Experts take centre stage at UCL EU referendum debate


On Thursday 16 June the Constitution Unit hosted the last in a series of events relating to the referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The murder of Jo Cox and subsequent suspension of referendum campaigning meant that the planned format had to be changed, with an expert panel rather than politicians taking centre stage. Despite this around 600 people attended and contributed greatly to a lively discussion that covered a very wide range of topics relating to the referendum. Oliver Patel reports.

Over the past few months, the Constitution Unit has hosted a series of seminars and published a number of briefing papers on the constitutional consequences of Brexit. We have organised these jointly with the UCL European Institute and UCL School of Public Policy, with funding from the UK in a Changing Europe initiative based at King’s College London.  As part of the series, we gathered a range of experts to discuss the potential impact of Brexit on Whitehall and Westminster, the devolved nations and the rest of the EU. All of our videos and briefing papers can be found here. Thursday 16 June marked the end of this series as we held our largest event to date: The UCL EU Referendum Debate.

Following the tragic murder of Jo Cox and the subsequent suspension of activity by both the Leave and the Remain campaigns, we changed the event’s format. We had planned a debate among politicians, with a panel of academic experts ‘fact-checking’ their claims. This changed on the night to a ‘Meet the Experts Q&A’, with the academics taking centre stage. Around 600 people attended, and many had the chance to put referendum-related questions to the panel.

The panellists were Dr Swati Dhingra (Lecturer in Economics at LSE), Professor Anand Menon (Director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative), Dr Alan Renwick (Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit), and Dr Simon Usherwood (Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey). The event was chaired by the Director of the Constitution Unit, Professor Meg Russell.

The panellists answered a very wide range of questions from the audience relating to the referendum, on topics as diverse as Northern Ireland, universities, the Commonwealth, the NHS, trade deals and many more. One area of particular focus was the nature and accuracy of the campaigns and the democratic value of referendums.

Speaking about the nature of the campaign, Alan Renwick argued that the extent to which experts and supposed sources of authority have been ‘trashed’ has been shocking. Pointing to examples such as the Bank of England and the IMF, he noted that distrust of experts has been a key characteristic of the campaign, and that this reflects wider trends in British politics, such as the rise of populism and distrust of elites.

Our panellists agreed that the campaign has been characterised by misinformation, inaccuracies and outright lies. This is a particular concern to the Constitution Unit, which last week coordinated a letter signed by over 250 academics criticising the quality of the campaigns. The panellists pointed out that campaigners often assume that there will be no consequences of lying and that they can do whatever it takes to win. An interesting characteristic of this campaign, Anand Menon argued, was that the Leave campaign are making promises akin to those made in general elections (e.g. about public spending), despite the fact that they may not be in charge of such decisions even in the event of Brexit.

This provoked a lively debate about whether anything could be done to improve the quality of future referendum debates. Anand Menon was doubtful, particularly about the prospect of an impartial fact-checking authority. Alan Renwick was more optimistic, noting that the Electoral Commission in New Zealand plays such a role. However, he stressed the danger that, given the current climate in the UK, any fact-checking authority could be labelled an institution of the establishment – a topic he explores in further detail here.

Discussion then turned to whether referendums enhance or hinder democracy and whether we should have them at all. Anand Menon argued that the low quality of the debate meant that many people’s decisions would be based on misinformation and urged caution in holding future referendums. Meg Russell noted that the UK has had only three national referendums, and that the experience of this one might mean that a fourth is a long way off.

One audience member asked whether David Cameron’s scare stories about life outside the EU had in fact helped the Leave campaign. Simon Usherwood pointed out that motivating people to vote for the status quo with a positive message is difficult. The slogan ‘We already have what we want!’ would not motivate many people to vote, he argued. Anand Menon agreed, adding that fear is an effective way of making people vote the way you want. Drawing upon his research, Alan Renwick argued that public opinion tends to shift towards the status quo in the final stages of referendums campaigns – though there are exceptions. One thing which the panel all agreed on was that, in the event of Brexit, David Cameron would be out of the job.

The audience contributed greatly to the event's success

The audience contributed greatly to the event’s success

Aside from a discussion about the campaign, Swati Dhingra focused on economic questions. She noted that there is an overwhelming consensus among economists that leaving the EU would have a negative impact, and that pre-Brexit fears have already led to reduced investment, merger and acquisition activity and recruitment. Dr Dhingra argued that leaving the EU would lead to years of uncertainty and that negotiating new trade deals could take up to 10 years, an issue which this blog has explored in further detail. She said she saw no economic case for leaving the EU, and that a case could be made only on political grounds.

The audience contributed greatly to the event’s success. It was enthusiastic, lively and engaged throughout, and comprised people of all ages, from schoolchildren to pensioners. The ‘Meet The Experts’ format enabled audience members to ask questions on a broad range of issues, and there was never a shortage of hands raised. One audience member candidly asked the panel whether they thought the future of the EU was bright or bleak. Simon Usherwood said that he thought it looked bleak. Another asked what the worst thing about the EU is. Anand Menon suggested that integration has gone too far and that the EU risks becoming the cause of the nationalism it was created to stop.

About the panel

Dr Swati Dhingra is Lecturer in Economics at LSE.

Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics at King’s College London and Director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

Dr Alan Renwick is the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

Dr Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey.

About the author

Oliver Patel is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the seminars and briefing papers on the constitutional consequences of Brexit.

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