EU referendum: does the truth actually matter?

Robin Campbell-Burt – Director at Spreckley

The immediate answer to this question that probably comes into your head is ‘yes, of course it does’. But are we really being honest with ourselves by saying this? The reality of truth becomes clearer when you are asked the obvious follow-up question ‘if it does matter, how do you know what the truth is?’. In the context of the EU referendum, for nearly all of us the answer is that we don’t know what the truth is. We are not experts in economics or democratic sovereignty and throughout the campaign we have heard different opinions and pieces of evidence for leaving or remaining. So, the reality is that if we do not know ourselves what the truth is, how can the truth matter to us when making up our minds on which way to vote? In reality, what matters is whom we choose to trust, because we then adopt their views as our own.

We have the popular idea that voters rationally and carefully consider the arguments and come to a reasoned conclusion. However, what is actually going on is a very different process. People first and foremost make an emotional decision and take a side to support. Only then does the brain try to rationalise that decision, using the arguments that they are presented with through the media.

By understanding the actual psychological process that is currently underway, one can begin to understand the tactics used by both camps. Both are trying tap into your emotions to swing you to their cause. The ‘remain’ campaign has been accused of conducting ‘project fear’ – setting out embellished statistics and warning of impending doom should the people choose to leave the EU. Fear is one of the most compelling emotions in the political toolbox and the ‘remain’ camp has been pushing this button hard. They are hoping to get voters to make an emotional (fearful) choice to stay in the EU. They have then set up an array of evidence from many different sources to enable these voters to back up their emotional decision with rational argument that they can repeat when speaking to their friends in the pub. Improving trade, boosting the economy, fulfilling Britain’s place on the international stage, you will notice do not sound like fearful arguments – and this is the best bit. Once the fearful decision has been made, we can even pretend that we are not afraid and in fact voting with positive intent.

Moving on, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign has also played the fear tactic by pushing hard on the issue of immigration, although this approach is more complex. Mixed in here are the strong emotions of identity and belonging – love and attachment – but spun in the negative way that if by loving one thing (our country, community ‘people like us’) we then have to reject others. The campaign has then put together as best it can evidence to support the need to control immigration and that on the economy we will be just fine as Great Britain (again playing on the positive emotion of love of country).

Looking at the two campaigns the scale of the rational arguments put forward by the ‘remain’ campaign have been extensive. They have employed nearly every international and domestic institution to give an allegedly impartial assessment of the risks of leaving (although to be truly impartial surely they should also set out the risks of remaining in similarly clear terms).

Both campaigns have used emotion extensively to secure the support of voters, but the remain campaign has been able to deploy secondary rational arguments more effectively. It is for this reason that I believe ‘remain’ will win in the end.

Does the truth matter? No. What matters is whom you trust, a completely different proposition. From the campaign so far, both sides will say just about anything, whether it is true or not, to win your trust.