What can nuclear power learn from Brexit?

BREXIT AND NEXIT

A tale of two campaigns

Malcolm Grimston

The recent decision by the UK population to leave the European Union offers some fascinating insights into political campaigning and the greater importance of winning hearts than minds when it comes to building public support for a position. In many respects the strategy of the Remain campaign can be compared to the long-term communication strategy of the nuclear power industry – with remarkably similar outcomes. In many countries the pressure for a ‘nuclear exit’ is even stronger than that for British exit from the EU. This brief note will seek to expand on these parallels and draw some communication conclusions for the nuclear industry and its supporters.

THE ISSUES

Both ‘Brexit’ – the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union – and ‘Nexit’ – the campaign to take nuclear power out of the fuel mix – have been issues which have sharply divided public opinion in the UK and elsewhere. (Brexit is obviously primarily a UK matter though even it has been controversial in a number of European countries and indeed further afield, with for example President Obama making his feelings very clear during the campaign.)

A further point of similarity between the two issues is that in each case the weight of expert opinion is/was very clearly on the side of ‘Remain’. In the case of nuclear this degree of support is now spreading into the ‘environmental’ movement which has tended to be oppositional for some decades (though support in the financial community has been falling); in the Brexit case almost all international and national financial authorities, plus large swathes of business and industry, argued that remaining in the EU would very probably be in Britain’s national interests, at least from an economic standpoint.

It is important to be clear about what this and does not mean. Expert opinion is not always right – it may be subject to systematic bias, there may be major discoveries yet to be made or the field may simply be subject to great uncertainty. There are many example of scientific orthodoxy being overturned, sometimes in the face of resistance from the scientific establishment itself. Even Einstein could not at first accept the implications of quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”) despite his own work on the photoelectric effect having been a major starting point for the whole field. In 1917 he introduced a random ‘cosmological constant’ to neuter one of the key findings of his general relativity theory, that the universe is expanding – something which is generally thought now to be correct. Some of the calamities predicted to follow a Brexit vote by the Remain campaign have clearly not materialised.

But all else being equal, ‘expert opinion’ – which is probably better described as calculated and informed guesswork – is more likely to be ‘correct’, or at least near enough to be of practical use, than more mystical sources of ‘authority’ such as religion, celebrities, next-door neighbours, brothers-in-law or just an aversion to the views of people we don’t like.

The two issues are also similar in that they involve not just interpretations of factual matters but also an interplay of different values. There is no ‘factual’ answer to the question as to how to compare the economic benefits of having a supply of low cost labour say with the social disruption caused by large-scale immigration into relatively small communities – just as there is no ‘factual’ answer to the tension between the higher financial cost of investing in nuclear power and the environmental benefits it could bring.

A further point to note is that in each case the Remain point of view began in a strong position but its lead was eroded over time until the Leave campaign was ahead. At the point of the referendum on the EU the Leave lead was enough to deliver a Brexit verdict, by 51.9% to 48.1%. In the case of nuclear power early enthusiasm was followed by disillusion and opposition[1], though in the UK at least opinion has recovered from the low point registered around the turn of the millennium (the improvement coinciding with the decline of the nuclear industry’s large-scale ‘fact-based’ attempts to ‘educate’ the public). Nonetheless, reflecting on the failure of (EU) Remain’s communications strategy may yield some interesting pointers for the nuclear industry.

NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING

In the course of the debate leading up to the referendum the Remain campaign was dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by its opponents. The Leave campaigners portrayed Remain’s strategy as one based on creating fear round the economic uncertainties involved in leaving the EU, rather than seeking to inspire by citing the positive advantages of continuing membership. As the Brexit side edged into the lead in the weeks before the vote, the then Chancellor, George Osborne and his (Labour) predecessor Alistair Darling warned of a 2p rise in the basic rate, a 3p rise in the higher rate, a 5p rise in inheritance tax and a 5% rise in alcohol and petrol duties, coupled with a £2.5bn cut to the NHS, a £1.2bn cut to defence, a £1.15bn cut to education, a £2bn cut to pensions…

Brexit’s portrayal was not an unfair one. In April 2016 the government published a pro-Remain leaflet, Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK.[2] The opening statement reads as follows:

“The UK has secured a special status in a reformed EU:

we will not join the euro;

  • we will keep our own border controls;
  • the UK will not be part of further European political integration;
  • there will be tough new restrictions on access to our welfare systems for new EU migrants;
  • we have a commitment to reduce EU red tape.”

