Of the people, by the people for the people?

The cheering that met Theresa May's warning that there may be "no Brexit at all" last night seemed to confirm what should have been obvious; i.e. that sufficient numbers of MPs (80% of whom voted to remain) are so intent on frustrating the referendum decision that this is likely to happen. But, rather than come straight out and say this, and then have to explain why they agreed to the referendum in the first place, they prefer to subject the country to more of the same: lies, incomprehensible logic, uncertainty and confusion, presumably, in the hope that they can eventually achieve the same end by wearing the nation into a state of such weariness that eventually we'll agree to anything that ends the misery. Given that it seems unlikely all these folks are sadists and masochists, the unstated rationale seems more likely to be that they think 'leaving will be disastrous, the people who voted for it are idiots, we are not, and therefore we can't let that happen'.

What differentiates democracy from dictatorship is a willingness to do what the people want rather than what the people in power want. It makes little difference whether the people in power are elected MPs, a family dynasty or an individual crack pot. If MPs didn't want to give the people the choice, they needn't have done so. They may have thought, as I did, that allowing a decision such as this to be decided on anything less than a 60:40 margin was ill advised, but since they voted en-masse to accept the decision of the nation, even if it was carried by a majority of one individual, they now face the choice of walking the talk or further undermining the very democracy on which their positions of authority depend.

Those who are so confident they are right, and that the risks of defying the referendum decision are worth taking, might like to consider the following. We make decisions using the two following modes of thought: system 1 (fast intuitive) and system 2 (slow rational). We vastly prefer system 1 and only resort to system 2 when all else fails. Complex challenges, such as what the consequences of Britain staying or leaving the EU will be, that require much information to be gathered and processed, are among those most likely to be dealt with by system 1. System 1 involves information being filtered and processed in accordance with our values and judged according to the emotional responses arising from the interaction of the remaining externally derived information and our internally generated values. In the research Song has been sponsoring with Royal Holloway and Bournemouth Universities, the following simple challenge has been presented to over a thousand people, predominantly university students and highly qualified professionals; i.e. people probably as smart as MPs.

A deadly disease has infected 1% of the people in the population. As part of a national screening campaign you have been tested for infection. The test is 99% accurate. You receive a letter from the screening centre telling you that you have tested positive for the disease. What is the likelihood you have the disease?

This is not a trick question. All the information required to answer it correctly are provided. Despite this, in our research, less than 10% of people answered this question correctly. The best performing group, by far, were people belonging to the MD values type - i.e. those with values conflicts that make it more difficult for them to deal with challenges intuitively according to a consistent pattern of values-related biases. If you, like the objecting MPs, are certain of the rightness of your position regarding Brexit, that rightness can only be ascertained by carrying out research that would gather information more than a million times as large and complex as that contained in the above scenario, and then processing it thoroughly and faultlessly with system 2. If you did this you should immediately be able to recite the tariffs currently being charged by the EU on all goods entering the EU and those being imposed on the EU and all other countries, and by all other trading nations. You will also be able to tell me comprehensive detail regarding the economic standings of all the EU nations (debt, productivity, unemployment, working hours, etc.). That's just for starters. I'm guessing that, like me, you know little of these things. This being the case, your opinion on Brexit is little more than a hunch based on very little information; much of which may well be wrong. Your opinion, and your visceral, emotional attachment to that position, is the product of system 1 decision-making. Given that less than 10% of people answered the above question correctly, how likely is it that you have the correct answer in regard of Brexit. Even faced with a 50/50 shot on an in/out decision I would suggest that 50/50 is probably about right. My personal opinion is that, in order to ignore the democratic decision of the people, a minimum threshold of 100% certainty is required. Given that I recently thought I was 100% right that the voice being played in a pub quiz was not Ray Winstone (it was), and the complexity and uncertainty of the factors relating to Brexit are such that 100% certainty is impossible, the current behaviour of our MPs appears extraordinarily reckless.

I am not in possession of all the facts and I am not faultlessly logical, however, I have listened to MPs on both sides of the Brexit 'debate' state opinions based on 'facts' that are simply wrong. That the logic they then apply to draw conclusions (from the interaction of these 'facts' with others in the vastly complex scheme of things) seems flawed, simply adds to my sense of exasperation. MPs may get it wrong. Voters may get it wrong. Business people may get it wrong. However, one of the shared benefits of democracy and free market competition is that we get the chance to learn from our mistakes and go again. The politician with a political vision that falls flat can be removed at the next election, just as the business with a poor product can be shunned by consumers. The 'people' decided to leave, so I would have thought we must leave. If in five/ten years time this proves to have been the wrong decision, Britain could rejoin. If Brexit proves to be a success, the decision will have been shown to be good one.

The current direction of travel in parliament seems to be pointing toward a failure of the democratic process, which cannot be corrected by simply voting for another party at the next election, since all parties have been at least partially responsible for the failure. It is not so much that democracy has failed, but that our MPs have failed democracy. Until we better understand the nature of our irrationality, and the role our values play in frustrating or empowering our rational capabilities, I fear we can expect more of the same.

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