Don’t you think Brexit is fun, in a way? It’s such a perfect forecasting challenge. Everyone has passionate views, so there’s a real chance you can outsmart the other commentators by remaining rational. The field is wide open, Brexiters are certain that’s all going to be fine and Remainers frequently allude to the Titanic. Some smart people are going to be wrong. We should have preliminary results about 5 years – not that long.

I’m going to consider four Brexit scenarios and try and pick the most likely. In the spirit of being disinterested, I’ll start with a Brexit success scenario.

Brexit, and most people think it’s a success

Perceptions of Brexit will depend on two things: how well the UK fares, but also how badly wrong things go for the EU. If the EU does unexpectedly badly and the UK does unexpectedly well there is a scenario where Brexit will look like a good choice.

There will almost certainly be problems in the Eurozone as countries have to square the circle of monetary union without political union. Also in the mix are Catalonia, the migration crisis, and, of course, ‘black swan’ unforeseeable problems. Of these, the fundamental problems in the Eurozone seem the largest in scale and the most inevitable. Strains on the EU will almost certainly get worse, the question is how much.

What about the positive story for the UK? Here it is: a non-ideological, pragmatic politics take advantage of the UK’s new found freedom to legislate quickly without getting bogged down in EU bureaucracy. Remainers are won over when fisheries and farming – areas which have been badly legislated by the EU – become both more efficient, and, don’t worry Guardian readers, also greener. The UK works out how to legislate the gig economy equitably (another one for Guardianistas), and gets really nimble around tech legislation generally. Some EU migration is substituted for a more global approach, confounding accusations of xenophobia.

The shock of Brexit catalyses a new sense of purpose, including proactive and effective industrial policy. Questions of national unity galvanise genuine commitment to solving the north-south divide.

This picture is roughly what Philip Hammond thinks would be a good Brexit, according to his pre-budget interview with Andrew Marr. It’s also what Vote Leaves’ Dominic Cummings has in mind apparently (bit on science and education).

If this kind of Brexit happens, we might say something along the lines of: “I never believed in operation fear anyway, and look at the EU now. Isn’t Britain kind of exceptional in a pragmatic way? Look at all those philosophical French mired in youth unemployment.”

Brexit as a cautionary tale

The key to the worst Brexit outcome is that it shouldn’t be too bad too quickly. If it gets really bad, it will get called off (see the Remain scenario below). For maximum bad Brexit ill-tempered negotiations need to interminably zombie-shuffle towards an unknown destination. Other countries circle the moribund UK, waiting to take advantage of our desperate need for trade deals. Faith in UK institutions dwindles among investors. Borrowing to service the national debt gets more expensive, companies start building factories elsewhere. Unemployment ticks upwards, growth gets ever closer to zero.

At the 2022 election, in the context of another extension to the transition period, the UK has to choose between extremes. There’s Corbyn, with a stock-market crashing, bond-market titillating reversion to 70’s politics that promises to scare off the city and terrify big corporates.

Those who aren’t tempted by Labour can look to the conservatives. After 15 years of austerity, low wages and growing economic divergence between London and the rest of the country, the Tories will offer a free-market antidote: low wages, austerity and ever more emphasis on London as a city-state tax haven for the global super-rich. If the Tories win, Scotland may try for a go-around on landing a ‘yes’ to an independence vote. Negotiations with the EU would be even more difficult.

Of the two options, Cobyn is by far the most palatable. Tories called the referendum, possibly Labour would be in a better position to draw a line under it. Corbyn’s policies might alleviate people’s actual issues: housing, wages, geographic inequality. Any economic turbulence would probably be worth it, just to see the look on Nigel Farage’s face on election night.

The worst-case scenario for perceptions of Brexit needs a nice strong EU to make leaving look even more ridiculous. Here are some ideas. If the EU muddles through the Eurozone problems in some reasonable manner, it would not only be out of the woods, but it would acquire a reputation for virtual invincibility in the face of seemingly intractable problems. It would make the breakup of the EU, apparently possibly after 2008, seem inconceivable.

The migrant crisis is a difficult problem. It’s also an opportunity. The EU has already increased defence cooperation post-Brexit. What if migration crystalised the political will for the EU to intervene abroad? What if the EU’s fragmented national militaries worked together to take a lead in Syria or Libya, operating in the vacuum left by a less adventurous US? Might we feel that the traditionally interventionist UK had been usurped?

We’ll say:  “Thank god my skills are transferable to other countries. Now I just need to learn German.” or “Not having electricity on Thursdays isn’t as bad as I thought.”

Breixt – what was the fuss about?

The two scenarios above are ends of the spectrum. In the middle is indifferent Brexit. There’s always existential angst around the EU, it’s unlikely that will completely stop. Meanwhile, the UK can have very difficult negotiations without a true crunch point coming. Is it likely that some post-ideological hyper-rational governance of the UK will emerge? Not really, but the current levels of polarisation might reduce in the face of practicalities.

We’ll say – “Remember when people knew the difference between the EEA and the single market? What were they again?”


Full remain seems improbable. But Brexit-In-Name-Only is on the cards. Over the next few years  the reality of Brexit will become concretely apparent – the humungous bill, the impossibility of significantly reducing migration, the absence of any replacement trade deals, and stagnant living standards. At the same time, the UK will not have had a chance to do anything beneficial with its regulatory freedom. This is exactly the time period that Theresa May wanted to avoid having a general election in.