One has to wait until page 12 (out of 16) before seeing the heading ‘The benefits of EU membership’. The first substantive point made here is: “The UK has kept the pound, will not join the euro and has kept control of UK borders”.

In other words, the most salient benefit that the UK government seemed to wish to get over was that the UK hadn’t got caught up in the (silly) project as deeply as others had and had remained on the sidelines, relatively speaking.

This is highly reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with leading with its weak points – full page advertisements on radioactive waste disposal and so on. ‘Safety is the top priority’ is a common pitch, as if safety were the product, that the case for nuclear power, rather like the case for remaining in the EU, is that it isn’t quite as bad as you think it is or that it might have been. Of course, if safety really is more important than making electricity, for example, or reducing carbon emissions then there is an obvious solution – stop doing it. Just as if avoiding so many of the consequences of full membership of the EU is the best that can be said for remaining then there is an obvious solution – leave.

By comparison, the EU Leave campaign focused largely on one positive theme – ‘taking back control’ (of borders, of laws, of the budget etc.) – backed up by a number of arguably simplistic statements and half-implications. Even if it could be deemed disingenuous, this approach nonetheless painted a positive picture of what life outside the EU might look like.

This being said, as discussed later the main problem with this leaflet was probably not its content. There is little evidence that significant numbers of people read it: many instead sent it back to the Prime Minister.[3] But the reek of negativity, the difficulty in clearly articulating a positive message and the consequent falling back onto attempts to persuade people that staying in wouldn’t be quite as bad as the Brexiters were claiming pervaded the whole campaign.

A MYERS-BRIGGS TYPE ANALYSIS

The “Myers-Briggs Type Indicators” is a trademarked psychometric test which identifies eight different personality preferences (in four ‘pairs’ or more accurately across four spectra).[4] Each of us has our own personality style or preference built from our positions on the continua between the potential extremes.

The four axes are described by the Myers-Briggs Foundation as:

Extraversion/Introversion (E/I) – do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?

Sensing/Intuition (S/N) – do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) – when making decisions do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?

Judging/Perceiving (J/F) – when dealing with the outside world do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?

For the purpose of this discussion the E/I axis may not be of particular interest. However, in the case of each of the three others evidence suggests that there are systematic differences between the Myers-Briggs profiles of those going into managerial, scientific/engineering and political occupations.[5]

S/N T/F J/P
UK public 76%/26% 46%/54% 58%/42%
Science/Engineering 58%/42% 88%/12% 71%/29%
R&D 55%/45% 81%/19% 63%/37%
Politicians 51%/49% 66%/34% 56%/44%

Distribution of Myers-Briggs characteristics

THE TF AXIS

One striking difference between those going into politics, science or R&D, when compared to the population at large, is that the ‘thinking’ mode – which has at its heart a belief that ‘facts’ should drive perceptions, and by extension that facts do drive perceptions (since for a T-type it is very difficult to conceive of the world through an F’s eyes and vice versa) – is much more heavily represented in comparison to the ‘feeling’ mode. The latter seems to have a small majority among the population (one remarkably similar to that achieved by the Leave campaign in the vote), while characterising perhaps a third of politicians and just one eighth of scientists and engineers. Stalin was not a classic F and in any case probably never said it but the often-cited quote attributed to him – “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – has some force when it comes to communications.

