will still affect people’s attitudes, as witnessed by the wilder excesses of sceptic comments.

In brief, I would suggest that if a vote does come, then it will be much more open that most people realise (this is another Kahneman point, that people tend to over-estimate the likelihood of events occurring). However, for this to come to fruition, it will require pro-EU individuals and organisations to mobilise now in order to maximise their chance of influencing people. At the moment, only sceptics seem to have grasped this and consequently are making all the running.


UPDATE: with a slightly different reasoning, Jon Worth makes some very similar points in his blog here: I heartily commend it to you.

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As Winston Churchill famously remarked once, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  Certainly, last night’s announcement by the Greek Prime Minister to hold a referendum on the latest bailout package does strike one as (at best) high-risk.  The general consensus amongst both political scientists and politicians is that you only ask people to decide things when you already know the answer they’ll give: right now, it’s not at all clear either how people will respond or what answer Papandreou would like.  So why do it?

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