In this window, a disaster could tip the balance. No one can predict the economy – there could easily be a recession exactly at this critical juncture. The difference between weak growth and a small contraction is not directly that significant, but the news of negative growth could be disproportionately explosive. Another game changer would be any kind of violence in Northern Ireland. Or… that black swan again: war, May hit by a bus, other the things that are too out-there to even imagine.

I don’t know how the tabloids would back down from their Brexit-frenzy, but they might find a way. It could include a narrative of betrayal around David Davies, Borris, Gove, May, the BBC, Londoners, academics, cyclists, coffee-drinkers, vegetarians, heart disease or Maddie.

We’ll say: “Trump and Brexit? Did that really happen?”.

Prediction time

I think really good Brexit is unlikely – it requires two low probability events. Firstly, negotiating some ‘not too bad’ Brexit deal, secondly, not falling into the trap of a ‘Singapore’ style low tax, low regulation economy (which is nothing like Singapore). Such an outcome would be just as bad as a ‘no deal’ Brexit, addressing none of Britain’s underlying problems.

I think badly failed Brexit negotiations are unlikely because parliament would vote for a no-brexit / Brexit In Name Only option.

So my central prediction is for really quite bad Brexit followed by some flavour of political extremism. That comes with a side order of Remain-esque Brexit-in-name-only if the negotiations go badly enough quickly enough. The only thing that’s going to take the edge off either outcome is that the EU itself may well be looking a little less healthy than it is now.

A suitably un falsifiable prediction – let’s see how it looks in 2022.

China is a repressive country. Perversely, it’s also a laboratory for democracy in the digital age.

In 2010, Google pulled out of China amid pressure from the Chinese Government. In the West, the story was about a backward looking authoritarian state rejecting innovation and strangling freedom of expression.

Then Edward Snowden showed the world that Google was facilitating the NSA’s mass surveillance, and it started to look like China might have had some legitimate concerns about letting a US corporate collect vast amounts of data about its citizens. Now we’ve seen Russia using a sock puppet army to manipulate public opinion in the US, another very good reason why a country might want to regulate it’s own digital sphere. Did China get it right? You certainly don’t see many newspaper stories about China’s vindication.

I’m not naive enough to think that the Chinese government was only motivated by a benign intent to protect its society: it’s also a authoritarian state strangling freedom of expression. But repression is not the only lesson to draw from the Google story. In China, the government controls the Internet; in the West governments tell us the digital sphere must be left to market forces —  which in practice has meant a handful of monopolies —while covertly monitoring social media, largely without democratic consent, to keep a lid on the worst excesses.

China is a country where you can disappear for sharing the wrong opinion, but we have so few data points on how society should respond to digital technologies we need to take empirical evidence from where ever we can get it.

Here are two ‘good ideas’ from China.

Measuring non-monetary value
How about a society that rewards people for the good they do, taking into account not only their labour in the office or factory, but their hard work as a mother; not just the day rate they can command as a consultant but also the emotional labour of supporting a friend with depression.

China’s system of scoring citizens is …kind of… this — combining educational achievements, traffic infractions, financial behaviour and social media activity into one number that it publicly assigns to every citizen. It’s not clear what other activities it will influence the number, but, as a piece of infrastructure, it has the potential to nudge your rating up for helping an old lady across the road, or, for example, contributing to the public sphere a helpful blogpost that deftly justifies it’s apparently clickbaity title.

Sounds a bit authoritarian? Well, if you live in the West, you also have a score. The government secretly monitors your digital activity and assigns every citizen a number which indicates how likely you are to be a terrorist. Except this process is — was—secret. You also have a credit score, which is extremely analogous to the social credit system. Except, rather than being delivered by a government, it’s a kangaroo court run by big banks who are institutionally indifferent to ethics.

In China, the social score policy is public and transparent (one idea is that your score might appear on your dating site profile); though you can obviously make a strong case that the social scoring system is illegitimate because it’s done by an unelected government. In the West, you can make a roughly equivalent case that scoring is illegitimate because it’s undertaken by incumbent monopolies, or in secret by the government. You have a vote, but in practice its unlikely to give society control over such activities.

Social scoring is a version of ideas like alternative currencies and the need to value affective labour that are prevalent in the civic tech sector — if China’s social scoring system goes ahead its could  provide valuable insights for similar schemes in the West.

Deliberative democracy
If you are worried about an increasingly polarised society driven by filter bubble effects, again, China may have an answer. Deliberative democracy: where a group of citizens are invited to feedback to local officials on policy. Details vary, but normally a demographically representative group of people are selected to meet up and spend some time ‘deliberating’, discussing issues among themselves and with access to impartial experts, before making their views known to those in power.

The principal that everyone gets to vote is the core of Western democracy. At the momenth though, it’s undeniable that the electoral cycle is become an alarmingly centrifugal force, chaotically cartwheeling opinions to the extremes and tribalising the electorate. Deliberative democracy fixes a number of problems. Firstly, in deliberative democracy voters are selected to be truly demographically representative, rather than just those that turn up to the polling booth, which inevitably tends to be the better off. Secondly, in deliberative democracy, participants have a chance to become informed and discuss issues in a structured way, bypassing the filter bubble. These are not features that are easy to ensure if you insist that everyone must vote, it would simply be too resource intensive to give every single voter access to a deliberative process (though it has been suggested). Deliberative democracy has been tested in the West too, leading, for example, to oil obsessed Texas making a significant investment in wind farms for electricity, after a deliberative process showed that consumers were less price sensitive and more eco-conscious than expected.

Just as with social scoring, but to a lesser extent, there are arguments about legitimacy in both directions — obviously, China isn’t a democracy. On the other hand, if your public sphere is in the hands of a few newspaper barons, Russian trolls and social networks that algorithmically deepen polarisation, then citizen’s ability to vote in their best interests will inevitably be undermined by the flow of manipulative information.

