Monday, 16 October 2017

Beliefs and facts

Last week’s research findings about the unwillingness of people in Wales to lose anything as a result of Brexit are interesting, but there are dangers in the obvious interpretation.  A reluctance to pay anything for the perceived advantages of Brexit might, at first sight, encourage those of us who think Brexit a mistake to believe that they can be persuaded to change their minds.  But there is nothing in the least inconsistent between supporting Brexit and at the same time being unwilling to pay a penny for the privilege for anyone who simply declines to believe that there is any cost associated with Brexit.
We were told repeatedly during the referendum campaign and since by the exponents of Brexit that not only would there be no cost, there would even be a huge financial gain.  Seen from that perspective, a question about ‘how much are you willing to pay?’ is entirely hypothetical; answering it by saying ‘nothing’ whilst continuing to support Brexit is entirely consistent.  And the exponents of Brexit are still arguing that Brexit will be an overall gain for the UK.  Last week’s noise about spending money now to prepare for a ‘no deal’ wasn’t just about being ready for that scenario – listening to those making the case, much of it was about showing those foreign johnnies that we’re really, really serious about walking away if they don’t give in to our demands now.  It’s a position that makes sense if, and only if, they believe that not having a deal is better than having one, and that having a deal is more about us helping the EU27 than about them helping us.
There’s also the little question of confirmation bias.  For those who believe that Brexit will leave us better off, any suggestion that it won’t is just more ‘remoaning’; and if it actually comes to pass that we really are worse off after Brexit, then it will be the fault of everyone except those who voted for it.  Those nasty Europeans, the treacherous remainers who failed to jump on board the wagon, the half-hearted Brexiteers in the government and civil service – they will all be more to blame than those who actually led us to this point.  And besides, perhaps there would have been an economic downturn anyway – who can really prove that it’s down to Brexit?
Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful force; we should not read anything very much into research which shows that people who think Brexit will bring us net benefits aren’t willing to accept a net loss.

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