Brexit, history and fish’n’chips?


Brexit, history and fish’n’chips?

With the Brexit referendum looming I have been thinking a lot about how I will vote. Both camps – for exiting and remaining, can make economic arguments for their position. Both camps can make arguments about the implications for democracy and for the UK as a global power. But what does social psychology say about the Brexit question?

For me, the choice is clear – I will vote remain. There are many reasons for this. I suspect the economic balance is in favour of it, it is far far far better for science, and I would really hate to join those long Non-EU passport line next time I go to France[0]. However, for me, the an additional important reason is much simpler. The countries that make up Europe were shelling and machine gunning each other in living memory.

Prior to ‘Europe’ as a political entity, the various member states were warring one another in various alliance configurations almost constantly. Since Europe has become a political entity, we have not. You may find it hard to imagine conflict within Europe in this day and age. But regional conflict (be it economic interference or open warfare) always looks unlikely until it looks inevitable. I am not saying Europe is perfect – it is as some critics argue a unwieldy bureaucracy with people jockeying for the best deal for their own country. But, it is also a relatively urbane conflict, with rules of engagement that, although affecting millions(sometimes for better, sometimes for worse), does not put them directly in harms way. From a social identity perspective[1] the reason for this is in part because we have a common identity (as being ‘European’) which, when it is salient to us, encourages us to focus more on the similarity between groups, instead of exaggerating differences. It also provides high quality, sustained and co-operative (more or less!) contact between leaders (and workers and tourists) of different nations – something contact theory [2] argues is important for avoiding and reducing intergroup conflict. All these things help us work out our differences in peaceful, relatively productive way.

But what about Great British Traditions?

It is not just avoiding negatives which moves me to vote remain. When it comes to it, the nations of the EU are in fact capable of coming together to solve a problem. A good example of this is the historical decline of Atlantic cod stocks. The invention of fish trawling technology nearly wiped out our stocks of cod, and vessels from different European nations nearly came to blows at sea about levels of overfishing. The UK navy could neither politically nor practically protect UK fishing rights. The situation got so bad that the Great British tradition of cod’n’chips was, in the late 90’s and early 00’s, truly under threat. How did things improve? The problem was solved by fishermen from across the EU and their governments getting together and agreeing not only rules, but ways of enforcing quotas across borders. As a result, cod stocks are now on the rise, and we can see a time that cod will be a ‘guilt free’ meal again.

Social psychology again gives a perspective on how ‘Europe’ and our membership of it facilitated this. Research[3] on shared resource situations of this type (known as ‘social dilemmas’) shows clearly that individuals (and groups of individuals) can manage shared, fragile resources such as fish stocks best when they feel that all parties are in it together. A common group membership encourages trust, fosters the ideas that over-harvesting can be avoided and that breaking the rules will lead to sanctions being enforced. It also and promotes long (vs. short) term resource management. It is worth pondering that the survival of one of our national dishes was, as far as I am concerned, reliant wholly on our EU membership.

EU saved fish’n’chips. Vote Remain - protect this great British tradition. #Brexit #Remain Share on X

All these theories I have described above are, of course, full of nuance and caveats. However, the bottom line is clear – seeing yourself as being in a group with someone else helps you get along better.

So – peace and a secure supply of deep fried food. Two excellent reasons to Vote Remain.

[0] Credit to Have I Got News for You for that joke!
[1] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict”. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel. The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole. pp. 33–47
[2] Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books
[3] Ostrom, E. (1990). Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.
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