A case study

One seminal moment during the Brexit campaign came in April 2016 when, as noted above, the government spent £9 million of public money to publish its pro-Remain leaflet – Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK – and send it to every household in the country. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, described the leaflet as ‘moderate and restrained’ – which in itself does not seem to be an entirely unfair description, as far as it goes. Nonetheless, the leaflet did not make any direct reference to any possible downside of Remaining (and the claims of ‘retaining control of UK borders’ sat uneasily with statistics published the following month showing near-record net migration figures in 2015, with the widespread recognition that the government had failed spectacularly in its pledge to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ rather than the 330,000 actually recorded).

Immediately there was a public and political furore. 220,000 people signed an online petition for the Prime Minister David Cameron to stop using taxpayer money on pro-EU content, leading to a debate in Parliament on May 9. In that debate the Leave campaign did not actually spend much time attacking the content of the leaflet[6]. The MP introducing the debate said that “the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page.” A second Leave-supporting MP said that that if voters decide to remain in the EU by a narrow margin, many “will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document.” (Conservative) MP John Redwood, a veteran anti-EU campaigner and former Cabinet Minister, said: “No previous Labour or Conservative government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not, therefore, a scandal?” Perhaps the two most high-profile campaigners in the official Leave campaign, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, respectively called for the £9.3 million bill for the ‘one-sided propaganda’ to be spent on the National Health Service; and accused the Prime Minister of reneging on his promise to ‘fight fair’ during the referendum because he was ‘losing the argument’.

Redwood suggested – surely correctly – that the leaflet would encourage more people to vote for Brexit as they would view it as an abuse of taxpayers’ cash and an ‘insult’ to voters. Another commentator rather more colourfully said: “Although it broke every Rule in the book and showed Mr. Cameron’s CHARACTER for what it is, I am GLAD he did it! This Political Fantasy booklet will PROVE to be the POLITICAL HOWLER OR ‘OWN GOAL’ if you prefer, OF THE CENTUARY!” One suspects that what this might lack in terms of conventional grammar it more than makes up for in terms of straightforward common sense.

In similar vein, Nigel Farage, Leader of UKIP, suggested that President Obama’s calls for the UK to stay in the EU, coupled with a threat that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ when it came to negotiating a trade deal, during his visit in April 2016 did the Leave campaign more good than harm. “Threatening people too much insults their intelligence.A lot of people in Britain said, ‘How dare the American president come here and tell us what to do?’ It backfired. We got an Obama-Brexit bounce, because people do not want foreign leaders telling them how to think and vote.” Obama’s popularity rating with the UK public had always been high, yet all four major polls published after his visit showed a move towards Leave by between one and four percentage points. Between 55% and 60% of those polled expressed disapproval of Obama’s intervention: the popular response was expressed in a cartoon of Obama seated opposite the Queen at a Palace dining table saying “She’ll have the fish” as the Queen winces and the butler staggers back in horror.[7]

After the result had been announced Arron Banks, a key funder of the UK Independence Party and of the Leave campaign, referred to the success of Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination for US President when he revealed: “What they [Brexit’s political strategists Goddard Gunster] said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”[8] Michael Gove’s take was “I think people in this country have had enough of experts:” Gisela Stuart MP said: “There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter.” Nigel Farage claimed that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the government or the EU.[9] The Leave campaign also reminded voters of a pledge the previous year by Europe Minister David Lidington that there was “no question of the Government undertaking any paid advertising or promotions such as billboards, doorstops, leaflets or newspaper or digital advertising”. That the pledge technically applied only to the last 28 days of the campaign was all but irrelevant to its force as a message. What the Leave campaign grasped so firmly, and decisively, was that there was absolutely no need to challenge the ‘facts’ coming from the Remain side in any rigorous or systematic way. Much more effective was to attack the very concept of expertise, or the bona fides of particular individual pro-Remain ‘experts’, or the refusal of the government to ‘play fair’ (thereby portraying the Remain campaign as being afraid of a balanced debate). In playing to gut feeling rather than analysis the Leave campaigners came far closer to the worldview of the population than did the Remain campaign. One suspects that the outrage expressed in public by Leave campaigners over the leaflet was accompanied by the rubbing of hands in glee behind closed doors. How could the Remain campaign make such crass mistakes as to publish a one-sided leaflet, or bring a foreign leader in to the debate, thereby playing so solidly into the key emotional arguments being promulgated by the Leavers – that ‘they’ (the ‘establishment’, the ‘urban elite’, ‘Westminster’ or even ‘Londoners’) are forcing ‘us’ into taking a decision which benefits ‘them’ and therefore doesn’t benefit ‘us’; and that ‘the foreigners’ have far too much say over UK thinking and policy?