China can provide evidence for all kinds of alternative approaches, for example, its intellectual property laws; or it’s app ecosystem, which is sometimes described as a digital Madagascar because it’s been cut off from the rest of the world so long it’s evolved it’s own solutions to common problems.

Transport for London (TfL), the institution responsible for regulating taxis in London, recently questioned Uber’s fitness to operate a taxi company. A lot of civic tech people suggested that TfL should run it’s own Uber alternative. The other camp said that if London wasn’t open to Uber, it was against innovation, the free market and the future — the tribalising echo chamber working as effectively as ever. When Uber tried to set up in China, the government had no compunctions about setting up a local alternative, Didi Chuxing, which is doing very nicely. Unlike Uber, which mobilises its PR and legal teams to frustrate local democracy in the cities in which it operates, you can bet that Didi will act if the Chinese government tells it to sort out its safety record.

So even though China fails to provide legitimate governance, it is another society struggling to work out how to make digital technology work better. If you believe that society is going to have to change radically in the face of technological innovation, its helpful to have somewhere radically different to draw lessons from.

[Apologies for typos. It’s a bit of a rush job, but wanted to get some thoughts down to clear my head…  ]

If you think this is grim, wait until you see Brexit. via @alldaycreative.

I am not just cooking up this story up because I’m a crazed ultra-remainer. I’d want to remain in the EU even if a great Brexit deal was on the table. At the same time, if I thought that the EU was a colossal affront to democracy, as many people do, then I would want to leave even if it meant a bad Brexit deal. I’d like to see lots of policy that isn’t GDP maximising, so I’m not complaining that Brexit might knock a few points off annual GDP growth. Even so, it seems to me the EU has every reason to annihilate the UK in the Brexit negotiation. The UK might be in for a shock – a shock that could set off a paroxysm of nationalism and unpleasantness.

The Brexit deal is going to be signed off by the parliaments of the 27 non-UK states in the EU. That means the deal is going to have to serve the incentives of those politicians. By proxy, that ought to mean it will serve the citizens of the EU, but it’s probably worth remembering in Europe Brexit doesn’t get saturation coverage like it does in the UK, so the pressure on politicians from voters is reduced. That’s the first of many asymmetries that seem to make it likely the Brexit deal – if there is one – will be nasty in a way that I’m not sure the British press is articulating.

For many European politicians, surely the breakup of the EU is the greatest fear. Right now the EU seems to be getting stronger, but there are plenty of reasons to think its future is still much less than certain. Many European politicians believe in the EU, but, from a less altruistic perspective, the political turmoil caused by a breakup might easily cause a shift in power away from the existing elite – so they will resist. What would do more to secure the future of the EU than a Brexit deal so bad the UK is forced to remain, demonstrating the impossibility of leaving, or – more likely – to leave and suffer traumatically, again serving as a warning to other potential leavers.

Leavers often point out that a bad Brexit would make the EU suffer too, and it would. But much less than the UK, and in less politically painful ways. If trade between the UK and EU dropped 10%, than would be a close to 5% of total trade for the UK, and 1.5% for the EU. So under ‘hard’ Brexit (or no deal at all), EU politicians win on stability of the EU and probably get to pick off a few strategic UK industries like finance, at the cost of a tiny drop in exports resulting from a negotiation that most Europeans didn’t really care about anyway. If you are the negotiator that gets the City to decamp to Frankfurt, you’ll be a hero forever. If it goes wrong and EU exports drop by some unmeasurable amount, who cares? The trade economics seem obvious – the EU wins by being aggressive.

What about migration? There are about 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK (5% of the UK population), and about 1.2 million UK citizens in the EU (0.2 % of the EU population). This situation is ambiguous in terms of negotiation. While Polish politicians will want to get a good deal for Polish people living in the UK, they will also know that the UK cannot possibly afford to send Polish people home exactly because there are so many of them and they are so important to the economy. Meanwhile, the EU can easily kick out Brits, who make up a tiny fraction of the workforce. The UK is also more constrained on this issue, with the Leave campaign strongly predicated on reducing migration – which surely must feature in the negotiation. Meanwhile, the EU could grant rights to Brits in Europe without it having a major impact. If the UK economy looks comparatively weak, economic migrants may leave anyway.

Theresa May is not playing her cards close to her chest, as many have been saying. She has no cards. There is virtually nothing she can do to control negotiations, even if they did find someone more competent that David Davies to run them.

The unknown variable is how the public will react. In my naiveté, I believed Tony Blair’s analysis that British people might turn against Brexit as the brutal reality becomes apparent. But the public might also turn against the EU for its bullying behaviour. As the government flounders in the negotiations, stoking up nationalism and evoking world wars might turn out to be the only viable PR strategy. If the negotiations become fiercely acrimonious, it is wrong to think the worst the EU can do to the UK is to end the two year negotiations without a deal. There’s a whole arsenal of humiliations for the EU to deploy, from expensive prosecco and long queues at airport immigration to sweetheart deals for Scotland and Northern Ireland to dismember the UK. Wait until the EU starts demanding an alternative to of the Permanent Security Council featuring the EU, US, China, India and Russia, or Germany starts spending 2% of GDP on defence, to see power really shifting around. Fun times!

Over the last few days, we’ve seen Leave voters jubilant that Article 50 has been sent, the apparent point of no return. Leavers make optimistic predictions about Britannia once again ruling the waves, becoming a stronger independent nation that it would have done within the EU. If you voted Remain, then presumably you foresee mostly down sides arising from leaving the EU, and are accordingly pessimistic about the future.

