The toxicity of the Brexit debate

Debates and arguments see people all loudly shouting over one another to champion their own point of view. These often calm down amidst a sea of reasoned argument, presentation of facts and compromise to varying degrees, with even the most aggrieved parties shelving their resentment (or certainly being less vocal about them). With regards to the UK debate on ‘Brexit’ and leaving the EU, the utter refusal of many people to even listen to anything that contradicts their own opinions, both opposing argument or cold hard facts, has seen the debate become a hideously toxic mess.

Putting my own thoughts on the matter aside, I have often just sat and wondered why the flames of this debate have raged so fiercely. I have seen no other issue debated amongst ordinary people with such a degree of vitriol and toxicity, and demonstrative of such divisiveness, as this has been. Several factors influenced the decisions people made and the arguments they’ve had both before and since. So, what were they?


Recipe for disaster

There will always be differences of opinion, especially with politics. Add personality politicians, media influence and socio-economic factors into the mix, sprinkle in people’s ideological predispositions being prodded, influenced and amplified by all of that, and the waters muddy further.  Stir in a measure of the blissfully ignorant having any insecurities they may have being played on and the apathetic getting annoyed that it won’t all ‘just go away’, and along with a lot of other factors, you have the incredibly divisive train wreck that the UK’s “Brexit” debate has become. 


Voting and demographics

The British public was presented with a simple binary choice on 23rd June 2016. The question asked was:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

EU Referendum Question, 23rd June 2016

In a close-run vote, 51.9% voted in favour of leaving the EU vs 48.1% who voted in favour of remaining.

General elections since 2001 have seen an average turnout of 64.1% of eligible voters according to the Electoral Commission. 72.2% of registered voters voted in the referendum however, indicating the emotive nature of the associated public debate. The closeness of the result revealed further contentious issues; Would the remaining (no pun intended!) 27.8% of voters have made a difference, if voting had been compulsory a la Australian Federal elections for example? Those passionate about the “Remain” half of the debate will be left wondering!

What about 16 & 17-year olds? In Scotland, they can vote in Scottish elections but were not allowed to do so in the referendum as they had to be 18. Student bodies became quite vocal in the press at the time, as the decision will have a profound effect on the lives of those brought up in a more euro-centric era than the previous generation. The EU fund many youth and education initiatives Europe-wide, including in the UK. For example, the Erasmus program, an initiative run by the EU. It provides opportunities for students to study or gain work experience in a different European country while completing a degree. A simple Google search for “EU funding for Youth projects in the UK” is very revealing.

NUS polls in the aftermath of the referendum illustrated that at least 75% of those aged 16 – 17 would have voted if given the chance. At 16 in the UK, people can leave home, pay taxes and get married…so why not be able to vote in something that dramatically affects their future?

The result of the referendum no doubt fuelled this particular corner of the debate further, as the demographics indicate that 64% of those aged 18-24 voted “Remain”.  Demographics of who voted for which side was a big factor in fuelling resentment post-referendum, with leave voters being predominantly older. The closeness of the result and outcry re votes for 16-17 year olds make this a big talking point!


Personality Politics and the influence of the media

UK Politics is awash with personalities around which various points of view coalesce. Remain and Leave camps in this debate each had vociferous champions in their corner of the ring, each trying (by means fair or foul…the infamous bus proclaiming Leave’s intent to spend EU funding on the NHS instead for example) to sell us their points of view. The minutiae of politics bore a lot of people, thus the partisan cues provided by personalities leading to cognitive and emotional short cuts as aids to forming opinions. Those who thought highly of Boris Johnson were likely to vote leave, but those who thought highly of David Cameron were more likely to vote remain.

The relative weakness of the pro-remain partisan cues is not surprising, given that David Cameron was leader of a deeply divided (on this issue…as they always have been) Conservative Party, and Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party did not vociferously campaign to remain and stuttered to express a coherent party-wide opinion of any sort. 

Clearly the mainstream media influences the thinking of their readership considerably. Given the result of the referendum, it’s no surprise that the two leading newspapers (in circulation terms) in the UK (The Daily Mail and The Sun) were heavily pro-leave and remain so. The personalities involved in the leave campaign (Boris Johnson et al), allied with this media influence, very clearly had a positive effect on their side of the debate.


Borders, jobs and socio-economic factors

The European debate came sharply into focus in the UK after 2010, and a Conservative-led government coming to power. The global financial crisis in 2008 had brought a need for more cost-benefit analysis closer to home for a lot of people, leading to greater scrutiny (and criticism) of the UK contributions to EU budgets, and the effects of EU migration on UK employment.  Evidence suggests that if people believed that leaving the EU would reduce immigration and help to protect Britain from terrorism they were very likely vote for Brexit. Concerns regarding sovereignty loomed large in the minds of many, flames fanned by the pro-Brexit press. 

Lower trade barriers and the increased geographical mobility of labour brought about by European integration are seen by many as a tangible benefit of EU membership. Others, often unemployed or in poorly paid occupations, with few educational qualifications, may find themselves in competition with similarly low-skilled labour from other EU countries and see the EU as a negative thing.  This has lead to resentment of free movement of people within the EU. Despite evidence to suggest that industries such as fruit farming would suffer without immigrant labour, and skilled workers from the EU in the NHS being important (just two examples), people cited control of borders as a reason to vote leave. Issues like Europe-wide refugee crises contributed to negative attitudes towards immigration in some quarters as well.

Those socio-economic boundaries are not rigid however, as it’s not all low-skilled / low wages migration. The NHS in the UK benefits from skilled staff coming from the EU, for example. Also, publicly available information from the Office for National Statistics illustrates how EU migrants have contributed a net £20Bn more into the economy since 2000 than they have received in UK State Benefits etc. It’s all about perception however, and assessment of the cost / benefit ratio of EU membership plus perceived threats to livelihoods plays a large part in people’s decision making and fears.

“…the balance of EU attitudes, especially in a highly charged referendum context, will depend more on immediate political issues, policy concerns and elite cues than on deeply rooted historical identities.”

Why did Britain vote to leave the European Union – Economic & Social Research Council  (December 2016)


In Conclusion

I have touched on but a few causes of the toxicity of this debate and why it incites the vitriol that it does, and conclude now not just for brevity but also as it seems to me to be a nigh on impossible task to identify every one of those causes. Suffice to say that they are legion! 

One thing I personally find very frustrating in this whole debate is the utter unwillingness of one side to bend to bend towards the other, even when presented with facts and cohesive arguments. It seems more so on this issue than any other, as I said at the start of this article. I have become increasingly reticent to share opinion publicly, and certainly not without supporting facts and / or data, for fear of being mercilessly barracked (despite said information).  However, for the most part, whilst people may listen they don’t change their minds, even when presented with cold hard non-partisan apolitical facts.

Preconceptions and bias, amplified by all the factors above, seemingly have people unwilling to countenance opinions contrary to their own, no matter how they arrived at them and what influenced their thinking. With so many influencing factors on peoples decision making, determining why the debate has become so toxic does not have one answer.  


Sources: The Electoral Commission, The Office for National Statistics, The Express Newspaper, The Guardian Newspaper, The Independent Newspaper, The Economic & Social Research Council, Kings College London, Wikipedia