No such thing as a bad question? How about the EU referendum?

There’s this thing where people say: “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” Well there is such a thing as a bad question, and the EU referendum, giving a simplistic choice between “In” or “Out”, is a bad question. One with tragic consequences.

The British people I have asked about their views on the EU have a nuanced view – there are plenty of reasons to stay in the EU and plenty of reasons to leave. There are reasons of different types reflecting short term and long-term considerations, tactical and strategic, matters of economics, security, history, identity, culture and society, as well as both practical and theoretical positions.

Often people have conditional positions like: “If it wasn’t for X, I’d vote to remain”; or “I’d normally say we should leave but Y is really important to me.”

Not only is there the complexity and multitude of issues to be weighed up. In theory you could have a range of different solutions to those questions, as a country can have different relationships with the EU.  As well as being “In” or “Out” there are various more subtle alternatives: you can “In” and enthusiastic like Germany or France, but you can also be “in” and grumpy like Hungary. You can be a bit in like Switzerland or Norway. You can be on the edge but getting closer like Bosnia and Hercegovina, a candidate country. You can be totally out of the EU but a close ally, like the US; or a neighbour but a fiend, like Russia.

Even staying in the EU there are a range of possible relationships because as an EU member you could take any number of stances – expansive or sullen – , and, with effective diplomacy, achieve goals on specific matters which affect you.

Besides the many dull arguments about economics (which are broadly baseless since the speed of social and technological change means we can’t reliably predict the economic future in any case), there are a few things associated the question of EU membership which make people very cross: immigration, sovereignty, corruption, and so forth. They make people cross because they touch on and question their identity and their ego, and they arouse a great sense of injustice or righteousness in people.

Just one such question, such as immigration, is hot enough. So when you are piling up half a dozen incendiary questions, you are guaranteed to get trouble.

Anyone raising these questions, which are important questions, is playing with fire because of the passions which can be aroused in these questions. Then when emotions are heated, the quality of debate, analysis and judgment is impaired, sometimes fatally. If you are to play with fire, it should be done carefully and responsibly. That is, it is important how you raise the questions.

Hence the issue of a “bad question”. If you force someone to take a black or white position on a subtle question, you are doing the opposite of an intelligent thing. Intelligence is about being able to handle the richness and complexity of things in a meaningful way. By crushing all the subtlety of the UK’s relationship with the EU into a stark, binary outcome (in or out) you are unnecessarily destroying, rather than creating intelligence. You are appealing to the dumb, simplistic and populist. Presenting a complex matter in terms of a binary outcome is a deception and an unnecessary deception at that, since there are a number of different possible relationships with the EU.

The stark, yes-no choice, is brutally formulated, forcing an artificial choice. If people are forced to take binary positions you force a polarisation – you force people apart, you force them to focus on their differences rather than what they have in common.

(A further problem is that the referendum kind of implies there is a connection between the make-people-cross problems like immigration and jobs, and the UK’s relationship with the EU. I expect these are global problems driven by matters far bigger than the EU, so in or out we will be stuck with the same problems.  We will just have a smaller bit of sand to stick our heads into.)

To avoid polarisation in society, the government should have posed a range of questions in the referendum exploring views on a range of specific issues and offering a choice between a range of different relationships with the EU. This would have led to more subtle and intelligent debate.

The UK’s status vis-à-vis the EU is a rich and complex matter. It should not and cannot be answered with a binary “yes/no” or “in/out” answer. By forcing people to adopt extreme positions which do not reflect the totality of their views, you are asking for trouble.


Note: I asked my proxy to spoil the ballot paper and write “Remain and Reform” on it.

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