Words are cheap — what if you asked someone to stake their job, or a large fraction of their salary, on their prediction being right? I suspect that many of Twitters’ most ardent proselytisers, from whichever side, would decline such an offer. But there are people whose job is to stake their reputations on predicting the economy, professional traders who take positions on the stock market. At least in theory, they have ‘skin in the game’ — it will be bad (expensive) for them if they get it wrong, so they are more likely to give a dispassionate opinion.

So far, the stock market is betting on optimism; that things are going be good, economically speaking — for example the FTSE 250 is signalling this by mostly remaining stable or even moving upward. Some of the effect is to do with the sinking value of sterling, but it’s weird because, at the very least, you’d have to admit that we don’t really know what’s going to happen. No one has ever seen a Brexit before, and uncertainty is supposed to be what markets don’t like. But it’s not just uncertainty, most forecasts are negative. The Leave campaign’s own economic predictions are for a cooling economy during the Brexit process. Even if you think pessimistic economic predictions were politically motivated, most people agree there will be less growth in the near term than there otherwise would have been.

So why is the stock market going the opposite way? My theory is that large corporations are optimistic that the UK government, under the threat of the breakup of the country if the Brexit deal is perceived to have gone badly, will be forced to make epic concessions to lobbyists. Corporations will constantly leak internal reports about their desire to move a factory or their head office, or go on news programs to explain the Government doesn’t understand how to create jobs. Big finance firms in the City are always threatening to relocate if regulations do not favour them, resulting in the ‘socialised risk, privatised benefit’ we saw in the 2008 crash.

In the US, we can see the same thing is happening with Trump, where stocks have also been heading upward. As Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, has pointed out, if an unpredictable populist with no previous experience of government came to power in a developing country, the stock market in that country would certainly tank. He describes the US as ‘post democratic’, in the sense that the stock market believes that whatever happens at the ballot box, no president would dare upset it. Trump’s failure to explain his legislative ambitions, or his lack of any convincing means of passing laws, is irrelevant: the stock market knows that Trump is one of their own.

It’s ‘disaster capitalism’, where political change is perceived by the stock market as a state of flux that, always and everywhere, will eventually recrystalise national institutions in their favour.

Douglass Carswell, formerly UKIP’s only MP, is writing a book called ‘Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy’. I can agree there is an emerging oligarchy, and also that both Brexit and Trump should be construed as voters railing against it. But the stock market is telling us that far from an overthrow, what we are going to witness is just another opportunity for the vampire squid to jam its blood funnel into anything that smells like money, as Matt Taibbi puts it.

When people realise this, they are going to be pissed off. If you voted Brexit in anticipation of wage rises powered by reduced immigration, that is not going to happen. If you voted for the empire to come back, it’s not going to happen. In 2020, voters will have endured years of epic wrangling with EU, all of which will have made no difference to their lives. They will find themselves in a country where low tariffs, low wages and low regulations are still the only policy prescription for the static or declining living standards most people endure.

Remainers worry about Brexit making the UK marginally poorer, or lament the lost freedom of travel. But what we should really worry about is the backlash when Brexit doesn’t deliver anything except an illusory warm glow of sovereignty and an orgy of corporate troughing. You may believe that Brexit or Trump are blows against the establishment, but the truest measure of elite sentiment is where the money is going, and right now the stock market disagrees with you.

I hope to have graduated by the time the proposed move to White City happens, for that reason I have not engaged much with the discussions around it. By total coincidence, while looking at the topic of social capital as part of my research, I realised a lot of the material I was finding could be relevant to the move. I thought I’d briefly write it up in case it’s of interest.

Much of what I’ve been reading confirms the obvious: people who work or study (spatially) close to one another form more social ties than those who are separated. I was surprised at how consistent and pronounced the effect is.

Reading Burt’s Brokerage and Closure1, my attention was piqued by his description of Festinger’s work. It shows that MIT students are predominately friends with people with whom they share dorm, and even within dorms location has a powerful influence2. Just being nearby one another was the single factor most important in determining friendships.

Why does that matter? Helliwell and Putnam suggest three possible sources value in university attendance3:

  • Higher education has the explicit goal of imparting skills to students (increasing their ‘human capital’).
  • University is also a place to meet people, thereby forming new networks that increase chances of finding others to productively collaborate with. Those networks can also convey information and norms that are not explicitly taught, especially information such as job offers4. These effects are together termed ‘social capital’.
  • Finally, higher education is thought to be a way of ‘signalling’5 – attending a prestigious university shows potential employers that you are committed, diligent and intelligent.

Social capital’s importance is traditionally captured in the phrases ‘old boys network’ (a similar phenomena apparently exists in Korea6), and ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’. We have the idea of the ‘invisible college’7 to capture the value of social capital’s influence in academia. Whatever the ethical status of these elitist systems, the point remains that social connections are important. I think most people would intuitively agree, perhaps especially so in the arts.

If social capital is important, how do spatial factors change social capital formation? The literature is too copious to go through in detail (I’m already procrastinating by writing this), but some work stands out. By surveying 7 R&D labs, Alen and Fusfeld find that frequency of communication between researchers falls off strongly with distance, finding that working within 30 meters of another person greatly enhances the probability of frequent contact with them.

More recent research by Kabo et al compares two biomedical research labs with different spatial layouts to confirm that distance is a powerful factor when it comes to collaboration8. The research is able to go further and suggests that the critical factor is literally how often researchers’ paths cross. In this study, a 30m increase in distance between researchers reduced the probability of collaboration by 25%. Work at the Bartlett reaches similar conclusions9.

