Brexit … people voted for simple messages, emotion over logic, and a chance to protest

June 24, 2016

53% of British people voted to leave the European Union. 47% want to be part of Europe. The vote was unexpected and unnecessary. It was not supported by any of the major political parties, and had not been predicted in opinion polls. It was strongly opposed in London, where the majority of the nations wealth is created. It was particularly strongly opposed by young people whose futures are most influenced by the decision, and almost totally opposed in Scotland which now might well seek a more independent future. It leaves the United Kingdom confused and divided, cut adrift from its own continent, leaderless in where next, and facing years of uncertain economic and social progress.

I love being part of Europe. As part of the continent, albeit an island, British history is dominated by our relationship with Anglos and Saxons, Romans and Vikings. In more recent times many of our grandparents gave their lives to protect Europe in two world wars, a sacrifice surely not in vain. in today’s world, most trade happens between UK and other countries, most vacations are to other European countries, most children learn a second or third European language, and many British live across Europe, as well as Europeans leave in Britain. Of course the institutions and politicians of Brussels and Strasburg have their failings like most, but they strengthen our geographic and cultural integration, and in particular our economies and safety.  To not be part of Europe is sad and stupid.

So why did people (and frustratingly only a small majority), vote to leave?

  • Simple messages – both campaigns struggled to get their message across, and as a result narrowed down their arguments to soundbites – leave because of immigrants, stay because of the economy. As a result the great many people had little broader understanding of what they were voting for, and even the consequences for them.
  • Emotion over logic – linked to this was the ability to engage people in the fear of immigrants taking their jobs, the nostalgia for a British empire long gone and unlikely to be rebuilt, and electioneering of the ridiculously confused Boris Johnson and nasty Nigel Farage, which despite its messages was more engaging than the logic of Prime Minister David Cameron and George Osborne.
  • An aversion to change – whilst the capitals of most European cities will fly EU flags alongside their own, you would never see the blue and starred flag of Europe alongside the Union Jack in London. Whilst the Euro became popular across Europe as a convenience for travel, Brits would never give up the pound. People, particularly older and less educated, really dislike change.

The really frustrating thing for me, is the number of people who within hours of the result started saying “if I’d known, Brexit would win, then I wouldn’t have voted for it” suggesting that in reality they just wanted to make a protest about everyday life (not perfect, but not too bad). Many others didn’t understand any of the consequences of their votes (so this means we will need to spend the next 10 years, rewriting almost every law, UK citizens living in Spain might not be able to say, students won’t be able to study freely across Europe like I did).

Of course there were some die-hard types who just hate others, or live in a bygone age, but some of the reasons why people did vote to leave were farcical (“I don’t like my Lithuanian cleaner making so much money” or “Indian restaurants are good, but I don’t like Polish shops”). Many even said they would vote differently if asked to do again. And Scotland said it wants independence to stay in the EU.

It stunned the world. It scared Europe. It brought down a prime minister. It was a referendum that was never actually necessary (part of a last minute deal for support in the previous election, that was never actually needed). Referendums are usually bad ideas, because people vote at whim for issues that are unrelated, unclear, or dominate in the short-term.

Across Europe we see the same rise of nationalism and populism, anti-establishment and fearful of change and progress. Maybe in the USA, the same will happen in months to come?

Governments and politicians, and equally business and brands, need to rethink what matters in this world if we are going to keep moving forwards together, to harness the positive opportunities of connected technologies and a connected world, both in policies, and also in the way they engage people in them.

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