As another commentator put it: “The Brexiteers had a big story to tell — one of a proud people that must finally recognise it was high time to haul back its sovereignty from a faceless, bureaucratic Brussels apparatus that was undemocratic and spent its time passing regulations in opaque rounds of wheeling and dealing. What did the Remain campaign have at its disposal to counter these arguments? Prosaic facts. Britain would suffer economically. Only a unified Europe could compete globally. The message was not wrong, but it was cool and abstract by comparison.”[10]

The parallels with the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with ‘providing the facts’, ‘educating the public’ and so on – and with the antinuclear industry’s focus on frightening imagery (rather than statistics) and attacks on the bona fides of experts (except those with whom they agree) – are unmistakeable, as are the similarities in the outcomes. The population is much more likely to come to a decision based on feelings (as opposed to analysis) and emotion than is the political or managerial ‘establishment’. It is maybe too much to claim that ‘facts’, or at least sound arguments, are irrelevant, if only because citing an incorrect ‘datum’ might make one look even less trustworthy. But as the Leave campaign showed, repeatedly peddling the patently untrue claims that there would be ‘£350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service if the UK left the EU’ (a claim duly abandoned by the Leave campaign after it had done its job[11]) and that Turkey was on the point of being fast-tracked into membership of the EU did no harm at all: the emotional messages were both graspable and credible. (Indeed, it can be argued that when the Remain campaign did start to attack the £350 million figure, saying, correctly, that when the rebate and the money which comes back to the UK from various EU funds were taken into account the net figure, ignoring any wider economic consequences, was closer to £165 million per week, may have backfired. Polling suggests that many people simply did not believe the Remain campaign, while others said ‘well, ok, but that is still a huge number’. By engaging on the ‘facts’ the Remain campaign in effect validated the Leave argument – once again by unwillingly implying that Leave was basically right, we do contribute a literally inconceivably huge amount to the EU, just not quite as much as Leave says. What was presumably Remain’s real argument – that loss of business opportunities in Europe would wipe out any savings from the net contribution at a stroke – got entirely lost in the spat over the £350 million figure itself.)

As one person, from a northern city, told a reporter: “Well, everybody says something and everybody says something else and you find they’re all contradicting one another so who do you believe? I just thought we would be better without, so we just went with our hearts.”

THE NS AXIS

The Remain campaign talked about some big themes and ideals. The government leaflet says; “voting to leave the EU would create years of uncertainty and potential economic disruption”. One poster says: “Beware of what it means to leave the EU: dissolve the largest peace project in human history; support a right-wing movement; undo trade treaties for years to come”.

Such thoughts in themselves are of course quite pertinent to the debate and were doubtless attractive to the big-picture, abstract, theoretically minded N-types running the campaign. But what do they actually mean in terms of people’s everyday lives? After all only a quarter of the population draws its maps of the world from the top down – most people, according to MBTI research, are dominated in their thinking by concrete examples from everyday life.

The Leave campaign[12], by contrast, tended rather more to focus on concrete images and understandable, everyday situations. The infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which was interpreted as portraying a queue of supposed EU residents waiting to get into the UK (though actually depicting Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border) was widely criticised as misleading and tasteless – to the extent, speculatively, that it may have been offputting to some Fs – but this is not to say that it was not effective in driving home a point.

