Answering questions over Brexit

Ella Rhodes reports from the Political Society Section's symposium on Brexit.

One of the most packed symposiums at the conference, organised by the new Political Psychology Section of the BPS, was on the topic of Brexit. Dr Kesi Mahendran (Open University), who has worked in government and studied the public’s relationship with the EU for over a decade, kicked off the talks. She posed a question to the room: should we have another EU referendum? Mahendran sought no answers: instead, she was interested in the various thought processes behind those conclusions and the way we define the rest of the public in our reasoning. 

Psychologists have an important role in moving situations from polarised public opinion to public dialogue. Part of that is asking how individual members of the public situate themselves in comparison to the rest of the public; or, as Mahendran puts it, ‘how do we generalise the generalised other?’

One of her projects started by looking at EU attitudes in Stockholm and Edinburgh, and was expanded to include Gothenburg, Glasgow, Dublin, Dusseldorf and London. Mahendran and her colleagues carried out face-to-face interviews with 100 citizens who were recruited along a ‘migration-mobility continuum’, with 10 positions ranging from generational non-migrants all the way through to interviews with ‘serial’ migrants who were planning to move again. They talked about various EU ideals, including freedom of movement. She found six prevailing positions on the general public; while some people are rather avant-garde viewing the public as a ‘they’ who need to change, others use ‘they’ differently to advocate on behalf of the public, some distance themselves from the public as an oppositional 'they'. Equally some citizens segment the public in terms of ethnic and national categories. Others see the public as we, speaking of it in terms of a progressive mobile 'we', or a more protectionist non-mobile 'we'. Mahendran is now investigating in her new project how these positions relate to social representations of the public as having freedom through movement, freedrom from movement and freedom of movement.

Ivett Ayodele (Salford University), who recently completed her MRes in Social Policy, arrived in the UK from Hungary 13 years ago with the intention of saving money and developing her English skills. She has since turned her attention to psychology and to the experience of her fellow Hungarian workers’ experiences of Brexit. 

Ayodele pointed out something which many have missed: in the mess of debate around Brexit, the voices of millions of EU citizens living in the UK have been largely absent. The uncertainty which has been plaguing these people’s lives should not be underestimated, and Ayodele wanted to dig a little deeper into its impact. She carried out semi-structured interviews with 10 Hungarian nationals who had been living in the UK for at least five years and split her results into pre and post-Brexit themes. 

Before Brexit, Hungarians spoke of a motivation to migrate to better their working lives. Some left for love, some for political reasons and others to improve their English language skills. Ayodele found that many experienced barriers to getting jobs, some had to take jobs far below their level of skill due to language barriers or their qualifications not translating. Some were promised jobs by friends and families but these disappeared on their arrival in the UK. Many ended up with low wage jobs working below their level of skill and qualification. 

After the EU referendum the picture became even bleaker. Many were in shock the UK voted to leave; they felt a sense of mistrust and as if the country did not want them anymore. They also felt the voting public had been misled by the Vote Leave campaign. They were left feeling uncertain over their future plans including whether to buy a house, experienced racism but often wrote it off as harsh British humour, and felt forced into applying for settled status. Ayodele said the impact of the Brexit vote among the Hungarians she spoke to played out something like a psychological trauma. 

Honourary Professor Peter Bull (University of York and University of Salford) hit the headlines with his research on the evasiveness and equivocation of Theresa May in response to questions – more so compared to the past four Conservative PMs. 

Bull and his team have identified 36 ways of not answering questions. These can be broken down into 12 categories, including attacking the question and personal attacks. Looking at two of Theresa May’s interviews in 2016 Bull found her mean reply rate was 27 per cent; the same rate could be seen in four interviews she gave in 2017. In 23 sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions in 2016-17 her response rate to Jeremy Corbyn was just 11 per cent. David Cameron, in contrast, answered 21 per cent of Corbyn’s questions in 20 sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions. Margaret Thatcher’s mean reply rate was 39 per cent.

Equivocation can be described as overt (for example in explicitly refusing to answer a question), or covert if someone does not acknowledge a question or conceals their evasion completely. Bull said the interesting thing about May’s equivocation is it’s entirely covert.  

In 43 per cent of her non-replies she entirely ignored the question posed; in 26 per cent of her non replies she modified the question and answered that instead. 

Bull said her equivocation could be explained by her extremely difficult position, or perhaps by an obsession over secrets and information control. Some have pointed to May’s small circle of advisors, lack of cabinet and parliamentary consultation over Brexit as evidence for this. ‘If you’re preoccupied with secrecy and control, equivocation makes sense.’

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