Language of art not science will reunify a divided Britain


While the social, political, economic and geopolitical consequences of a vote to leave the EU continue to spin their way out, the vote itself provides a window into just how divided British society is.

Since the early hours of Friday morning, everyone in the ‘expert’ game has been poring over the results seeking answers. The vote proved highly divisive, as referendums are wont to do. Despite this, both sides attracted a mix of supporters – although the coverage so far has focused on the group thought to have won it for Leave, traditional Labour voters. For my money, the most interesting insight came from Lord Ashcroft’s on the day poll, which showed stark divides on various social attitudes questions.

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Large majorities of Leave voters considered multiculturalism, immigration, social liberalism, feminism, globalisation and the green movement to be forces for ill in society. This was matched in vigour but with the opposite sentiment by those who voted Remain. For those who thought the culture wars were over (and had been won) this is a rude awakening.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this value divide is the differing perspective on expertise and evidence. During the campaign, leave voters reported high levels of distrust even of those experts generally considered to be ‘neutral’ – academics and economists.

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This reflects different values as they apply to the production of ‘facts’. As Will Davies has put it:

When the Remain camp appealed to their ‘facts’, forecasts, and models, they hoped that these would be judged as outside of the fray of politics. More absurdly, they seemed to imagine that the opinions of bodies such as the IMF might be viewed as ‘independent’. Unfortunately, economics has been such a crucial prop for political authority over the past 35 years that it is now anything but outside of the fray of politics.

Our understanding of oratory and political communication was arguably first formalised by Cicero, who talked of three rhetorical appeals: logos, ethos and pathos. The Remain campaign, as well as most political discourse in Westminster and Whitehall, relied for the most part on logos – rational argument, based on evidence. However, this requires a pre-existing acceptance of the rules of fact-making such as scientific method and falsifiability – the cultural norms that are developed through continuing academic study. It is no coincidence that level of qualification was one of the strongest predictors of voting preference.

During the campaign, and particularly for those swayed by Leave, these were outweighed by ethos – the messenger – and pathos – the emotional pull. The country had had enough of experts, but as people, as props of the establishment, not through consideration of their position and the evidence sustaining it. As Arron Banks, chair of Leave.EU has put it: ‘facts don’t work’.

This should not come as a huge surprise, as Paul Cairney says: ‘to describe decision-making as “rational” is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.’ This applies to everyone – Ashcroft’s polling also reveals that while the strongest motivating factor for leave voters was ‘control’ (whether of immigration or national decision-making in general), for remain voters it was risk avoidance.

These things matter in a campaign – when the object is to convince. But they also matter now we need to reconcile as a country, and get back to the messy and necessarily unsatisfactory business of politics and policy making. So what to do?

First, we must heal the rifts that opened up over the course of the campaign – in advance of the vote, a survey by YouGov revealed that 50 per cent of the British public thought the vote had been divisive for society, and 10 per cent had fallen out with a friend or family member as a result. Deliberate efforts to encourage dialogue and mediation across the value divide are more important than ever.

Second, the media need to up their game. ‘Politicians’ as a category have long since lost the potential to appeal on the basis of ethos among most people – there is a job to do in improving politicians’ authenticity both in reality and perception. Only yesterday morning, more column inches have been given to Nigel Farage’s claim that MEPs have never done a day’s work in their lives than to the actual work of MEPs and other Parliamentarians, reinforcing negative stereotypes about politicians and a culture of anti-politics.

Finally, there are in turn lessons for those still involved in mainstream politics – and particularly those hoping to help resist the siren’s call of Ukip in the Labour English heartlands of Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Sunderland – in terms of how they communicate.

This was the conclusion that Marcus Roberts reached in Revolt on the Left, based on research by Rob Ford and Ian Warren, back in 2014. He suggests the Labour tendency to see immigration as ‘not our issue’, and therefore something to move on from to the safer ground of living standards, the NHS or education, failed to win over those considering Ukip. This is all too similar to the Remain campaign’s inability to counter the power of anti-immigration sentiment through the risk to household finances.

But beyond the issues themselves, what also matters is how they are talked about. When politicians discuss immigration they predominantly do so in technocratic language and from a distance, with reference to evidence and data showing that immigration is not that big a deal, or is overall positive. This is a logos response.

Instead they should make more use of pathos – the appeal to emotion. To regain the support of the disenchanted, politicians need to show they understand and empathise with them, and even better ‘feel their pain’. The longer they stay on home territory, in terms of issues and how they talk about them – treating politics as a science, not an art – the more difficult it will be to actually get through to working class Leavers.