Thursday, 7 April 2016

Brexit, pursued by a bear

Monday night saw another visit to Skeptics in the Pub. The talk was titled 'Brexit - Evidence, Propaganda and Cognitive Bias' and it seemed to tap into quite a few of my thoughts on the upcoming EU referendum. How it's not so binary (though the vote obviously is). Why wanting to leave the EU doesn't necessarily make you Europhobic and how wishing to stay in doesn't mean you don't think they could do things better in Brussels. Scare stories have dominated the debate and, of late, it's become more about Tory infighting than a decision that could affect generations of people. The talk promised to address such concerns.

Unlike the speaker I've not made any claims of impartiality so nailing my colours immediately to the mast I'm in favour of staying in. My gut feeling is it will be better for the country and better for Europe though as my job is once again under threat of being outsourced, this time to Berlin, I've no idea whatsoever how it would affect me personally. The fact that a motley crew of some of the most unpleasant people in British politics at the moment Nigel Farage, George Galloway, IDS, and Bojo the nasty pretend clown have joined forces for the 'out' campaign has, of course, only swung me further towards saluting the Flag of Europe.

Would the talk make me change my mind? Would I find a seat was the most urgent concern as the place was rammed. Was it the clement spring weather? Or a particular interest in the subject? Probably a bit of both.

Clutching my pro-European pint of Amstel I stood in the corner and listened intently. I didn't expect to be almost swayed over to the 'out' camp. Some friends who hear me talk about Skeptics in the Pub but rarely, or never, attend imagine a preachy, holier-than-thou atmosphere. Normally it's far from that but unfortunately tonight's speaker was a bit that way. It was a disappointment to me. Not just because she made some rather boring observations about the 'dead tree' press and seemed to think the audience would be enlightened in some way to learn that that same UK press isn't entirely impartial.

Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a professional strategist. She's got a pretty impressive CV. She was Senior Lecturer at War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, first head of the Strategic Horizons Unit in the Cabinet Office, Senior Intelligence Advisor to the Joint Intelligence Committee, and has conducted futures work to underpin the UK National Security Strategy.

Despite all this, and some admittedly impressive comic timing in places, the delivery came across as occasionally patronising and, far more often, wildly inconsistent. Hypocritical you could say. She said she wouldn't take sides in the debate. She did (she's in the 'in' camp). She said she wouldn't use scare tactics. She did. She said she wouldn't appeal to people's biases or baser instincts. She did. When she quoted that hoary old chestnut about "lies, damned lies, and statistics" and then followed it with a list of statistics I sighed and considered leaving at half-time.

But I didn't. Partly because I knew I was going to write this blog about it - and I'm a very conscientious blogger I can tell you. Partly because I wanted to hear what questions people had for her. I'd say partly because I wanted another drink but it's not like Camden's short of options there!

I'm really glad I stayed though as Dr Nusbacher managed to turn it around a bit, quite a lot in fact, during the second half Q&A session. More in terms of delivery as she did come out as a Tory who was very certain that Nicky Morgan's current policy of trying to convert all schools into academies was a good thing. For which she was roundly jeered. She also made some cheap jokes about those perennial targets the Germans and Americans. They went down well, of course, but they're such cheap easy laughs I always feel a bit disappointed when speakers resort to them. Far more concerning to me was the suggestion that the migrant crisis had gone quiet of late (has it!?) because the Med was 'a bit cold' at the moment. They're not having a dip on a lilo off the coast of Crete, doc!

Where she was very good was in her response to the guy who asked her about some of the things I'd commented on earlier. Particularly when she explained that everyone was biased and it was impossible to expect even people employed for their relative impartiality to have no bias whatsoever.

Some other very good points were made. On Cameron's promise that if 'out' win Britain will be out of Europe in 2 years, she said this was highly unlikely. When Canada ceased a special trade agreement with Europe that took five and they, obviously, had a lot less to undo. Regarding EU directives it will take a very long time, and a huge amount of people and money, to decide which ones we keep and which ones we jettison. If the UK leaves the EU there'll almost definitely be attempts to build even closer business ties with dominant nations like China and the US. The UK will have to accept being the junior partner in any such deal rather than a key player as it is, to an extent, within the EU.

How will broadly pro-European Scotland react? Almost certainly calls for another referendum on Scottish independence will grow louder and the chances of that result being different a second time more likely. Dr Nusbacher thought Northern Ireland may follow suit although that would obviously bring a whole new load of internal problems and, to my mind, doesn't seem likely in the near future.

So, potentially the end of the Union? Or is that scaremongering? I don't know. A vote either way should bring further Tory infighting so there's a silver lining to every cloud. It may seem daft to revel in people fighting each other when they ought to be running the country but the more time they spend being cruel to each other the less they've got to pick on the disabled, single mothers, people in low paid jobs, or foreigners.

How would other European nations react should the UK decide to quit? Dr Nusbacher thinks that Brussels is certain the UK will jump ship. She also thought that if that happened Sweden and/or Denmark may follow. She even suggested Germany too though it's hard to imagine why they'd want to leave or an EU even existing without their involvement.

When pressed on how she thought the result would pan out. With the caveat that another large terrorist attack could throw things wide open she said she thought the 'in' vote would take the day with roughly a 55% vote - (for good measure she also said Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump to the US presidency). I'm broadly with her on that prediction and I'm broadly with her on the pros of staying in. So even though I can't imagine befriending a Tory with 'interesting' views on immigration we can find common ground on that at least.

I suppose what I learn from all this is that even when you're in with the 'in' crowd you're going to be amongst some people you don't see eye to eye with. Sure it's the same for the outies too. There's gonna be some uneasy bedfellows during the coming months. Guess we just need to try and get along whatever. Business as normal. Whatever normal is.

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