The UK’s EU Referendum – The Moral Psychological Landscape

For the second time in two years the UK is having a Referendum of monumental import (on the Joe Biden scale) which will have enormous consequences for the future integrity of the UK as a nation state, its broader economic future and wider international position.  The EU referendum is scheduled for the 23rd of June with the opinion pools currently showing a dead heat.  This referendum follows on from the Scottish Independence referendum which defied expectations of an easy win for the No side granting Scotland a 45-55 spilt which has now become the bedrock shape of Scottish politics destroying Scottish Labour in the process, and probably denying the UK Labour Party the possibility of an overall majority at Westminster.   Whether the aftermath of the EU Referendum will see a resetting of right wing politics in the UK with a possible movement of Labour and Conservative Leave voters to UKIP remains to be seen.

How Moral Intuitions Shake Out in the EU Referendum

Shake Out 2

The Tory Cleavage

The UK is having a referendum because the Conservative Party and government was divided on Europe and threatened electorally by the rise of UKIP.  To shore up Tory votes a referendum was proposed in the Tories’ 2015 General Election manifesto, now as in conceding the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Tories believe the risk to be low of a Leave vote as the rational arguments for stating in the EU are overwhelming.  See the problem with rational arguments below. Traditional free market, pro-capitalist, small state, low tax, personal responsibility Conservatism is rooted in the moral veneration of contract.  Contract is the moral intuition of Market Pricing and that gives political Conservatism its powerful moral purpose and appeal.  However, right wing politics also venerates Freedom, In Group Loyalty and Pro-Authority.  These last three have found themselves hostile to the political project of the EU, so hostile that a whole new right wing party taking 13% of the vote, UKIP was founded to stand up for them.  UKIP is anti-business and indifferent to the EU’s core virtues of the free movement of labour and capital.   No less that 132 out of a total of 304 Tory MPs are voting Leave including six ministers.  Cleavage indeed.

How Moral Intuitionism Works in this EU Referendum

Moral Intuitionism
Political arguments in the EU Referendum, Remain and Leave are simply Strategic Reasoning in support of emotions in support of moral intuitions.

Why Referendums are so divisive

Moral intuitionism provides insight into why referendums are so divisive compared to normal elections: there is no appeal to the other side’s intuitions or emotions which is a common electoral tactic in every normal election.  Each side is locked into their competing intuitions with no overlap therefore the other side sees the other side’s strategic reasoning as disgraceful and egregious lies, driving mutual outrage.

In Scotland two years after the independence referendum the Yes side is, for example broadly unaware that Oil revenues have fallen by £8 billion leaving an independent Scotland unable to pay for schools, colleges and universities, so profound is the lockout that moral intuitionism has gifted Scotland.  The No side feel a sense of panic and despair that a fact of such profound consequences cannot be heard, the Yes side a sense of treachery in a country denied them by the lies (strategic reasoning) of the No side. Is this the future of the UK post 23rd June?

Rational argument with and emotional one

When the SNP lost the Scottish referendum in 2014 they and their supporters believed more strongly, more ferocious in their cause, reasoned more closely in support of their idea and became more resolute in their determination to achieve their goal.   As their emotion around their sense of Scottishness was rejected they doubled down; although defeated they could no more abandon their moral intuitions than stop breathing. The Moral Intuitions that underpin Nationalism – Freedom and In Group Loyalty were ferociously re-embraced because they were rejected. The insult of electoral defeat in normal times and the rejection of your values is temporary; rejection in a referendum because it is a one off binary Remain or Leave, seems to suggest that your emotions (mapped to your moral sense) are themselves invalid hence the sound and fury, the unpleasantness, a killing, the bile and ever more the outrageous lies as strategic reasoning plays its role in protecting each sides existing emotions.  The prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove has asked for everyone to ignore the experts as they can’t be reconciled with his strategic reasoning so obviously don’t make any sense. Politics is moral psychology.

Referendums versus Elections

Normal elections are emotional arguments with emotional arguments, whereas this referendum has a strong emotional argument weakly rationally underpinned, having an argument with a rational argument weakly emotional underpinned. The Remain campaign owns all the experts, the think tanks, the universities, the intellectuals, the economists, the newspaper editorials (mostly)…..Indeed the more rational opinion has swung behind Remain the greater the reduction of the Remain lead in the opinion polls.  That is not a coincidence, politics is moral psychology so rational arguments which contradict your emotions are alienating to Leave minded voters. But surely rational arguments which support your emotions are welcome?  Why no boost to the Remain campaign from the boffins at the IFS the Legions of the LSE?  Because the Remain campaign is weakly under girded by moral intuitions and the Leave campaign has all the strongest most salient moral intuitions and therefore the greater level of emotion.  As in the Scottish Referendum, Leave’s rational argument with its fierce emotional component is having a non-rational argument with Remains’ rational argument with it significantly weaker emotional component.  It is consequently making hay.

