The big debate: lessons from Brexit and the EU

How can we restore due process and integrity to the democratic debate after the EU Referendum?

How can we restore due process and integrity to the democratic debate in the wake of an EU Referendum where both sides resorted to scaremongering?


For some, the Brexit debate was refreshing and life-enhancing: it engaged everyone in the UK and beyond, encouraging them to talk about public issues ranging from the meaning of sovereignty and democracy to the future of world trade and immigrants’ rights. Up to a point, it epitomised a fully-functioning democracy where everyone exercised their right to free speech.

But it was also dispiriting in many ways. On the Remain side, fear tactics, virtue signalling, name-calling and personal attacks became commonplace. The Leave campaign was equally guilty, indulging in inverted snobbery, self-styled victimhood and crass populism.

As the bitter war of words raged on, the central issue – would the UK be better off inside the EU or going it alone? – was largely overlooked. Meanwhile, we heard nothing from the EU itself. One might have expected a more forceful argument for the value the UK brings to the union, talk of a greater commitment or even a declaration of love and admiration for what makes Britain great.

Despite all the talk beforehand, the British public was shocked by and unprepared for the majority vote to leave the union. How can this be, in a country that prides itself on free speech and first-rate media, on being a paragon of democracy and fair play?

Democracies no longer seem able to frame issues clearly and make decisions rationally. What is the prevention for information overload? How is it that the huge amount of information available to us has little or the wrong impact on people’s decisions?

In the UK, older voters who felt disillusioned or worried about the state of their country were swayed by a false Brexit promise: that the nation’s EU contributions would instead be invested in the National Health Service. The majority of Scots voted Remain as a sign of solidarity with the EU, while many Welsh people followed their English neighbours and backed Leave.

There must be a better way to capture people’s imaginations without making false promises, resorting to name-calling or attacking the opposition. Wanting things to be different isn’t a reason to vote to leave the EU.

Integrity and respect for all

Nigel Farage, ex-leader of the UK Independence Party, ridiculed the former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy following the latter’s appointment as EU President in 2010, saying he had “all the charisma of a damp rag”. Farage knew it would be broadcast around the world, and the media duly complied. His inflammatory comments might just have been acceptable in the British Houses of Parliament, but they were not suitable for a multi-cultural audience.

This is an important point: cross-border exchanges quickly veer into ethnic stereotyping, leading to disrespect and dismissal between both parties. In this scenario, one side’s views harden and members are considered weak or disloyal if they acknowledge the other party’s views. Multi-national debates call for more restraint and respect than national ones – a contrarian approach to that of the demagogue Donald Trump.

An approach where politicians insist only they can change things for the better while calling the opposition crooks, liars and bandits is not the way forward. While it may align people for a short time by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than offering rational arguments, it generally fails to solve anything. In fact, it only leads to crises in the medium term or disasters in the long run.

After centuries of warring with each other, the countries of Europe have engaged in open and rational dialogue to coordinate their national policies and currencies. This requires years of exchanges, trials, setbacks, restarts and, above all, a healthy dose of respect and mutual empathy. It requires more listening than telling, and a genuine commitment to establishing a stronger Europe that can, in turn, build a better world. This is the first step to tackling global challenges such as war, famine, climate change, human rights abuses, and addressing the blurred lines between political and economic power.

Countries hoping to build a better world can’t do so without respect for other nations, for the truth and for integrity. Debates about Europe that involve different nationalities call for a greater respect and restraint than those involving people from the same nation. The manners of the ‘local tribe’ can allow for behaviour that may be considered offensive, and hence destructive, in multi-cultural settings.

As debates widen and cross more boundaries, we need to avoid toxic clichés and national biases. This is perhaps the fundamental lesson from Brexit, and one that a new leader such as British Prime Minister Theresa May, a no-nonsense and courageous woman, should urge us to learn and adopt.

Finding common ground

Karl Popper, the Austrian-British philosopher and University of London professor, once characterised a worthy debate as one where both sides went to extraordinary lengths to fully understand each other’s viewpoint. The philosophical and psychological starting point for a debate should involve acknowledging your own fallibility and appreciating how others help you understand who you truly are.

