Brexit – was it the moral intuitions wot won it?

So most will have spotted that the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in a nationwide referendum on the 23rd of July this year.  The President of the EU described this as a setback to whole of the civilised world order and the global liberal project in general; in contrast, because politics might just be a form of competing moral intuitions, the leader of the French National Front described this as the most joyous occasion in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.   What can be agreed upon is that this was a triumph for the UK insurgent hard right party UKIP which went from 1 million votes at the 2010 UK general election to 4 million in 2015; this rise in support caused the UK Conservatives to offer a referendum its 2015 manifesto to prevent a critical loss of support to UKIP. It worked and then it didn’t work.  Brexit overthrows 40 years of UK economic, security, foreign and social policy unleashing a decade of more of legislative and political turmoil and uncertainty,  threatening the very existence of the UK in its current form, with the possibility of a Scottish secession and a new instability in Northern Ireland.    This was such a big deal (on the Joe Biden scale of such things) that the Prime Minister resigned either (a)  having laid down his country for his party or (b) having inadvertently secured a joyous moment of national liberation.

How an insurgent right party was able to so destabilise the entire British state by electorally intimidating the Conservative Party is a thing of wonder to international observers.  The immediate purpose in this post is to consider whether the argument that politics is a form of moral psychology is in ruins post Brexit or is it just about possible to infer something more than a modest psychological component in this joyous/ruinous moment?

In descending order of justification……

2.8 Million Non Voters

Exactly as the standard model would NOT have predicted 2.8 million non-voters voted in the Referendum and they all voted for the UK to Leave the EU.  In the standard model non-voters are non-voters meaning that they don’t vote.  They are unreachable in their poverty, disaffection and low educational attainment and they cannot be appealed to.  However, make the choice binary and simple:  British sovereignty regained, our money back from the EU and an end to immigration versus the argument for free markets, investment and jobs and shared sovereignty and what happens is that people, however previously alienated, can respond on the basis of moral intuitions and the moral intuitions supporting “free markets, investment and jobs and shared sovereignty” are weak or non-existent.  The moral intuitions supporting “British sovereignty regained, our money back from the EU and an end to immigration” are fierce and are easily named – In Group Loyalty (nationalism), Authoritarianism and Freedom.

Recall that is the everyday task of politicians to confound voters:  citing now the new British Prime Minister Theresa May who voted to do this but raged against social injustice on her first day in Downing Street.  Referendums overcome this confounding effect (the turnout in Scotland in 2014 was 85% as non-voters entered the process in support of Leave only to induce other non-voters to enter on the side of Remain with Scottish and British identity competing with each other in the hearts of previously disaffected Scots).   Why did non-voters not enter the process to vote for Remain in the EU?  This is because the moral intuitions for Remain are weak or non-existent as argued here, the emotion and salience is and was with Leave.  And so they came…..

Note another point here about the nature of moral intuitions, In Group Loyalty may be held strongly or weakly, and if held weakly among non-voters they won’t play in normal elections but if the issue is as stark as is in a Referendum then weak In Group Loyalty voters may enter the process, and none of them are going to vote for EU membership.

It is worth repeating almost no evidence of non-voters supporting the side in the Referendum which was stuck with the weak emotional argument and strong rational argument.

Nationalism (joint second with Authoritarianism)

The recovery of sovereignty was the most important reason cited by Leave voters. Is the degree of identification with a nationality an indicator of a strongly help moral intuition called In Group Loyalty?  Who loves their country other than for its expression of shining moral qualities? Look at the uncanny similarity between the EU Referendum and Scottish Independence Referendum with strong English and Strong Scottish identity driving the Leave vote and in the EU Referendum case British identification also unsurprisingly drives support for Leave.



Of course UKIP are formally a British nationalist party and it would be surprising if that wasn’t a factor in the Leave result but many commentators were als able to identify English nationalism as a factor including Fintan O’Toole.  Nationalities are arbitrarily assigned and didn’t exist when moral intuitions began , so Europeanism could have been a useful form identity on the Remain side but to their cost it is a notably weak form of identification in the UK.

Is this a description of Nationalism?

  1. We are different from you
  2. We are better than you
  3. You are the problem

Did these instincts play in the EU Referendum for Leave? Do they not sound like the Strategic Reasoning of In Group Loyalty?

From the standard model Professor Michael Kenny demurs about Nationalism

“this does not in any way prove that the relationship between English Nationalism and voting is a causal one. Indeed, it is more plausible to think that a stronger sense of Englishness is – like scepticism about the EU – also a manifestation of and response to a complex set of social and economic change, including globalisation, economic inequality and new forms of cultural anxiety”

What if English nationalism is a moral intuition for many but not all, and that it clusters with the moral intuitions of authoritarianism and freedom?  How likely is it that the three powerful moral intuitions that define right wing politics are not the cause of “cultural anxiety”, and the absence of those intuitions in millions of people causing an absence of “cultural anxiety”? It is typical in the standard model to find “cultural anxiety” as a motivating factor for Leave voters (with some justification) without asking why it is completely absent as a motivating factor in others and indeed why do many rejoice in mass immigration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism?

