Britain, like most rich nations, will vote for stasis

The Brexit vote will come down to one human instinct: the fear of losing out

Until Britons finally vote on whether to stay in the EU, their political class will scrutinise every passing event for its impact on the result. London-based diplomats, risk planners in global companies with UK operations, the markets: by the end, they too will succumb to the fever of overanalysis. If you are tempted to grab a jeweller’s eyepiece and show the same microscopic interest in procedural ephemera, remember: you will never get that time back.

As an act of mercy here is a list, far from comprehensive, of things that will not decide the outcome of the referendum. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party; the personalities who front the Leave and Remain campaigns; the financial resources of each side; the wording of the question; the purdah that forbids government officials from campaigning to stay in; the ground campaigns; the performance of the economy; the neutrality or otherwise of the Conservative party machine; and which side London's coquettish mayor Boris Johnson ultimately decides to take.

These are just the variables that exercised Westminster over the summer, one or perhaps two years before the referendum. Most will not make a difference. If some do, it will be marginal. If one variable slightly favours Leave, it will be muffled by another that narrowly favours Remain. Some of the variables will advantage and disadvantage each side simultaneously, amounting to no net overall impact for all the attention they garner.


Corbyn’s left-wing Euroscepticism will turn some wavering comrades against the EU but also tell moderate voters Leaving is for eccentrics. If the economy is zooming along, people will contemplate national independence with some phlegm, while wondering how EU membership can possibly be holding Britain back. If the economy is subdued, they will feel dissatisfied with continuity and nervous about change at the same time.


The point is, we can weigh all these particulars against each other, chasing our tails and analysing our way into a stupor, and still gain no insight into the final result that our gut instinct could not give us. We are back to the spring, when people paid to exercise political judgment thought Ed Miliband would become prime minister on the back of television debates, social media, “passion”, local activists and other transient details that are now mortifying to recall.

Neither are the polls much use any time soon. Asking people how they will vote in 2016 or 2017 is not much less futile than pressing them for what they plan to wear this weekend: they might have a sketchy idea but their minds are not tending to the subject.

Burn away all these contingent variables and moving parts, and you are left with eternal human instincts. And one above all: loss aversion. Most referendums come down to the same two-part question: is the status quo basically tolerable, and can we be confident that change will leave us meaningfully better off? The answers are most often “yes” and “no”, so the status quo wins.

This is not because advocates of change are wrong but because the evidential burden on them is too great. It is hard to prove a particular course of action would benefit a plurality of voters more than stasis. And in rich, peaceful countries, most people can live with stasis.

Britain voted to stay in the EEC in 1975 for the same reason it voted to keep its electoral model in 2011. Scots preserved the UK last year out of the same sense of prudence that motivated Britons to shut out Mr Miliband this year.

Scintilla of doubt

Leavers believe they had a good summer because various particulars moved in their favour: the polls, Corbyn’s victory, the government line on purdah, the ballot question, the prominence of migration in the news. They should remember what has not changed: the scintilla of doubt in the breast of even the most Eurosceptic swing voter.

As the referendum approaches, major employers will still warn against exit. Governments in Asia and North America will still tell us not to expect economic or diplomatic favours if we leave. The EU will still point out that Switzerland and Norway, those templates for detachment, are not spared much regulation from Brussels. The trump card of doubt – or “negativity”, as Leavers know it – will still be played.

Leavers spend too much time worrying about technicalities and too little honing an argument that, in its present form, cannot withstand the human impulse to keep what we have. Britons were not likely to vote to leave the EU before the summer began. They are no more likely now.© The Financial Times Limited 2015