Whether these claims were true and defensible or not did not seem to matter when it came to assessing their impact. Their messages were readily graspable.

Of course, it can be argued that the slogan ‘Take back control’ is rather abstract in itself, but it was always backed up by examples of what it was that ‘we’ would be ‘taking back’ by leaving the EU.

How often do nuclear proponents talk about abstract concepts like ‘energy security’, ‘the economy’ and so on, rather than making the message something more related to everyday life?

THE JP AXIS

The differences between population and those in the scientific and political spheres on this parameter are relatively narrow, so any conclusions must be approached cautiously. However, it does seem that the population may be slightly more comfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability than those who do things like promote Remain campaigns, in EU or nuclear fields.

It was clear that the key treasury claim – that the average UK household would be permanently £4,300 a year worse off if the UK left the EU – did not gain traction. An opinion poll a week before the referendum suggested that it was believed by only 17% of those polled. [13]

Speculatively, one of the problems with such figures is their faux-accuracy. Just two months before the referendum Chancellor Osborne announced that in 2015/2016 the UK economy had missed his borrowing target by £1.8bn, or £28 per head of the population, compared to the forecast issued just one month previously.[14] The incoming Coalition government in 2010 had pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015 and reduce overall borrowing to £37bn: borrowing in the final financial year of the Parliament was, in fact, £92bn.[15] Even if only a tiny proportion of the population were aware of the precise numbers, the impossibility, or at least the extraordinarily poor track record, of making accurate predictions presumably made numbers stated with two-figure ‘accuracy’ in this way highly suspect. Similarly the frequent and quite reasonable claims by the Remain campaign that leaving the EU would be a huge step in the dark gained little ground. After all we (or at least the Ps in the population) know that the world is an uncertain place and rather like the fact. Britain has been used to dealing with uncertain and unexpected futures for far longer than we have been members of the EU.

Again, the nuclear industry’s messages, and those of associated campaigns such as that surrounding climate change, tend to give an impression of degrees of certainty which do not accord with most people’s experience. Sometimes saying ‘we don’t know’ or ‘chances are there will be good and bad if we do this’ might be more effective ways of engaging with the P half of the population.

THE IRRATIONAL PUBLIC

Accusations of public ‘irrationality’ proliferated before and, especially, after the vote. As one commentator said, in an article entitled Brexit and the politics of irrationality’: “There appears to be every sign that, in the South Wales valleys, thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – one whose Less Developed Region status under EU rules means that it is a target for EU funding, for social projects like Sure Start as well as the better-known funding for industrial relocation, training and infrastructure – will vote to leave the EU.[16]

Claims of irrationality – that the public believes or acts a certain way for no reason at all – are never convincing. In reality, it is more likely that we make our decisions based on a wide range of factors, all of which make sense in a particular way, thus reinforcing the point that campaigns of facts alone can be not only ineffective but indeed, in some circumstances, counterproductive. Take one comment from a Leave voter from the North of England: “People from down south think they are a little bit better than us, they think they’re a little bit more educated than us, they think they are more well-to-do than us, that we’re just the working class common northerners who don’t know as much as they know. So everything is rammed down your throat, ‘we’re the more important, everyone who’s important lives here and works here’.” Or more succinctly, “If we’ve given London a bloody nose, that’s a bonus. I actually find it quite funny. It shows how detached they are from the real world.”[17]

An air of superiority, that anyone who holds an opposing view is stupid, ill-informed, irrational etc., is not unique to pro-Remain campaigners – it feels familiar to those who have observed nuclear industry communications over many years, with similar emotional consequences.

AN ALTERNATIVE REMAIN CAMPAIGN

How might a Remain campaign based on the above principles have looked?

