There is an inevitable tendency to blame Brexit for every economic bad news story that surfaces over the coming months and years. We saw it at the end of last week in relation to job losses at the University of South Wales, and there have been a number of other examples. I’m not in a good enough position to judge the truth of the claim in the individual instances (and nor, in truth, are most other commentators), but it does seem highly probable that Brexit will be used as a convenient excuse for some decisions which would have been made anyway. It avoids having to explain the truth, for one thing. But few decisions about future investment and employment really boil down to one simple explanation, so sorting out which decisions are really down to Brexit and which are not is never going to be easy.
Whilst remainers will point to each and every such example and say ‘told you so’, Brexiteers will dismiss the excuse every time it’s given, whatever the truth may be in the specific case. It’s a form of confirmation bias; people will give more weight to evidence which supports their priors. The same is also true for much of the news coming out of Brussels; stories highlighting the difficulty of negotiating an agreement are either met by ‘told you so’ or else by ‘see – we need to take back control from these people’. In the case of the EU, as in many other instances, the number of people who can be swayed by factual arguments is comparatively small. And, as we saw in the referendum and since, that willingness to see everything as evidence for a pre-existing belief is a barrier to real debate.
Does that mean that trying to argue on the basis of evidence is a complete waste of time? Not entirely; whilst the number who can be swayed by mere economic facts is small, we should remember that the margin was so narrow that only around 3% of the population need to be persuaded to change their minds to produce a sufficient shift in public opinion, particularly when coupled with demographic changes happening in parallel (older electors departing the lists and younger ones joining them, for instance). But that is to reduce the whole question to one of short term winning or losing – precisely the narrow vision-free approach which got us into this situation in the first place.If we want to change those priors which shape attitudes, we also need to do more to sell the idea of an Open Europe looking to the future rather than a Europe of closed states harking back to past military glories. It’s a harder task (made more so by the obvious imperfections in the current European model), but it’s a better way of setting foundations for the future. This is an approach which was largely absent at the time of the referendum, and is still lacking today. Allowing the argument to be purely about economics was a mistake last June and would be a mistake going forward as well. It should be about the sort of future we want, not just about pounds and pennies; and that debate has barely even started.