A comment on the decision to call the referendum in Britain over its EU membership and a proposed solution to the problem

The decision to call a referendum in Britain over whether it should stay in or leave the European Union was a threat of punishment which induced a rather high degree of confusion among the British people.

The reason it is properly regarded as a threat of punishment is because no one, except for marginal numbers of people, wanted to leave the EU. People in Britain might have had differing opinions about the appropriateness of particular requirements the EU set on Britain, but almost no one wanted to leave the Union itself.

It is also the case that people did not only regard it as an unnecessary step, the degree of undesirability of this decision – the decision to exit the EU – was extreme.

The reason for this, first and foremost, is that the EU was and – even though the decisions of British politicians can, in a way which is likely not to result in negative consequences of too great an extent, weaken this role – is an ensurer of peace and stability both among the countries of Europe but also on an international level.

If one considers doing something to you that you do not want to an extreme extent and makes known to you that he or she is considering this – then this is a threat of punishment.

Some people, now that the referendum has passed and a larger number of British citizens voted to “leave” (which in my opinion is not what they wanted when they chose this option), might shift over to a preference to leave the EU, but if given a genuine opportunity to not exit the Union, most, in my opinion, would want to avoid the decision to make any such change to the relationship between the EU and their country.

But another aspect of the decision to put forth the question to the British people was that David Cameron, the person who made the decision, – even if he was unaware of the nature of the decision that he was taking – did not have the right to ask such a question by means of calling a referendum, nor in many other forms (it would not be right to say that, for example, a conducting of an opinion poll on the part of the government with the purpose of asking this question would always and necessarily be inappropriate, although I do not see how it could be justified on more than rare occasions, and even then it would not necessarily be obvious or easy to determine whether it, that is, the act of asking, is appropriate or not). It is also the case that, given the very high level of not wanting to leave the EU that was (and, to a large extent, in my opinion, still is) characteristic of British people, not only did the former Prime Minister not have a right to call the referendum, no one else would have had such a right as well. The fact that almost no one wanted it and it was still called explains why it produced a rather high degree of confusion among the British people.

The question that was asked in the referendum was akin to asking the British people whether they would like to be punished or no. This is a kind of question that one cannot answer except for either remaining silent and not responding at all or challenging the question itself. If one responds by saying that he or she does not want to be punished – which, in the case of the Brexit referendum, was the same as voting that one wants Britain to stay in the EU – one accepts the other person’s right to have asked the question, which is incoherent with the response that the person conveys on a higher level. When one is entangled into such an interaction – where one’s attempt to protect one’s interests on one level necessarily results in an affliction on another level – this has the effect of, which is an effect which can produce a significant amount of fear, limiting a person’s awareness of what his or her own wishes actually are. That is, one is entangled into a situation where one thinks that one resists a threat – and hence, is acting in accordance with one’s wishes – but is at the same time negatively affected by the other person on another, lower, level (that is, lower level of interaction). It is not true that a person cannot become more aware of this, nor that such an increase in awareness cannot have a beneficial effect, including a beneficial effect immediately, but it is true that, by itself, an increased level of awareness cannot remove whatever negative effect one already sustained. The negative effect can be countered by challenging the negative interaction, or, by simply waiting, since it tends to dissipate over time, although this latter option, in my opinion, would be less desirable in the case of the Brexit referendum.

The fact that many – more than those who did otherwise – people chose to vote to leave, is somewhat difficult to explain, although it is likely that this choice was to a significant extent influenced by the politicians who called for Britain to exit the EU. It seems that the actions of the politicians were to a large extent an expression of something in their personal lives, such as a wish to oppose family members or others to whom they have or have had significant attachments who were also people of a differing sex than they were, and not an expression of a genuine, pre-meditated wish for Britain to secede from the EU. It is also not impossible that a choice to vote to leave was less threatening because people regarded it as less likely to confuse them, that is, if one actually changes one’s wishes and accepts that the other person has a right to punish, one is at least not responding to the person in a way which is incoherent with one’s wishes, and does not become, to a rather strong degree, if at all, confused.

The kind of interaction under discussion is also something that was described, in general terms, by Gregory Bateson and colleagues in their 1956 paper, titled “Toward a theory of [word omitted]”. The reason I omitted a word from its title would not be appropriate to discuss here. I also do not want to use the words, even with the omission, of the title for attaching a link to it, so I will include a link here. One thing I want to say about the paper is that the authors’ choice of name for the interaction – not the name I omitted from the title – was, in my opinion, inappropriate. A better way of proceeding would be to look for and choose a word which is such that it already refers to, even if most people do not have a good understanding of it, the interaction in common language use, such as the word “curse”. A more academic phrase is “false dichotomy”. Although the approach I would most prefer would be to use simple general words, such as (since it is my impression that this kind of influence is almost always inflicted inadvertently) inadvertently concealed punishment or inadvertently concealed requirement, although the first word should be dropped in cases where it is inflicted consciously. Another option could be multi-layered punishment. However, even these options, while better than the one chosen by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, are not such that I would regard them as satisfactory completely.

The way out of the situation is to simply not exit. It is a decision that is not very easy to take since it would appear to disregard the interests of the British people and to disregard them in a rather brazen way – that is, by not not heeding an opinion poll or a petition, but by not accepting a result of a referendum, which is an instrument the use of which is – usually – a highly democratic undertaking.

But in this case it is not true that a decision on the part of one person – the Prime Minister – not to leave the EU would disregard the interests of the people of Britain.