For the present author, one of the most impressive contributions to the whole debate came from a small businessperson on the BBC radio phone-in programme Any Answers. He explained the Single Market in concrete terms: if he needed to buy a component from within the EU for his manufacturing business he could do so with very little bureaucracy and no extra tariffs – if he had to buy it from outside the EU he had to fill out import forms and pay a tariff through the postal service. This single brief contribution, based on a real-life, easily graspable example, was more effective than reams of theoretical discussion about the trade terms with Europe – discussion which required one largely to trust the messenger as the abstract concepts were difficult to grasp or verify.

The Remain campaign might have done better to tell the story of individual people who were benefitting or would benefit in the future from membership of the EU – those nearing retirement who currently had the freedom to settle say in Spain or the South of France; young people who had taken advantage of free movement of people to live in an EU country and had then come back enriched; people employed by small businesses whose family’s wellbeing depended on the company’s ability to trade freely with EU countries; universities which had been involved in the invention of something of clear direct benefit to people’s lives owing to an EU-funded collaboration with several other universities which would be much more difficult when outside the club. These people-focused, easily portrayable ideas, trumpeting the benefits of EU membership may have been considerably more appealing than claims that leaving the EU would lead to international conflict (hardly credible and certainly not easily graspable) or ‘potential economic disruption’, whatever that might mean.

CAVEATS

There is always a danger of pushing a comparison too far. Brexit and Nexit are not direct perfect parallels. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two issues, in perceptual terms, is that while there does not seem to have been a gender gap in voting over Brexit, in the case of nuclear there is a significant and enduring higher degree of support among men than among women. Older and younger voters seem are more likely to support nuclear power than those in the age range 20-50, while support for Brexit grew consistently as the age of the voter increased. This being said, support for both nuclear power and remaining in the EU was higher in social groups ABC1 than in C2DE.

Furthermore, over 48% of those who took party in the referendum voted to Remain, including several people who were won over to that side by the campaign. Clearly many in the population were convinced by, or at least not dissuaded by, the claims of the remain campaign about the economic consequences of leaving the EU, just as there was always a segment of the population which continued to support nuclear energy even when its overall popularity was at its lowest.

More strategically, Brexit’s aims were rather different from those of the nuclear industry and its supporters. It simply needed to get more people to vote for it on a particular day – it would not be responsible for any long-term policies or implications that arose from it (though some of its supporters might be). Nuclear power needs to develop a long-term constructive relationship with communities hosting nuclear facilities and at least a degree of passive acceptance (though not necessarily more) from the population at large. Wilful manipulation and exaggeration of the best information available is therefore not really an option for the nuclear industry even if it were morally acceptable, though it patently is for some of its opponents. The aim perhaps should be to continue to take decisions like an NT but to communicate them like an SF. Ironically, at least post-Fukushima rather too many decisions have been taken against available evidence, perhaps to seek to appease the Fs in the population, mainly in the form of systematic overreaction to the very modest health risks associated with radiation. The associated communication, though, has been too T-focused, expecting people to accept at face value a set of messages which look deeply suspicious – after all, who would really destroy so many people’s lives through evacuation and forced exclusion from their homes, destruction of local agriculture and fisheries etc. if the risks of not doing so were not in reality enormous?

A further key point must be considered. The Remain campaign sought to move the focus of the debate onto the economy, where it felt it had the strongest negative argument against Leave. But Leave also spent considerable effort on the issue of immigration and Remain never really came up with a convincing riposte. While the tactics of leading with what it regarded as its strongest issue was not wrong in itself, it does emphasise how important it is to have defensive arguments available against the pitch of the opponents. Simply ignoring Leave claims about the effects of immigration, or the antinuclear industries exaggerations about say nuclear safety or waste management, is going too far. The responses, though, need to be at least as much aimed at the Sensing Feelers – i.e. expressed in terms of benefits to people, human stories and readily graspable examples – as at the Intuitive Thinkers who might quite go for scientific, theoretical explanations.