At the scale of communications between geographically separated offices, communication is also known to tail off exponentially as distance increases, including by electronically or by phone, a phenomena described by the Allen Curve10 11.

Further, it seems that the much of the cause of increasing collaboration with proximity is the increased chance of unplanned face-to-face conversation12 13, as opposed to convenience or some other factor. No matter how regular the bus service, unplanned meetings will occur less when students are split across campuses.

It could be argued that a small, isolated campus will generate a dense network within it, even if links to the wider university are diminished. Burt suggests that Ericsson’s famously innovative R&D lab benefited from such a dense network precisely because it was located in the small, isolated town of Lund in Sweden. Such dense networks may be good for innovation, unfortunately they are exactly opposite of the wide networks that are most effective for job hunting when you graduate14.

Spatial factors have such a profound effect on social networks that they show up everywhere from banks to disaster response teams15. Some spatial factors, such as the effects of open-plan offices are contested, but distance seems to reliably and strongly correlate with social tie formation; more specifically the probability of social ties between individuals correlates with the time they spend in a shared space.

I’m sure that excellent teaching will continue and ‘human capital’ aspect at RCA’s offer to students is assured. The question of the RCA’s standing, the ‘signal’ a degree from RCA sends, is a wider issue than a move to White City — one that many people have expressed anxiety over.

Empirical research confirms the common sense view: the social network of students will be profoundly influenced by the move to White City, and that the structure of your social network is the determinant of social capital, which is in turn a key aspect of attending university.

On this basis, as I’m sure many others have concluded, it seems only right that some mitigation ought to be put in place by the University. I’m aware the new campus will be adjacent to a satellite of Imperial University, but this hardly seems compensatory since RCA South Ken is already next to Imperial proper. I’m not sure if anyone has been able to estimate the value of proximity to the BBC R&D facility, it does seem unlikely that it could offset being separated from the wider student body.

Perhaps the move is itself could become a research opportunity, or in some other way could be turned to students’ advantage? Perhaps specific contingencies can be put into foster broader networks?

1 Burt, Ronald S. Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. Oxford university press, 2005.

2 Festinger, Leon, Kurt W. Back, and Stanley Schachter. Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing. Vol. 3. Stanford University Press, 1950.

3 Helliwell, John F., and Robert D. Putnam. Education and social capital. No. w7121. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.

4 Lin, Nan. “Social networks and status attainment.” Annual review of sociology(1999): 467-487.

5 Spence, Michael. “Competitive and optimal responses to signals: An analysis of efficiency and distribution.” Journal of Economic theory 7.3 (1974): 296-332.

6 Lee, Sunhwa, and Mary C. Brinton. “Elite education and social capital: The case of South Korea.” Sociology of education (1996): 177-192.

7 Crane, Diana. “Social structure in a group of scientists: A test of the” invisible college” hypothesis.” American Sociological Review (1969): 335-352.

8 Kabo, Felichism, et al. “Shared Paths to the Lab A Sociospatial Network Analysis of Collaboration.” Environment and Behavior 47.1 (2015): 57-84.

9 Sailer, Kerstin, and Ian McCulloh. “Social networks and spatial configuration—How office layouts drive social interaction.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 47-58.

10 Allen, Thomas, and Gunter Henn. The organization and architecture of innovation. Routledge, 2007.


12Brown, Chloë, et al. “Tracking serendipitous interactions: how individual cultures shape the office.” Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing. ACM, 2014.

13 Owen-Smith, Jason. “Workplace Design, Collaboration, and Discovery.” Ann Arbor 1001 (2013): 48109-1382.

14 Granovetter, Mark S. “The strength of weak ties.” American journal of sociology (1973): 1360-1380.

15 Doreian, Patrick, and Norman Conti. “Social context, spatial structure and social network structure.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 32-46.

In the spirit of thinking through our new political reality, which I already started here, I’ve been thinking about the electoral success of policies that promise violence – imprisonment or war, mainly.

In advertising, apparently, sex sells. In politics, it’s a liability. What sells in politics is violence. The promise to do something violent has an appeal that is powerful and ubiquitous.

In a classic criticism of democracy, Thucydides tells us that in 480BC the crowd in Athens voted to kill every adult male on the rebellious island of Lesbos, only to realise subsequently that this was an unjust act of violence, spurred by the rhetoric of a demagogue. They have to dispatch a ship with the new orders, which only just arrives in time to prevent a massacre. In Orwell’s 1984, perpetual war was used as mechanism to confer legitimacy on the dictatorship, an approach contemporary Russia has learned from.

We have the term khaki election to refer to this phenomena. It was coined in 1900 to describe a UK election held in the context of the Second Boer War, where patriotic sentiment driven by the war is said to have helped the incumbent party win. More recently, we have Thatcher, whose prospects for reelection in 1983 looked dim until the Falklands War boosted her reputation – almost certainly changing the outcome in her favour. We might say the same of Bush’s second Gulf war. An aimless administration was transformed into a purposeful and successful one, the president on an aircraft carrier declaring victory just in time for the election. As it turned out, the invasion did not prove to be beneficial for US foreign policy, but it worked very well for Bush himself.

Internal violence can work the same – for example the way promising increased incarceration has been a successful electoral tool in the UK and the US, no matter the dropping crime levels and endless evidence prison is expensive and ineffective.

Why should a threat to do violence be so persuasive?

