As the country heads inexorably towards an EU referendum, the polls show that most people can barely contain their indifference. Despite this apathy, politicians and the media are running around talking loudly as if nothing else mattered. So why is it that on something of seemingly such importance most people simply switch off. To be fair, it’s not only on Europe that this is the case; interest in and engagement with mainstream politics is generally low on most people’s radar. Sometimes it’s the relevance of the issues; on other occasions, it’s the channel and language. On Europe it’s a mixture of everything.
Perhaps the starting point is the difficulty that many of us have with our understanding of nationhood. In Sapiens, one of the seminal books of the past few years, Yuval Noah Harari reminded us that nation states don’t actually exist. They are myths entirely created by humans. Boundaries are artificial and have changed regularly throughout history. The existential crisis facing Europe as its borders crumple under the weight of refugees and economic migrants is a case in point. And even when the borders are fixed it does not follow that everyone inside is onside. The very essence of being, for instance, British or American can vary substantially from one part of the country or, indeed, from one part of a City. For me, my interpretations of British values as being fair play, free speech, a love of literature, crosswords, Jermyn St, the English choral tradition, and irony may not ring true with everyone else. That is because rather than nationhood, it is the shared values of our tribes that sustain us. Whether we like it or not, we are all the same; but we make sense of that sameness by finding tribes of people like us. We carry around with us multiple tribal loyalties that help us make sense of the world. For instance, the worldwide cadre of rugby supporters are a tribe of like-minded people, passionate about their country and the game. And within that stratum there are sub-strata of club loyalties, towns, professions, politics, religions. Our multiple personalities are important to us in different ways at different times. Europe is therefore only one of many identities that play to our sense of self, but unlike with Tesco we don’t necessarily carry around a loyalty card to prove it.
Given the complexity of identity it can be problematic for those trying to whip up interest in a subject of only passing interest to most people. And it is here that the politicians are failing. Their approach to the debate has the effect of turning more people off than on. This is because they are communicating in entirely the wrong way. The debate is currently entirely rational and factual. Both sides have bucket loads of facts at their disposal and each have their captains of industry and celebrities lined up. Like Newton’s 3rd law of motion, every argument is met with a counter argument of equal force. The effect in this case is white noise. Faced with this cacophony, most people just switch off. Politicians may be shouting at the top of their voice but we have them on mute. And of the small number who are engaged in the debate, most are likely to be suffering from confirmation bias, seeking out arguments that confirm their existing prejudices and ignore anything that conflicts.
Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind may have felt that facts alone are wanted in life, but the reality is more complex. And here business leaders have the edge. They are becoming better at understanding how to frame a story. They know that few people jump out of bed in order to increase shareholder value. Rather, they appreciate that they need to communicate in a way that tugs at the emotional heart strings. Employees need a narrative that shows how they can prosper in an organisation that cares for them and where they can thrive in a mutually-supportive environment. Picture painting and storytelling along these lines can be highly effective in helping people adapt to changing circumstances. Likewise, negative messages, precisely because they also hit our emotions, can also be equally forceful. This is why so much of political campaigning tends to be negative. They know that most people don’t like change and are risk averse. Hence, the focus on what a scary world we live in. It may be a negative vision, but it works precisely because it is firmly grounded in emotions and not data.
Which brings me to my own view of Brexit. The truth is that whatever the rational arguments that the facts and data purport to show, no-body can possibly know what’s in everyone’s best interests. There is no precedent for either staying or going and so both decisions are equally fraught with opportunity and danger. The future is, we’re always told, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous and so any decision will be risky. Therefore, perhaps the best option is to continue to huddle together to stay warm rather than leave the camp and set out alone. As Belloc said: “Always keep ahold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.” And that is perhaps the best example of a negative emotional image that you’ll find.