Brexit is not the issue

Before reading on, let me declare that I am a ‘remainer’. But please don’t let that put you off because this is not about Brexit per se. It’s about binary thinking.

Since the vote back in June 2016 I have always maintained that Brexit will never happen (or if it does it will be in a form that makes no difference). So far I have no reason to change my mind.

It is ridiculous to think that the country voted to leave Europe in June 2016. I’ve heard Brexiteers say that the country voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. This is simply not true. What actually happened was that the country voted by a small margin to rebel against the increasingly unsustainable inequalities in society. Less than 38% of those eligible, voted for Brexit. Admittedly they were the ones that bothered to vote while, I speculate, that many of the remainers stayed at home in the belief that the vote was bound to go their way.

This was three years ago without the vote of people who are now 18 but were not that eligible to vote in the referendum. We know that young people tend to be remainers. It was also at a time before there had been much debate about Brexit. It was before companies started to spell out the implications of tariffs. It was before the effects on employment, international travel, border controls, uk residents abroad, Russian interference and much more could be assessed. It was before the NHS described the impacts of restricting immigration on their ability to provide services. It was before many other organisations and individuals were voiced and understood. In other words it was before we had heard the arguments.

Brexit is a Smokescreen

To claim that Brexit should happen because of an overwhelming democratic vote is a sham. Is it democratic to ignore a public who, for all we know, might now vote overwhelmingly to remain? Nobody can be certain what another referendum might show, but surely it would be more democratic to have another referendum than to doggedly pursue the idea that leaving Europe was the main issue for everybody last time round.

Politicians have made leaving Europe the issue because they do not want to discuss that the 2016 referendum was about how the UK, and the world generally, was run. It was little to do with Europe specifically.

It was an expression of discontent about austerity, how austerity came about (i.e. a dysfunctional financial system). It was a protest against unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK, in Europe and globally. It was saying that undeserving fat-cats benefit, while everybody else had to pay the bills for their irresponsible behaviour. Of course, these very same people are going to deflect criticism any way they can, and encourage you to think that all that has gone wrong is nothing to do with them. It was easy for both those responsible, and indeed also the disadvantaged people of Britain, to scapegoat immigrants in order to avoid addressing the real routes of inequality and unfairness.

That’s why we should have another referendum. Because the last one was hardly about leaving Europe at all. And what’s more it has at least in part achieved its objective. Parliamentary democracy is in chaos (by historical standards). That was the implicit objective of the people that voted for Brexit. And yet the whole mechanism of parliamentary democracy carries on as if the substantive issues do not even exist.

Oh, well maybe I’m wrong then. But no, maybe I’m right. It is entirely credible that the story I am telling has brought us to where we are today – the story that Brexit is a smokescreen. It is a huge diversion from getting on with fixing the things that really matter.

But another referendum only solves part of the problem – the part that didn’t really exist before the 2016 referendum. That is, it only solves the problem of Brexit, that wasn’t the main issue at all. It doesn’t solve the problem of parliamentary democracy as it exists today. It doesn’t solve the problem of increasing wealth inequality. For that, we need a far more radical solution.

But the way things are going, as a country, we are being fooled into believing that Brexit is the issue. We are being fooled into thinking that the current system of parliamentary democracy is the best we can do. This is not true in an age that offers so many technological mechanisms to support complex decision-making. While we are all still arguing about Brexit we are ignoring the faults in a system that reveals that many issues do not necessarily align with party politics. Nobody is talking about alternatives.

Binary Thinking is none too subtle

The two-party system always lacked subtlety and the Brexit issue has merely served as a mechanism to show it. It is ridiculous to think that because you prefer one party, all your views are going to align the same way.

We are all autonomous, independent thinkers. Why continue with a system that turns everything into binary thinking?

It’s interesting that the realisation that binary thinking (for example in relation to sexuality, disability, ‘us and them’ and so on) is not very subtle should come at a time when a binary political system is failing. We need a system where we can all take part in the political decision-making process. Let’s call it citizenship. The ancient Greeks may have thought of it, but maybe that’s because it was good.

It was a good idea because it brought a diversity of opinion to every problem. Hasn’t anybody realised that diversity of opinion is the opposite of binary thinking. Parliament needs to be diverse not binary. It should be really representative of the people, not just pretending to ‘represent’ the people. That’s because MPs are not representative. They are self-selected. They are the subset of the people who aspire to power. I’m not saying that’s wrong necessarily. I’m just saying that’s not representative. Not being representative means that it is not diverse. It does not represent the true diversity of opinion that exists in the country.

What doe we need? – Diversity

Contrast this true diversity with the two-party system that forces everybody into either one mindset or its opposite. All arguments become either at one extreme or the other (or occasionally somewhere along the binary dimension). How do you expect creative thinking and innovative ideas to come out of such a channelled mechanism of uni-dimensional thought?

Here is a possible alternative. Why don’t we just move to a parliament that consists of a random sample of 1000 people? This diversity of opinion debating with each other, would produce far more interesting and creative solutions than debates framed within a unitary dimension of opinion. This is only one of many suggestions – all I ask is that the time has come when we should consider alternatives.

I suppose you could argue that too many cooks make a spoiled broth but that only applies when they are in an environment of chaos. Given the opportunity to deliberate, supported by structured mechanisms and rules of evidence, instead of just shouting at each other so that the loudest voice wins, they might come up with a new delicious soup. (See a related post on ‘Is the referendum definitive‘ I wrote back in 2016).

Brexit has given us the opportunity to realise that we could have a better system. We should start thinking about what it could be and how it might be put in place. If Brexit is not the opportunity, then what is? Now is a good time to ask those people who hold the power some difficult questions.

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.