Unlike, for example, the myth that the economy works like household budget, I can’t see that the appeal of violence comes from  ‘common sense’ or our everyday experience. Has any family dispute ever been satisfactorily resolved by violence? How many teenage kids have been coerced into good behavior? Do employers seek those who are able to persuade and negotiate, or those who are aggressive and violent? In our own lives, we almost never witness violence, and even less so as a successful strategy. Perhaps it’s exactly this distance that allows us to be so blasé about drone strikes and regime change.

I can only think that the allure of violence is part of a broader sense making activity. Most people have some problems in their lives, disappointments to rationalise. Acknowledging that our lives are shaped by blind luck or unintended consequences is not a good narrative, it does not help us understand why things are as they are. But the idea that an enemy within or without can cause these things does make sense – and the natural solution to the enemy is violence. Lock them up, bomb them – a convincing panacea.

In America, Obama’s failure to use the words radical islam became totemic on the right. It signalled a failure to adopt the appropriately bellicose rhetoric. Trump was even able to suggest that Obama was in league with ISIS because of his failure to use the properly aggressive language. What Obama was really doing was attempting to deescalate the religious dimension of the conflict with the long run goal of bringing peace. It’s a totally rational strategy, except that, for the above reasons, it’s also a terrible electoral strategy.

This is a conundrum for any political party that wants to pursue a rational level of violence, which is generally much below the level apparently advocated by voters. I am not aware of any solution to this problem – as the ancient Greek critics of democracy pointed out, it may just be the price you pay.


We experienced something truly amazing in Marrakech. A taxi took us from the airport to the winding mesh of the medina, and we began to look for cafe. Only after a while we realise where you have to look – up. The cafes are on the rooftops.

Spiralling up and out onto a fourth floor terrace, a rose shaded cubist rhythm of rooftops stretches toward the High Atlas mountains, stepped African crenelations serrate the skyline. Dufy-esque palm trees shade the crows nest cafes, while flocks of tiny birds folded the November sun into barely audible soft peaks. We look down onto the emerald green glazed tiles of the 11th century Ben Youssef  mosque and order mint tea. We order Pastillas – chicken wrapped in filo pastry, dusted with icing sugar just as the mountains across the plain are dusted with snow.

Only then are we fortified enough to discuss the amazing thing we had just experienced in Marrakech – the queue at the airport. Even as the bus delivered us from the plane to the terminal we could see a roiling body of people thronging a low hall. Only when you got in did you realised the scale – a crazed mass of people pushing toward passport control booths that have disappeared behind the curve of the earth.  We join the crush.

After 15 minutes of queuing we realised that concealed within the tumult was a reminder of civility – the snaking Tensabarrier familiar from airports across the world.  We obeyed, and allowed ourselves to be guided perpendicular to our destination. We got deeper in. The temperature rose. Waves of jeering and whistles – a celebrity arrival? The president? Was that the reason for the delay? Nope – instead it was spontaneous outbursts of protest from the front of the queue, presaging what was to come. As the density increased I found myself toppled over other peoples’ luggage, only prevented from falling by the absence of enough space to do so. Someone begins to cry.

A very tall man that’s been behind us is now somehow far in front. We reach a Tensabarrier hairpin only to discover that the frustrated crowd has begun to duck under it – this is the point of where we begin a strange journey. Not to passport to control, but toward the dissolution of the old system, the social norms we arrived with. In its stead we formed a society based on a new morality – the morality of the Marrakech airport queue.

Someone unclips the barrier and we surge forward into space that isn’t there. An English couple we cut past protest – “we’ve been here an hour!”. “So have we…”. Very tall man is behind us again. Couples cling to each other. Progress ceases, every gap is squeezed from the crowd. We begin to forge a new social contract – we realise that obeying the symbols of the past is no longer rational. The barriers don’t mean anything, those who obey them are punished, those who do not are rewarded. Just as the Bible says of Armageddon, when it comes to entering the Kingdom of Morocco “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.

Egalitarian mob justice erupts. We collectively condemn the young and able bodied who push forward, while rallying round to support the frail. We crowd surf water to a French woman who has passed out, and attempt to summon the authorities – all without losing our places. Eventually a man in full scrubs – presumably straight from operating on another casualty – drags the woman from the crowd.

We heard wails, shouts and scuffling break out in the parallel ‘fast track’ queuing system next to us – I believe a different, and darker, culture emerged there.

Two hours in we are crushed against the final hurdle, the immovable metal barrier that separates us from a row of passport control booths. Very tall man is ahead.  Not long ago we poured scorn on those who jumped the barriers, now we saw it as the only way. We chanted “Do it!” at old believers who could not adjust to the new ways. One reluctant Chinese man demurred and gestured at his elderly parents. Moments later – and I swear by our newly minted gods this is absolutely true – he stood elevated astride the barrier and shouted “There are no rules any more!”. He looked back at his parents as though across the Berlin wall.

Finally, we were piled against a booth, 30 faces pressed against the perspex like children at an aquarium. Almost there. We watched as the official idly hunt-and-pecked the details of each passport into the computer, queried the minutia of hotel addresses and fastidiously stamped unique numbers into every passport.

We left the airport certain our pre-booked taxi would have have left hours ago, but a man wilted over the arrivals railing held a sign bearing the name of our hotel. We decompressed in the arrivals lounge, a luxurious architectural gesture, apparently intended to welcome travellers to country that sees tourism as its future.

We told him about our ordeal – had he ever heard of such a thing?

“Oh, yes – this happens every Saturday”





Most politicians – with the exceptions of the Lib Dems – have said that parliament should accept the results of the EU Referendum as the democratic will of the people.

