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Beliefs about Brexit


I have nothing to say on yesterday’s agreement that cannot be found in what Chris Grey or Ian Dunt writes. The difference in tone between the two seems to me to depend on different assessments of how far down the road the Irish border issue can be kicked. What I want to do instead is ask why public opinion seems oblivious to the failures of all those claims before the negotiations that ‘we hold all the cards’ compared to the reality that the UK has largely agreed to the terms set out by the EU.

I think as good a place to start as any is this poll resultfrom ORB.


The view of the overwhelming majority of economists, and all the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD, and now even the government, is that leaving the EU will involve significant economic costs. Yet despite all this the poll above shows as many people think we will be better off leaving as think we will be worse off. This is the kind of polling that should stop everyone in their tracks, much like the pollsbefore the US election that said more people trusted Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.

The result in this poll is all the more incredible because so far people are worse off as a result of Brexit. They are worse off because a depreciation immediately after the vote led to higher import prices that have not been matched by rising nominal wages. We have moved from the top to the bottom of the OECD growth league table. A belief that we will be better off has to involve Brexit in some way reversing what has already happened.

I can think of two classes of explanation for this apparent paradox. The first is that people are fully aware of what experts and the government thinks, but ignores this because they simply do not trust experts. Instead they fall back on simple ideas like there will be less immigrants after Brexit so they will be better off. Ideas that experts also say are wrong, but where experts are again ignored.

If that is the line you want to take, then it has a clear implication. The implication is never hold a referendum on anything. It is not normally a good idea to take decisions where you ignore all expertise.

There is however a second and much simpler explanation for the poll result shown above. I know about the view of the overwhelming majority of economists, the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD and now even the government, and so do most people reading this blog or who read the Financial Times and a few other newspapers. But do people who pay far less attention to economics and politics know this? How would they know this?

They will know very little about it from reading the papers that campaigned so hard for Brexit in the first place. At best the information will be reported in a dismissive way with some reference to how economists always get things wrong. (Hence, by the way, a distrust of economists, because most of the media is either unable or unwilling to make the distinctionbetween conditional and unconditional forecasts.) Against such reports will be a constant stream of comment and reporting extolling the imagined benefits of Brexit.

This propaganda could be countered by informed and informing reporting by broadcasters. Unfortunately, with the exception of Sky News, the standard of reporting by broadcasters on Brexit has been very poor. In particular the BBC treats Brexit like any other Westminster based issue, with an additional touch of nationalism. We hear a great deal from May, Fox, Johnson etc, with virtually no expert analysis of what the true state of negotiations are.

I’m not an expert on international trade, but because I read some of the now numerous people who write stuff on Brexit who are experts, or who have made themselves experts, I feel I am reasonably well informed. I have never seen the same level of expertise from the broadcast media. If I just listened to the BBC or read any newspapers bar two or three, I would know almost nothing about what was really going on in the negotiations.

Let me give a personal example. I missed the importance of the Irish border until Septemberlast year. I do not think I was unusual in this respect. I suspect I did so because I was influenced by the UK line that this issue was really a phase 2 problem, a line we heard over and over again on the MSM. What the MSM rarely did was ask what people in Irish Republic felt about the border, and hence why it got to be a first stage issue in the first place.

Once I realised its importance, I could see that the Irish border issue would have a fundamental influence on any final deal, and so could many other experts. But the BBC in particular seems unable to incorporate expert opinion, either directly or indirectly, into its coverage of the negotiations, in much the same way as they failed to do so before the referendum. As a result, most voters are left with bland and uninformative coverage. I see the same Brexiter MPs over and over again being interviewed by the broadcast media, but I cannot recall any occasion in which they have been reminded of the false claims they made before the vote.

The idea that the media can heavily influence popular opinion is not new. It has been widely acknowledged that people thinkcrime is always rising, and overestimate the number of immigrants in the UK, the extent of benefit fraud and so on. These mistakes are almost always in the direction you would expect if people were far too influenced by newspaper headlines. We also now have published papers that demonstrate that the media influences rather than just reflects voters views. (See herefor Fox News, and herefor the UK press. Hereis another study that also finds the Murdoch switch to Labour had large effects. Hereis a study about how the media influenced attitudes to welfare after the 2011 riots.)

I also think this is not the first time in recent memory that the media has failed to accurately report what was going on and what experts thought. Before the 2015 election the media accepted the idea that getting the budget deficit down was the most important goal of macroeconomic policy, and that the economic fundamentals were strong. Few experts would agree with the former, and the latter was simply false. What I call mediamacro swung the election for the Conservatives.

The UK government wants a Brexit that will involve the UK not just ending free movement, but leaving the Single Market for goods and services and leaving any customs union with the EU. It is a form of Brexit not dictated by the referendum result but by the wishes of the Brexiters in the Conservative party. The only people who can stop this happening are other Conservative MPs, but many have said that these MPs will only be able to defy their government if public opinion swings against Brexit.

But that is not going to happen. So far the shift in the public’s view of Brexit has been small, and is largelydown to previous don’t knows making up their mind. This is not surprising if as many people think they will be better off after Brexit as think the opposite. The most obvious explanation for this is that people remain unaware of the overwhelming expert opinion that they will continue to become worse off after Brexit. That in turn represents another victory for right wing press propaganda, and another critical failure from most of our broadcast media.





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