Brexit and public opinion: time to tighten the belts

The United Kingdom has been expecting to leave the European Union since June 23rd, 2016, when the population voted (with a  narrow margin of votes) for Brexit. Since then, with comings and goings, the population doesn’t know the minimum parameters of the “day after”.  This journey has become a joke around the world. Even according to the definitions listed in the “Urban Dictionary”, an informal online English slang dictionary, you can use the term “brexiting” for the attitude of someone who says goodbye to everyone at a party but stays there or who will abandon a card game and remains at the table. Over the years, the common questions of British public opinion are: will it happen now? and how? From an analytical point of view: what are the basic learnings from this Brexit process for democracies such as Brazil for example.

Depending on the recently appointed and always controversial Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it seems that it will happen. He has just launched a huge public information campaign called “Get Ready for Brexit.” The objective is to prepare the population for leaving the European Union on October 31st. For critics of the conservative leader, it is the contemporary version of “Airplane!” (American movie of the ’80s).

Regardless of the political side, Sir Boris Johnson uses public opinion data to justify the launch of the campaign: “only” 50% of the population thinks that the UK is likely to leave the EU on October 31st and that 42% of small and medium-sized companies have no information of how to prepare. By gathering historical public opinion data, we can say that never an event of such impact had so much misinformation of those directly affected. The way this episode unfolds will sustain social science studies for a long time.

From this Brexit process, there are numerous learnings for Brazil. However, let’s focus on two particularly. First, referendums with “binary” options for complex topics can be expensive in the future. We are debating about possessing/bearing weapons resulting from a referendum that little informed/clarified the public opinion on the subject. I hope that topics such as political reform will not be presented in a binary form to our voters. There is no simple (binary) solution to complex issues. In a highly polarized environment such as the present, simplistic approaches tend to produce very costly results for society

And second, that a decision of this magnitude is not the result of the wishes of a partisan minority (very minor indeed). Prime Minister Boris Johnson carrying his nearly 93,000 votes for the leader of the Conservative Party will decide the direction of the UK at one of the most decisive events in its history. It is important to remember that conservatives do not have a majority of the British Parliament (they live under an unstable minority government). This cognitive dissonance between specific partisan political interests and the aspirations of the population is one of the major structural disruptions of modern democracies. Trust in democracy rates in democracies around the world are falling. The challenge for global leaders is to re-establish this fundamental bond of trust. Little has been done lately, unfortunately.

Therefore, communication is essential and the British government has had over 3 years to explain what Brexit means in the life of the average citizen. It left it for the final moment of “happening now”. It remains as an example that not communicating is always postponing the problem (exchanging well-done communication in the present for chaos in the future). Destiny (post-Brexit) is unknown, and solutions, in the mind of public opinion, are still abstract. But in the land of the Queen, the problems caused by Brexit are already quite real. We can only fasten our seat belts because the pilot …

Mauricio Moura: Economist, PhD in Economics and Public Sector Policy. Mauricio is a visiting professor at George Washington University and has recently received a certificate from the Harvard University Owner/President Management Program. Founder and CEO of IDEIA Big Data.

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