This may be true for political or pragmatic reasons. Ethically, however, it’s far from obvious. If someone tells you Brexit is a moral necessity just because a vote has taken place, they are wrong. Obeying the vote requires a value judgement about the status of that vote, and the issue much more complex than simply asserting that a vote has taken place.

If we were to go around disputing the status of every vote, democracy would be impossible. Here I will present the case that the Brexit vote is uniquely precarious: direct democracy about an irreversible and highly important decision carried out in the context of asymmetric information. Specifically, polling data suggests many leave voters are expecting an outcome that not even the leave campaign itself think is possible.

There are good reasons to be wary of attempts to understand what voters ‘really’ wanted – analysis becomes a vessel for your own opinions. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that voters’ opinions can be shaped by the information they are receiving.

For these reasons, refusing to leave the EU would be an absolutely legitimate position for parliament.

In the national debate it seems to go almost unquestioned that simply going through a voting procedure automatically conveys unassailable democratic force to a decision. Not true: Russia, Zimbabwe, North Korea all have voting procedures, yet most people agree that they unsatisfactory in various ways. I’m not comparing the UK to those countries, but making the philosophical point that you stand in a booth and fill out a form and still not be ‘doing democracy’.

For a vote to carry democratic force – for it to convey the ‘will of the people’ – most people think you have to do more than just count pieces of marked paper. I complained about two criteria that I felt were lacking in the EU referendum before the vote took place – that the electorate be representative, and that voters should be well informed.

We apparently can’t agree on the demographics of EU Referendum voters, but we do know participation was unusually high, so let’s set the issue of representativeness on one side.

The electorate were not well informed, in fact they were actively misled about what leaving the EU would mean. This is the case in every election, here I will make the argument that the misinformation was both asymmetric and effective in changing voters’ views.

I’m also not claiming leave voters are stupid, or that they do whatever Rupert Murdoch says. I am not claiming that everyone who voted leave was misled. I am not claiming that voters would have voted remain with better access to information.

I am claiming that we do not know how voters would have behaved with better access to information, and that information in the EU referendum was unusually low quality.

This is a difficult empirical point to prove. We cannot observe how voters would have behaved in other circumstances. What we can do is build an empirical case that voters held beliefs that can reasonably be expected to influence voting behaviour, and that those beliefs are a result of systemic misinformation.

We can see from YouGov’s polls that many people believed that leaving the EU would make no difference to, or improve, the economy. In the last poll, which closed in the 19th June, 46% of respondents thought there would be no economic impact, while 9% thought they’d be better off. These views, unsurprisingly, correlate with the intention to vote leave. 18% of those intending to vote leave thought leaving would improve the economy, and 66% thought it would make no difference.

This is at stark variance with predictions. The Leave campaign’s economist Andrew Lilico own forecasts suggest that there would be a short term economic hit, but predicted that by 2030 the economy would have returned to normal. This prediction is more optimistic than almost any other, either from a private company, the Treasury or international organisations such as the OECD. If voters were aware that the most optimistic case was a short term recession, followed by a possible return to normal growth in 15 years time, rather than believing there would be no difference or an improvement, how would they have voted? We do not know.

This in turn bears on Leave’s promise to have extra money to spend on the NHS. A post-Brexit government can choose to spend more money on the NHS, they will not be doing so using ‘spare money’ created by Brexit – certainly not until 2030.

We are in the position of living in a future where Brexit now seems imminent, and the prediction of a short term slow down appear to be coming true, with Mark Carney confirming these effects both verbally and by providing £250Bn of tax payers money to support the economy.

In the same poll, 54% of respondents believed that Brexit would reduce immigration. Again, this correlates with intention to leave, with fully 85% of leave voters believing immigration would decrease. And again, this is at odds with the predictions of all sides. Leave’s economic model relies on immigration remaining roughly the same (Andrew Lilico again), and Leave campaigner Dan Hannan notably confirmed that immigration will remain broadly similar after Brexit. How would voters have behaved if they knew this? Again, we do not know.

I’m not claiming access to an objective reality about what will happen in the case of Brexit, instead I’m asserting that leave voters did not understand the position of the Leave campaign itself. Given that the Leave campaign is likely to have been over optimistic about what it can deliver, the reality of Brexit is likely to be even less satisfactory to leave voters.

We know that a typical leave voter thought that the economy would remain the same or improve while immigration would be reduced. But we do not know if these were factors that caused them to vote leave, or merely incidental. However, if we look at polls of issues that matter to voters, we see that immigration, the NHS, the EU and the economy are the top four issues. The average leave voter held unrealistic expectations about all of these, so it is reasonable to assume that some voters choose leave on the basis of these issues.

Where does these bad information come from? How can voters have come to believe a case for Brexit even more optimistic than the Leave campaign itself? We do see that newspaper coverage, which is traditionally on the right in the UK, is was strongly skewed to Brexit. Weighted for number for readers, newspaper articles about about 80% in favour of leave, even while the country as a whole is almost perfectly split. Meanwhile, the broadcast media are scrupulously balanced.

Article 50 has not yet been sent. The electorate now has a genuine opportunity to understand Brexit’s implications for the economy and immigration. If opinion polls show a significant shift in the light of this new information, that shift should be allowed to influence MP’s views; they should not feel bound by the referendum. The referendum did not convey an unassailable mandate based on the will of the people.

Edit: Reading Vernon Bogdanor I find my self slightly convinced by an idea similar to rule utilitarianism. Perhaps you can’t worry actual democracy in every vote, instead you have to set up the institution of voting and honour it regardless of the nuances of each referendum or election. Perhaps the damage to public trust is not worth the improvement in decision making.

