The politics of persuasion

Aristotle-660x350-1423202568

The fallout of Britain’s decision to leave the EU following the referendum on the 23rd June has caused shockwaves around the world. The value of the pound has tumbled, markets have been in turmoil and other European countries are now calling for votes on independence of their own.

I’m not a professional forecaster or pundit (as evidenced by my dismal prediction that Remain would win by ten points!) so I won’t begin to attempt to dissect the reasons behind Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Many knowledgeable and informed experts will no doubt provide in-depth analysis over the coming days, weeks and months. However, I would like to address one aspect that I believe was crucial to the final result: persuasion.

Ancient tools in a modern world

In the construction of an argument, Aristotle described three models of persuasion:

ethos-pathos-logos

The Remain campaign focused very heavily on facts, data and statistics, arguing that if Britain were to leave the EU the economy would be damaged, the cost of living would rise and even peace and national security would be at risk. Nine out of ten of the country’s top economists predicted that a vote to leave would be detrimental to the UK economy, whilst many business leaders voiced their concerns about negative growth and employment prospects.

In response to what some branded ‘Project Fear’, many commentators suggested that Leave had lost the economic argument, thus proving Bexit would not be a legitimate option for the UK. However, with their focus instead on immigration, border control and sovereignty, Leave crafted an argument that seemed to resonate and generate a groundswell of support.

Hearts and minds

In terms of ethos, both Remain and Leave leveraged personality and authority by recruiting politicians and celebrities who they believed would connect with the public and convey their respective messages.

However, whilst the Remain camp relied very much on logos and the rational reasons for staying within the EU to appeal to voters’ heads, Leave employed ethos and used emotional reasoning to appeal to voters’ hearts. The emotive issue of immigration and the impactful slogan of ‘Take Back Control’ struck a chord with many people to create a momentum that resulted in the vast majority of districts across England outside of London opting to leave the EU.

In his book ‘Start With Why’, Simon Sinek argues that business and political leaders that communicate using emotional messaging are often more successful because biology is on their side:

The newest part of the homosapien brain, the neocortex, is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The Limbic system, on the other hand, is responsible for all of our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behaviour, all decision-making and has no capacity for language.

By communicating on an emotional level we can talk directly to the part of the brain that controls behaviour. This is where ‘gut’ decisions come from. Despite all the facts and figures thrown at people, sometimes they still ‘go with their gut’ if it doesn’t feel right. I would argue that the Leave campaign were more successful at articulating a message that triggered people’s emotions around the key issues of immigration, sovereignty and control. Regardless of all the facts and figures Remain used to try and convince voters about the risks, clearly many people’s feelings outweighed anything the experts were telling them otherwise.

History and behavioural science indicated that in such a close fought referendum the status who would prevail. But as the final outcome proved, the status quo was trumped by an alternative vision that clearly inspired over 17 million people to go out to the polls and cast their vote that Britain’s future should no longer be within the EU.


  • Geoff Cope

    Great analysis Gav, can’t fault you on the Aristotle parts although I would argue that the culpability for ‘project fear’ lies on both sides of the argument, David Cameron is as guilting of fear mongering as Nigel Farage leading to the electorate’s reaction being to vote using the only thing they could truly trust, instinct.

    • http://twitter.com/gavinllewellyn Gavin Llewellyn

      Great to hear from you, Geoff! And thanks for your comment.

      The reference to ‘Project Fear’ was taken from the Leave campaign’s view of the negative economic projections from the Remain camp, although I agree that the element of ‘fear’ was as a tactic used from both sides throughout the campaign.

      As for the electorate’s ultimate decision to leave the EU, I believe there are many varied and nuanced reasons that may only become clear in time.