The whole EU project is built upon the values of solidarity and internationalism.  Well solidarity and internationalism are only values; they are not moral intuitions so they don’t inspire emotion so Remain doesn’t even bother to offer them as reasons to vote to stay in the EU.  That’s right the founding values of the EU are not even on the pitch.

The central issue of campaign is immigration; the almost completely ignored issue of the campaign is emigration.  Immigration plays to In Group Loyalty which it can reduce and confuse and Pro-Authoritarianism with its emphasis on order, tradition and respect for authority is held to be adversely impacted by high levels of immigration.  Emigration has 1.3 million Brits living and working across the EU but this is merely a social good, one of those value things, not an emotion, so no Remain votes because no moral intuition addressed.

The Leave Campaign, like the devil has all the best tunes…..

Intuition Discussion
Pro-Authoritarianism Before the whole of European politics and US politics, see Donald Trump, became structured by Authoritarianism the role of Authoritarianism was obscure and controversial.  No longer;  the emergence of the authoritarian UKIP in the UK is the reason that the EU Referendum is taking place at all as the Conservative government sought to shore up support by offering the opportunity to repudiate the EU as the trans-national usurper of rightful British authority.  They are sorry now, and their grief may continue for some time.
In-Group Loyalty The politics of US versus Them.  Moral virtue resides in the In-Group and the emphatically not in the out-group.  Nearly everyone has this bifurcated moral sense to some degree but Nationalism is the political expression of those who experience the emotions driven by this Intuition the most intensely. UKIP was founded to pursue a British Nationalist agenda.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are largely in the Remain campaign as their British loyalty is weaker than in England causing them to take a more benign view of the EU.

Freedom Freedom from the sharing of sovereignty, freedom from meddlesome regulation, freedom from EU law, from EU based human rights legislation.  Freedom from freedom of movement, freedom to make our own laws
Anti-Market Pricing Market Pricing is the moral foundations upon which the EU was founded.  Market Pricing gives us the centrepiece of the EU which is the single market with its free movement of labour and capital.

Most Conservatives venerate Market Pricing and draw from it their valourisation of capitalism, free enterprise, contracts, private economic imitative and a small state which allows for the maximum number of private contracts.  Some leftist have an absolute moral objection to private contracts and see markets and private initiative as forms of moral dissoluteness.  They are the leftists who will vote Leave.

Remain has the weaker hand……

Intuition Discussion
Pro-Market Pricing See Market Pricing discussion above, the EU began as a free trade area and retains that dominant characteristic to this day. A single market of 500 million people that develops its own form of law and contract is specifically moral enterprise.
Equality Matching The political structure of the EU in which 28 nations share sovereignty and establish EU wide individual legal rights  in the context of an elected EU Parliament all speaks to and an explicitly moral purpose which forms the basis of many European centrist parties such as the UK’s Liberal Democrats.

The problem for Remain is that although it has a moral basis these two intuitions may be very significantly weaker than those tunes referenced by Leave.  Equality Matching and Market Pricing must be ancient because they are part of our evolved psychology but they fact that they only played in human politics from the 17th century and 19th century respectively attests to their weakness relative to the other intuitions.

Lost Intuitions…….

Two intuitions favoured on the left are split both ways in the EU Referendum confusing Labour voters who are the key to success of Remain

Intuition Discussion
Fairness Fairness is foundational to left politics so Remain emphasise the social chapter and worker rights but Leave claims that the 10 billion a year that UK “sends to Brussels” could be spent on the NHS. The EU’s enthusiasm for brutal hyper austerity in southern Europe makes it a poor champion of Fairness as a moral foundation.  Result: Draw
Harm Reduction The EU is fabled champion of the consumer protection that sits happily in the Harm Reduction foundation, but the British right and its ardent tabloid supports have  long campaigned against this dynamic as “nanny state” finding easy caricatures in the curvature of bananas. Result: Draw

A foot in both camps……?

Intuition Discussion
Anti-Authoritarianism The most interesting of the foundations in respect of the EU referendum would be the moralised anti-authoritarianism that grows as you move leftwards on the spectrum.  The hard left considered the EU a baker’s ramp historically but softened in its opposition just as some other anti-authoritarians began to see the EU as the establishment and joined the ranks of the UKIP voters.  From that perch they see the EU as the worst type of unelected and unaccountable authority.

However some anti-authoritarians in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK see the EU as the enemy of their enemy (The UK Government) and side with the EU against it.  Result: Score Draw.


When the Conservatives decided to have their election they did not expect that Labour would be led by someone instinctively anti-EU but that appears to be the case.  Corbyn has the traditional core Labour intuitions of Fairness and Harm Reduction but also he evinces the Anti-Authoritarianism and anti-Market Pricing of the Hard Left.  He has to say that he supports the Remain campaign as Labour opinion is 95% in favour but his lukewarm endorsement may refusal to sell the EU to working class anti-immigrant Labour voters may prove consequential.

There is a rational case for the UK to Leave the UK but as things stand the Leave campaigbn it is being powered along by the winds powerful moral intuitions, even if it loses it may change British politics forever.