We have so many aspirations for big data and evidence based policy, but apparently a fatally limited capacity to see the obvious: voters were furious about immigration and the EU. Techniques exist to build better empirical evidence regarding issues that matter to citizens; we should use them or risk a repeat of the referendum.   

Commentators from all over the spectrum believe that the leave vote represents not (only) a desire to leave the EU, but also the release of a tidal wave of pent up anger. That anger is often presumed to be partly explained by stagnating living standards for large parts of the population. As the first audience question on the BBC’s Question Time program asked the panel “Project Fear has failed, the peasants have revolted, after decades of ignoring the working class how does it feel to be punch in the nose?”. The Daily Mail’s victorious front page said the “Quiet people of Britain rose up against an arrogant, out-of-touch, political class”. The message is not subtle.

Amazingly, until the vote, no one seemed to have known anything: markets and betting odds all suggested remain would win. Politicians, even those on the side of Leave, thought Brexit was unlikely. The man bankrolling the Brexit campaign lost a fortune betting that it wouldn’t actually happen (the only good news I’ve seen in days). Niall Ferguson was allegedly paid $500,000 to predict that the UK would remain.

This state of ignorance contrasts radically with what we do know about the country. We know, in finicky detail, the income of every person and company. We measure changes in price levels, productivity, house prices, interest rates, and employment. Detailed demographic and health data are available – we have a good idea of what people eat, how long they sleep for, where they shop, we even have detailed evidence about people’s sex lives.

Yet, there seems to be have been very little awareness of (or weight attached to) what the UK population itself was openly saying in large numbers.

Part of the reason must be that the government didn’t want to hear. Post crisis everything was refracted through the prism of TINA – There Is No Alternative. There was no money for anything, so why even think about it? Well, now we have an alternative.

The traditional method for registering frustration is obviously to vote – a channel which was jammed in the last election. Millions of people voted UKIP, or for the Green Party, and got one MP a piece: no influence for either point of view.  A more proportional voting system is one well known idea, and I think an excellent one, but there are lots of other possibilities too.

What if there was a more structured way to report on citizen’s frustrations on a rolling basis? An Office of Budgetary Responsibility, but for national sentiment – preparing both statistical and qualitative reports that act as a radar for public anger. It would have to go beyond the existing ‘issue tracking’ polling to provide something more comprehensive and persuasive. Perhaps the data could be publicly announced with the same fanfare as quarterly GDP.

Consultative processes at the local level are much more advanced than at the national level. Here is some of the current thinking on the best ways to build a national ‘anger radar’, drawing on methods widely used at the local level.

Any such process faces the problem of  ‘strategic behaviour’. If someone asks you your opinion on immigration, you might be tempted to pretend you are absolute furious about it, even if you are are only mildly piqued by the topic. Giving extreme answers might seem like the best way to advocate for the change you want to see. Such extreme responses could mask authentically important signals. Asking respondents to rank responses in order or assign monetary values to outcomes are classic ways to help mitigate strategic behaviour.

Strategic behaviour can also be avoided by looking at actions that are hard to fake. Economists refer to these as ‘revealed’ preferences – often revealed by the act of spending money on buying something. It’s awful to think about, but house prices might encode public opinions on immigration. If house prices are lower in areas of high immigration, it might reveal to us the extent to which citizen truly find it to be an issue. Any such analysis would have to use well established techniques for removing confounding factors, for example accounting for the fact the immigration might disproportionately be to areas with lower house prices anyway. This approach might not be relevant for the issues in EU referendum, but might be important for other national policies. Do people pay more for a house which falls in the catchment of an academy school, for example. (More technical detail on all these approaches).

Social media is another source of data. Is the public discourse, as measured on Twitter or Facebook (if they allowed access to the data) increasingly mentioning immigration? What is the sentiment expressed in those discussions? Certainly a crude measure, but perhaps part of a wider analysis – and ultimately no cruder than the methods used to estimate inflation.

All these approaches are valuable because they tell us about ‘raw’ sentiment – what people believe before they are given a space to reflectively consider. ‘Raw’ views are important since they are the ones that determine how people will act, for example at a referendum.

But that is not enough on it’s own. As discussed in a previous post, good policy will also be informed by a knowledge of what people want when they have thought more deeply and have information that allows them to act in their own best interests. These kinds of views could be elicited using using processes such as the RSA’s recently announced Citizen’s Economics Council, where 50-60 (presumably representative) citizens will be given time and resources to help them think deeply about economic issues of the day, and subsequently give their views to policy makers.

Delib, a company that provides digital democracy software, offers a budget simulator which achieves a similar goal. The affordances of the interface mean that uses have to allocate a fixed budget between different options using sliders. In the processes of providing a view, users intrinsically become aware of the various compromises that must be made, and deliver a more informed decision.

We live in a society where more data is available about citizen’s behaviour then ever before. As is widely discussed, that represents a privacy challenge that is still being understood. The same data represents an opportunity for governments to be responsive in new ways. Did the intelligence services know which way the vote would go using their clandestine monitoring of our private communications? Who knows.

We cannot predict everything, famously a single Moroccan street vendor’s protest set off the whole of the Arab Spring. But we can see the contexts that makes that kind of volatility possible, and I believe the anti immigration context could easily have been detected in the run up to the referendum.

There is no longer any reason for a referendum about the EU to become a channel for anger about tangentially related issues. The political class would not have been ‘punched on the nose’ if they were a little better a listening.

Hat tip: Thanks to the Delib Twitter account, which has been keeping track of the conversation about new kinds of democracy post Brexit, which I’ve used in this post.