Authoritarianism in joint second place with Nationalism

We have Donald Trump to thank for the view in a full 5% of mainstream political opinion and commentary that Authoritarianism is in play in post Great Recession politics.  Trump conducts a hostile takeover of the most powerful conservative party in the world and in the process treats its ideology of small state, pro-business, freedom, free trade and personal responsibility with broad contempt.  Not satisfied with that, he then proceeds to overthrow fifty  years of Republican thinking on national security in his admiration and support of Vladimir Putin.  The Conservative commentator David Frum in an otherwise brilliant article wonders whether there might not be something in Republicanism that facilitated the takeover

“It’s driven by something else—and the source of that something is found inside the conservative and Republican world, not outside.”

Yes indeed but Frum can’t even venture a guess at the central feature of right wing politics: it is not driven by ideology but the moral intuitions of Freedom, In Group Authority and Authoritarianism.  Trump is Nationalist, Authoritarian and so are UKIP and its leader Farage.

The American Social Scientists Hetherington and Weiler wrote about “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics” and found that immigration activated authoritarian tendencies in the US, whereas the UK has just experienced a unique bout of mass economic immigration. Eric Kaufmann a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College found that authoritarian attitudes to crime, sexual behaviour, lifestyles and the death penalty predicted Leave voting in the UK.  But how do Americans and Brits become an authoritarian, well Kaufmann puts this down to being motivated by personality, values and attitudes rather than economic worries.  What are the chances that these Leave voters had a moral intuition and the emotions associated with Haidt’s Authority Moral Foundation rather than “personality, values and attitudes”?

See Authoritarian attitudes driving the Leave vote

Graphic Authoritarianism

Recall that the reason that the UK had the Referendum was the same reason that Trump was able to conduct his hostile takeover of the Republican Party; in the mid-2000s the Conservatives tracked to the centre to compete with New Labour shoring the Party of its nasty party image (Authoritarianism) and stopped banging on about Europe (Nationalism).  This had the effect of allowing UKIP to colonise this moral psychological space on the right and then UKIP promptly got nasty and banged on about Europe threatening the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party, Cameron’s political defence mechanism resulted in his ruin.

Against their Interest

If moral intuitionism was in play in the Referendum then there would need to be evidence that the standard model’s reliance on presenting economic conditions or economic advantage, group identity (pensioners), personal wellbeing, or class interest as being of overriding salience as an explanatory factor in how people vote.  This is exactly what was found; the Remain campaign made the appeal to economic interest central to its campaign, so how many Leave voters rejected that argument believing that they would be better off outside the EU?   Com Res found precisely 3%!! of Leave voters thought that the economy would be better off outside the EU, so a clear victory for Remain at the useless intellectual and rational level.   Remain wins the argument on economics but loses the Referendum; something in Leave voters overrode their perceived economic interest.


Explanations based on Economics

It is not the argument of Politics is Moral Psychology that all politics is moral psychology: moral intuitions and their supporting emotions are both unevenly spread in individuals which is what creates politics, but are also very weakly evident or expressed in many, which creates non-voting, apathy, indifference and disengagement.  Even when strongly expressed formal IQ will affect an individuals’ ability to participate as some might expect.

A whole level of Leave voting explanations is entirely valid and simultaneously incomplete and inadequate.  Yes indeed the uneven impact of globalisation was a factor but why would a third of poorer displaced workers vote Remain?  Deep seated grievances matter, although not so deep as to create an almost 50:50 vote split and the characteristics of local areas mattered as did educational level but not overwhelmingly so it would appear.  Contingent factors, the immersion in local norms, educational level, town size all matter but in arguing from this alone aren’t the most important factors missed or underestimated?  What needs to be understood is the inverse, if areas with high levels of recent immigration voted Leave then why not all residents?  Why did Londoners in social class AB vote Leave, why did people in left behind coastal towns vote Remain and fascinatingly why did recent immigrants vote Leave?

Labour Voters

It was argued previously and before the Referendum that Labour voters could not be relied upon to support their Party’s Remain position as the underpinning Moral Intuitions of leftism – Fairness and Harm Reduction were hardly in play as the could not be identified with the EU.  Over one third of Labour voters voted to Leave.

So in summary……..

When David Cameron called the Referendum he gambled that the British would not in the end vote against their economic interests.  They demurred to put it mildly, the binary nature of the choice played directly to their emotions and underlying moral intuitions, 2.8 million people who had not understood politics hitherto entered the process exclusively on the side with strongest emotional appeal.  Labour voters mutinied, economic interests were violently ignored and the siren call of anti-immigrant pro-authoritarianism, nationalism, freedom (take back control) all morally underpinned, intuitions,  as a form of virtue were wot won it.

Afterthought on Scotland

One of the implications of the Leave vote is that the SNP may trigger a second Scottish Independence Referendum.  In truth the decision of the UK to leave the EU makes Scottish Independence a much bigger ask as the SNP will have to propose a new Scottish currency or the use the currently unsuccessful Euro.  Combine that challenge with the fall in the oil price which has seen Scotland’s oil tax revenues fall almost to zero and would denude and Independent Scotland of 14% of its public expenditure then the rational economic case for Independence is severely weakened.

The British establishment is currently insouciant about the whether the Referendum could ever be called and, if called actually won, as it would require the Scots to defy their economic interests.  What does the EU Referendum Campaign teach us about economic interests versus the emotion of nationalism and freedom?

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