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No Pause for Thought? Brexit, Bias and Political Manipulation

Updated Tuesday, 16 May 2017
The psychology of Brexit and contemporary politics, in a series of articles by Volker Patent. In this first article, we look at how the language of Brexit encourages the formation of political cliques. 

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This article is part of our Brexiting collection:

A table of newspapers from the morning after the Brexit referendum. The central newspaper is the Daily Mirror, with the headline "So what the hell happens now?" Seeing Britain move into an uncertain and precarious future outside of the European Union is undoubtedly a defining moment in British and European history. In this context, the announcement of a General Election, to be held on the 8th of June, is a moment a moment to stop and reflect. In the following three articles I will take a step back from the frantic activity of the campaign trail, to think about the psychology of our politicians and their political communications.

We start from the position that the UK appears woefully underprepared for the Brexit negotiations and a world outside the EU. There is a shortfall of civil servants to address the myriad of loose ends that need to be tied up during and after the Brexit negotiations. Industries are already relocating to Europe. Recruitment of skilled workers is becoming very difficult in areas that require them (such as the NHS and care work). And Britain hasn’t even left yet.

Focusing on the people that will be doing the negotiating, there have been suggestions that the UK negotiating team and European negotiating team have widely different understandings of what Brexit will mean, and how the negotiations should be conducted. Reports of a first meeting have not been optimistic, and a hard Brexit seems to be the outcome accepted by the government, who admit that there has been no economic assessment of the potential fallout from Brexit. It is increasingly looking like any trade deals with the EU will only occur after the divorce proceedings. With any one of the EU’s 27 members able to exercise their veto rights and block a trade deal, a lot of different and contradictory interests need to be satisfied if the UK is to avoid an uncontrolled “train-wreck” Brexit.

Yet Pro-Brexit MPs have argued that reports about the UK’s prospects are too gloomy - reportedly storming out of meetings in protest against the negativity of experts. The Leave campaign‘s referendum campaign was characterised by anti-expert sentiment, and voters were encouraged to ignore expert reports by ex-Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, one of the chief leave campaigners. Such anti-intellectual and complacent attitudes towards the monumental change in UKs relationship with Europe begs the question: “If not reports and analysis, then what does the government base its decisions and negotiating position on?”

In this series of articles I discuss some of the psychological aspects of Brexit that should give pause for thought.

Ingroups and Outgroups

Theresa May has selected three extreme pro-leave ministers and positioned them in important roles relative to the Brexit negotiations, creating a situation where there are few dissenting pro-remain voices in May’s Brexit negotiation circle. Psychologically speaking, this lack of diversity in perspectives within the inner circle may contribute to what the psychologist Irving Janis described as “Groupthink”. Descriptively, groupthink is an intense group process that is inward looking, protective of its own agendas and acts to shut down dissent, whilst closing channels through which counterfactual information might be considered. In extreme examples, such as the Watergate scandal involving US president Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the group mentality in the group process may assume paranoid characteristics, even leading the group to consider unethical and illegal means of protecting itself.

Social group processes such as ingroup and outgroup differentiation can be applied to the small group functioning at the heart of government, but also to the wider debates around Brexit in the media. At its simplest level, an ingroup is the group an individual identifies with, whilst an outgroup is the group they do not identify with. To take a non-political example, the supporters of one football team would treat each other as an in-group, but treat the supporters of another football team as an out-group. Members of in-groups typically tend to have strong shared beliefs and norms, but also tend to ascribe less favourable and more negative attributes to the outgroup. In more extreme cases such polarisation can lead an in-group to justify discrimination and violence against the members of outgroups.

We can arguably see examples of such differentiation between the ingroup of Brexiteers and the outgroup of those opposed to the government’s direction: denigrating people with sympathies towards remaining in the EU as ‘remoaners’, dismissing scepticism as ‘Project fear’, and even attacking dissent as treasonous. The danger of allowing an ingroup narrative to remain unchallenged is that it delegitimises debate about the terms of Brexit, becoming a de-facto mechanism of silencing dissent. It also risks polarising and dividing the country, whilst disempowering the 48% percent who voted against leaving. Ironically, whilst the Euro-sceptic leave campaign argued that the EU was undemocratic, the subsequent campaign attempted to delegitimise scepticism of Brexit as ‘project fear’ and “remoaning”. Detailed and free debates are necessary features of a democratic society, and we should not lightly accept these limitations.

Worryingly, the presence of intense ingroup processes and groupthink at the heart of government would imply a group no longer able to operate effectively outside of its own inner social and ideological bubble. If this occurred, it would have alarming effects for the quality of the decision-making and negotiation stance. The evidence so far suggests a government that is entrenched, on the defensive, and who may be likely to consider the all-or-nothing option presented by the path of a hard Brexit. German press reports of conversation between Juncker and May sparked an attack by Theresa May against the EU for ‘meddling’ in an election, but she did not demonstrate that the claims made about her government’s negotiation stance were inaccurate. At the time of writing, this suggests the government is rigidly holding on to particular ideological positions, at the expense of a more moderate and conciliatory approach.

What would be a remedy against the effects of groupthink and in-group/outgroup differentiation? Diversity of group membership is a known remedy against in-groups polarisation. In the current context of a national election, that could happen in different ways. Most simply, if no party won a majority this could force the eventual Prime Minister to include a more balanced mix of pro-leave and pro-remain voices in the negotiation. For example, coalition would directly bring more diverse viewpoints into the membership of the inner circle, whilst a minority government’s need to form issue-by-issue alliances with different parties would make it difficult for an inner circle to seal itself off from wider opinion. Alternatively, being on the campaign trail may be an opportunity for the general public to remind their prospective MPs that there are many shades of opinion between Hard Brexit and Hard Remain, and that no one party that has all the ideas for representing British interest in future Brexit negotiations.


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