CONCLUSIONS

It seems incontrovertible that the Leave campaigners won not only the vote but also the campaign. Opinion polls of their nature cannot be entirely accurate, as revealed perhaps most spectacularly by the failure to call the outcome of the 2015 General Election. However, tracking the same measure over time probably does reveal changes in attitudes. Looking at major polls published through the campaign there was a notable change in the expressed voting intentions of the electorate, especially in the last month of the campaign (perhaps suggesting that Leave won the day with those who had been undecided till the last minute).[18] In December 2015 the unweighted average of such polls gave the Remain position a lead of 8.8 percentage points over Leave; by June Leave was in the lead.

The whole Brexit story offers suggestions that an obsession with ‘facts’, especially when those facts have to be taken on trust because they are (allegedly) based on complex calculations and assumptions, is no guarantee of success even in a technical field and may even be offputting if it reinforces a perception that the communicator regards themselves as intellectually superior or simply does not think the same way as the ‘listener’. Even leaving aside the inevitable differences between the two cases, the failure of the Remain campaign may offer a comparative study which illuminates to a degree the parallel failure of nuclear communications over decades, which resulted in, or at least accompanied, the safest form of energy we have yet devised being regarded by large swathes of the population in many countries as too dangerous to be deployed. In a nutshell, a Myers-Briggs-influenced analysis suggests that to many public audiences, messages should be clothed in approaches which are:

about people not about things;

  • about instances not about concepts;
  • about uncertainty not about precision.

 

[1]http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=775426&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F5%2F16849%2F00775426.pdf%3Farnumber%3D775426

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/515068/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk.pdf

[3]http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3533926/Return-Sender-Government-s-9m-pro-EU-leaflet-begins-land-doormats-today-sent-straight-Downing-Street.html

[4]http://www.myersbriggs.org/

[5]https://www.opp.com/download/item/082ac33389fb48d1a659066f56d972df

[6]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/07/politics-live-governments-9million-anti-brexit-letter-sparks-fur/

[7]http://www.nationalreview.com/article/434744/president-obamas-brexit-intervention

[8]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-news-donald-trump-leave-eu-campaign-facts-dont-work-arron-banks-lies-referendum-a7111001.html

[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/michael-goves-guide-to-britains-greatest-enemy-the-experts/

[10]http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/brexit-editorial-if-we-don-t-love-europe-we-will-lose-it-a-1099602.html

[11]http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/brexit-camp-abandons-350-million-pound-nhs-pledge

[12] There were two principal Leave campaigning groups – ‘Vote Leave’, which had official status, and ‘Leave.eu’ – and indeed a number of others. Broadly the former put more of an emphasis in sovereignty and the economy, the latter on immigration – at times relations between the two were fraught. Nonetheless each followed rather similar communications strategies in psychological terms.

[13]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nearly-half-of-britons-believe-vote-leaves-false-350-million-a-week-to-the-eu-claim-a7085016.html

[14]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/21/uk-misses-borrowing-target-george-osborne-lydia-councils-spending

[15]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/Leading_business_story/the-chart-that-shows-osborne-has-missed-his-latest-borrowing-target-a6994016.html

[16]https://notesbrokensociety.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/brexit-and-the-politics-of-irrationality/

[17]http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-24/giving-london-a-bloody-nose-cheers-northerners-backing-brexit

[18]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36271589

Glory be to God for dappled things …

I love the ‘dappled days’ where the various strands of life weave in and around each other.

So yesterday started with my usual swim and a tutorial from my good friend and fellow councillor James Cousins on how to set up a blog.  (So any merit of these pages is mine but any faults are down to him!)  Off to West Hill Ward to look in on an open door session for residents of Florys Court and Augustus Road about their forthcoming repairs and decorations programme, then to the Town Hall for a leaving do for Russell King, a former Wandsworth councillor who is upping sticks and heading down under – a shame, as he was a rare example of clear new thinking and I think he’ll be missed.

