The rhetoric of 'taking back control'

Professor Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews) considers the final days of the EU Referendum campaigns, and what may happen next.

As I write on the Tuesday, two days before the poll, we are on the verge - but what of, it is hard to tell. The polls tell us things are neck and next between the Leave and Remain sides. The betting odds tell a rather different story. For a week or so the odds on Remain have been shortening. They now stand around 1/4. Over the same period Leave have drifted out to 3/1. Now there is an interesting psychological story there in and of itself. Arguably polling tells us what people think whereas betting is premised on what we think others think. So which is more diagnostic of actual behaviour? Our individualistic culture insists the former. An increasing body of psychological evidence points to the importance of the latter.

But that isn't my major point. I wrote before of how this referendum has been dominated by an anti-politics, by a distrust in politicians as 'them', an elite who serve their own interests rather than ours. The success of the Leave camp has been to realise this better than those in Remain. So we have seen the bizarre spectacle of Eton educated insiders to the Tory high command posing as anti-establishment rebels and proclaiming the need to 'take back control' for the British people - although who exactly would be in control after June 23rd and of what was never clearly articulated. The only unambiguous message is that 'taking back control' means being anti-immigrant.

The Remain camp have failed to counter this slogan. They have failed either to position themselves as at one with 'the people' or to articulate a positive vision for our collective future. They fail to appreciate that they are so deeply distrusted that whatever they say about the perils of Brexit will not be believed. And, if they win the vote - even though they have lost the campaign - it will be because of what others, who are more trusted, have said about the perils of cutting ourselves adrift.

But if Remain does win, does that mean that it is the end of the story and the status quo ante has prevailed? The Scottish experience suggests not. Here the 'No' vote prevailed, even though support for 'Yes' surged over 50% in the campaign. Here a positive vote for 'taking back control' was countered by dire warnings concerning the dangers of separation. However, over the ensuing 18 months the pro-independence political parties, notably the SNP, have surged in support, notably taking 56 of the 59 Scottish parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election.

Why? Well, arguably it was a matter of reactance. People wanted independence in principle, they may have heeded those who told them to be sensible and say no, but at the same time resented them and were further alienated from them. If this is true after the European referendum, the danger is that it will only exacerbate the mood of anti-politics, it will increase the space for populist demagoguery, and it will reinforce anti-immigrant agitation as the symbol of 'taking back control'. There will be much to be done in challenging all these tendencies.

Win or lose, did David Cameron appreciate the forces he would let loose when he decided to back a referendum as a means of settling a little local difficulty in the Tory Party? 

- Steve Reicher is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, and is a regular columnist for The Psychologist. 

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Comments

On an issue such as this a psychologists (professional) perspective ought be focussed upon how underlying dynamics are manifest, which I think your article does precisely. This is in contradistinction to those who simply use their status as a social scientist to add authority to political opinion, as is sadly often the case.

You have put a view with much in common to my own. If I may quote something I wrote before reading your article:

"The Eu referendum has exposed a 50/50 division running throughout British society among all classes, incomes, political affiliations. It is not a solely British phenomenon but shared among most European countries and is also reflected in the surprising support for Donald Trump in the US. The UK referendum has, however, exposed the depth of division as a bi-product of the polling in advance of the actual referendum.

"The division is not about the "manifest issues", nothing so simple as immigration (itself a touchstone of complex responses), trade, or as Clinton might say "the economy stupid". It is about deeper divisions of identity. Between those who identify with "right thinking" on a range of issues from "the environment" to relations with Russia and those who reject that package of stances.

"On the one hand those who identify with the media-political hegemony of "right thinking" hold the EU as an article of faith and support for it as an expression of belief in "accepted wisdom". For these supporting "remain" is "virtue signalling".

On the other hand the other half of the population who dissent from prevailing dogmas and yet feel silenced (which indeed such Samizdat is) for whom an "out" vote is a gesture of direspect, an act of rebellion and in effect iconoclasm. A two fingered salute at "right thinking" among politicians and the media but more importantly, those whose "right on" attitudes they must silently tolerate on a daily basis.

Whether or not Britain votes to leave it remains to be seen whether we shall and in either case, it will be by the tiniest margin. The division of our society has now been exposed and may not heal. Things may get much more intense after the referendum both in the UK and other European countries. Austria only escaped the election of an extreme Right president by the slimmest of margins this year.

"Accross Europe the Right is gaining ground and the EU has already put Poland's membership under scrutiny in response to the manifestation of this there. Before long we may well not be contemplating some members choosing to leave but possibly whether they may be expelled as the veer to the Right and extremist nationalism accross the continent threatens the hegemony of existing political leanings in the union. "

In other words, whilst some on each side offer specific arguments, by and large most express broad generalities that seem to me to reflect the "in" or "out" position of any given speaker as an expression of "for" or "against" the current ideological status quo, using the EU as a given line of demarcation.

I, too, look at the Scottish referendum as a precedent. I anticipate that a victory for "Remain" will lead to an upsurge in support for UKIP just as the SNP experienced after "failing" to "win" their referendum. This will likely drain support from both major parties but I suspect it will hit Labour hardest. I suspect that after being confirmed as held by fully half the population, many opinions on some topics will continue to be voiced more loudly by people previously inclined to remain silent on those issues. This will add further momentum to populist parties, both here and in the rest of Europe. There is likely to be increasing ideological polarisation of British and European society.

Whichever side prevails, I am pessimistic over the legacy of the referendum, exposing and widening as it does this profound schism in our society. This may prove to be both an expression of democracy and yet prompt events that will pose a challenge to it. I hope events dispell such pessimism.

Excuse me, I omitted several quote marks.