As French-born writer Anaïs Nin once stated, ‘We see the world not as it is, but as we are’. The modern world is ever more complex and contradictory. People want reassurance from political leaders, so they take simple one-liners as the truth. But our leaders are often mistaken. Genuine debate is needed more than ever to get closer to the facts, and to kill false truths.

Debates only flourish when people on both sides understand that they themselves may be profoundly mistaken and aren’t afraid to reveal their self-doubts. Humour, irony and self-deprecation are never far away from the heart of a true debate.

Popper believed that mentalisation – the ability to ‘read’ someone else’s mind – was a key aspect of any debate. This imaginative mental activity enables people to perceive and interpret someone’s needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes and reasons. When this happens, both sides work together to find the middle ground. Even failing that, they still respect each other’s views.

A good democratic process should see everyone changing their views to varying degrees. The ultimate test of this is when a political party finds that its argument is understood and explained more coherently and compellingly by the opposition. This shows that the other side not only listens, but also has empathy.

Most British citizens were in two minds up to the point of voting in the EU referendum – and yet this wasn’t discussed by either the Remain or Leave camps, or political and economic experts. This oversight seriously impaired their credibility. Accordingly, most people became both confused and entrenched, and they were left to vote based on partial analysis, intuition or emotion.

In the case of Brexit, there was no debate even when both sides were making reasonable propositions. The Leave camp could easily have found common ground with many pro-EU Europeans who wanted a reformed EU. Meanwhile, the Remain camp could have appealed to Brexiters who believed the EU was stronger, with reform more likely, if the UK stayed in.

Making people accountable

It would have been refreshing and edifying if the people leading the Brexit debate had thought more about their opponent’s views while questioning their own beliefs. For this to happen, politicians need to show more integrity and, if this is not forthcoming, face clear sanctions.

For corporate governance in organisations, this function is performed by the Ethics and Governance Committee of the Board – and something similar is needed for parliamentary matters. The board would comprise senior people of distinction, who investigate cases where integrity is seemingly lacking, or even examine the proper method for the democratic debate.

The uncomfortable truth is that the world’s biggest problems require supranational governance, which Europe is experimenting with. The British people may have rejected this idea by voting for Brexit, but retreating to an island isn’t wise in an increasingly convergent and interconnected world.

Cross-border debates deserve truly international protagonists, much greater interpersonal respect, a stronger commitment to learn from each other and effective processes. That is what Europe is working towards, with all its imperfections. It’s a tough challenge, rendered even more difficult by the personal ambitions of national leaders and their delusions. But it’s an essential one – and Britain should be involved.

Jules Goddard is a Fellow at London Business School, while Ludo Van der Heyden is a Professor of Corporate Governance at INSEAD.

Comments (5)

Stephen G 6 years, 3 months and 3 days ago

Fully agree with SMC. Remain camp scaremongering, especially from the Chancellor, was way OTT, and has proved totally false. Three cheers for the British public for not giving in to the fear tactics.

Short 6 years, 3 months and 5 days ago

Often heard stated was: 'We entered a Common Market and that is not what we now have'. But a 'common' market requires common rules and much of what the EU has generated is just that, working towards a leveling of the playing field around Europe.

Short 6 years, 3 months and 5 days ago

What disappointed me about the debate was that no one on the 'remain' side looked at the positives in terms of directives and regulations that the EU has generated over the last decades.

Steve F 6 years, 3 months and 5 days ago

The EU Referendum highlighted that too few people have an interest or real understanding of the UK economy and UK government. Politics and Democracy should be taught in schools - better education on democracy and politics in general will improve engagement and debate and help ensure people make more informed decisions rather than be influenced by opinion and bias or scaremongering. Both sides have little to be proud of and when it came to stepping up and being honest and open in this significant decision but a lack of engagement is also to blame

SMC 6 years, 3 months and 5 days ago

'where both sides resorted to scaremongering' yes this is true, but let's not forget that the Remain side had 3 major political parties, the entire MSM, all the good and holy Celebs and the leader of the free world spreading fear and horror. All credit to the British public for not falling for it!