After a Group meeting – usual mix of good contributions from good people and petulant shouting down of dissenting ideas – I ended up at New Broadcasting House.  I’ve become a great fan of the media, including the BBC.  The final product looks effortless but the amount of work that goes into it is extraordinary.  I got the call late afternoon from one of my usual contacts there, spent 40 minutes driving in, 30 minutes sitting and waiting, then got 3 minutes on The World Tonight with Caroline Quinn talking about Russia energy sanctions, and 40 minutes to get home.  Odd business when you think about it but it gave the day an interesting end.  Carlos looked hot and bothered when I got in – how a Cuban can struggle with English summers mystifies me – but we relaxed in front of “Graceland” (an American televisual play, your Honour) and all was well.

My main aim for the day – to plough on with this book on energy that I have to get done by February and which I suspect will be something of a theme of these posts in coming months – got pretty much ignored, perhaps because I had so much opportunity for displacement activity.  As I am doubtless doing now.  So cheerio, I have a mercifully empty diary for August so no excuses.

Russia, gas and German scaredy-cats

After more than a decade of misty-eyed yearning after renewables at the expense (literally) of pretty much everything else, the Europe Union finds itself in a right state.  (OK, I know the EU is not a State much as some would like it to be.)  The EU’s dependence on imported energy grew from 47.8% in 2000 to 54.1% in 2010.  And in 2013 the single biggest source of EU’s imports of hard coal (27.1% of total EU-27 imports), crude oil (34.5%) and natural gas (31.8%) was the Russian Federation.

Why should we bother in the UK, since we still have some reserves of our own and get most of our imports from Norway?  Well, the situation in the UK with regard to energy import dependency has changed more rapidly than in any other member of the European Union. While the EU-27’s energy production fell by 12% between 2000 and 2010 (from 941 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent) to 831 mtoe), that of the UK fell by 45% (from 270 mtoe to 148 mtoe). Although energy imports per head of the population are still below the EU average the UK has moved from being a net energy exporter in 2002 to a net energy importer in 2010, a trend which will persist as North Sea gas reserves continue to run down.  And if Russia’s gas gets cut off, say, the increased competition for other sources would inevitably push the price we had to pay through the roof.

How has Europe addressed this gathering cloud?  Germany shut down half of its nuclear stations, with the rest to go over the next eight years or so.  Although it is building quite a lot of new coal plant (and has increased its carbon dioxide emissions by some 5% over the last three years for those who care about such things – which I do) and makes quite a bit of wind and solar energy when the wind blows and the sun comes out, inevitably its needs for imported gas have grown considerably.  In 2011 Germany was actually a net gas exporter (producing 10 bcm – billion cubic metres – and consuming 7.2 bcm); in 2013 it was practically neutral (producing 8.2 bcm and consuming 8.1 bcm).  Germany is in the fortunate position of being able to outbid its neighbours for power supplies when the wind is still and the sun in, and to dump dangerous surplus electricity from wind and solar at times when supply outstrips demand on its neighbours.  (Dangerous?  A system with too much electricity is as bad as one with too little, being susceptible to power surges which can blow electronic equipment and ultimately melt the wires, at staggering cost economically and socially.)

We can’t just blame the Germans.  When a country does try to improve security and environmental performance by striking a deal to build new nuclear plant (which does not release significant amounts of carbon, nor does it depend on Mr Putin being in a good mood or the wind blowing at convenient speeds) along comes the Competition Commission to delay matters by many months in a ‘State Aid’ investigation.

So we’re pretty much stuck.  We must I think hope that fracking is going to give us another breathing space but it is hard, at this point, to imagine that fracking in our relatively crowded island will repace the vast reserves of North Sea gas which we once had but which are now running short so quickly.

Eyeball to eyeball with Putin – we threaten severe sanctions, he smirks and reminds us what happens when he turns off the gas taps to Ukraine, as he does every couple of years or so.  Who would blink first?  I have my fears.  But we Europeans have only ourselves to blame for the weak hand we hold.