Thursday, 6 April 2017

Believing is seeing

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm jot sure about your point about demographic changes, i,e. Older brexit supporting voters dying and being replaced by younger remain supporters as they come of age.

You don't take account of the fact that the main demographic drivers in Wales are older retired voters moving here from England, and younger voters (especially the educated ones who are most likely to back remain) leave in search of work. This makes it unlikely that public opinion will shift.

In fact one thing that never serms to get mentioned is that the leave majority in Wales was very narrow, a very large minority of the population has moved here from England and this contains two groups who voted overwhelming for leave (retirees and white-flighters). I wouldn't be at all surprised if a majority of the Welsh born population voted remain albeit by a smaller margin than Scotland.

John Dixon said...

I suspect that there's a lot of wishful thinking going on there; and I'd really like to able to agree with you and blame the in-migrants. So much easier than accepting that the problem is a home-grown one. But it simply doesn't explain why some of the highest leave votes were recorded in the constituencies with the highest proportion of Welsh-born residents. Think Blaenau Gwent, think Merthyr. And which areas had the best remain votes? Cardiff, Monmouth: these are areas with a higher proportion than average of non Welsh-born citizens. I'm afraid that we have to face up to the harsh reality that this isn't a Welsh vs English thing at all.

Anonymous said...

Remember leave only won by a margin of 82225 votes, the fact that the retirees and white-flighters so disproportionately supported leave must have contributed to that. Places like Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent may have voted heavily for leave but they make up a relatively small proportion of the population.

It wasn't helped by the fact that many remain voters would have cast their votes in England where they had moved to in search of work.

Ultimately, of course, they vote was lost because of the lack of an active remain campaign on the ground.

John Dixon said...

"...the fact that the retirees and white-flighters so disproportionately supported leave..." Whilst I suspect that may be true, do you actually have any hard evidence to back it up?

"...the vote was lost because of the lack of an active remain campaign on the ground" Again, I think we need to be careful about a simplistic approach to deciding what won or lost the vote. I don't disagree about this having been a factor, but how important it was relative to other things is another question.

But to come back to the main point which concerns me about your comments and which I referred to in my previous response, I think we need to start accepting that underlying all of this is the diminishing difference in attitudes between the electorate in Wales and that in England. Clinging to the idea that "it's the immigrants wot did it" is a way of avoiding facing a harsh and for many of us unwanted reality. It's also something of a parallel with the core message of the Brexiters, albeit identifying a different group of people as being the 'immigrants'.

Pete said...

While I was living in California and following the news at home from a distance, I saw how attitudes and party allegiances in Wales were becoming more and more Anglicized. I couldn't understand this until I settled back home. I disagree with anonymous that it is due to outsiders. My observations have been the television and other media. The only place where I see a distinct Welsh observation and analysis is in the field of sports. Everywhere else the news is anglo-centric. We are faced with a barrage of news and opinion that reflects the south east of England. Looking at regional web sites and comparing them with "Wales online" not just Scotland and Ulster get better coverage, the regions of England are better served than Wales.

Faced with this it is no longer a surprise to me that Wales voted remain or that voting patterns are moving rapidly to an Anglicized world view.

If I may, one quick word on "Outsiders." There is a hypocrisy, at times among nationalists, that says Wales is beautiful and the best country in the world then says "But you can't live here" I can't be that two faced. I do not object to those who wish to make Wales their home. I do object to those who move here and are hostile to the concept of Wales. There I do draw a line.