Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shake it all about

At one point last week, my favourite referendum pollster was projecting a 48.5% Leave vote. That is, as the Duke of Wellington might have put it, a damned nice thing.

Today the odds have slipped back to 46.5%. Which is still closer than it was last month.

Now, we know there is tendency for polling margins to narrow, as major votes approach. I don't know how well studied or documented this is, but I'm reasonably sure it always happens. Landslides are no fun, and more importantly, they don't make for good copy. As a vote approaches, journalists will do whatever is necessary - including commissioning as many spurious polls as necessary - to make both sides believe the margin is much closer than it is. (Which is why both of Obama's elections were billed in advance as "too close to call", even though, by electoral college rules, they were never in much doubt.)

Even politically, it makes sense. A side that thinks it's losing will keep changing its strategy, finding new avenues, until it finds something that improves its standing. Whereas the top dogs will just keep doing what they "know" works - until they feel threatened, at which point they'll get a bit bolder, and the gap will likely widen again slightly.

(There must be some way to make a profit from this rule. If only Ladbrokes had a mechanism for placing a bet, then 'trading it in' later when the odds change - but I doubt if they do, because it'd be too open to abuse and corruption. You need to be a banker to get away with that sort of thing, bookies are too closely watched. But if anyone knows a practicable way to do it, please do tell.)

I must confess - if I had a vote at all, I'd be increasingly tempted to vote 'leave'.

Not because I think the UK or its people would be "better off", for any material definition of "better". Anyone who thinks the UK would be richer, or freer, or better run outside the EU is someone who simply hasn't been paying attention, this past quarter-century. No, the only sane and rational reason to vote "leave" is if you believe it would lead to the breakup of the European Union itself.

Why would you want that?

Much as Niq argued about Scotland leaving the UK - the EU is broken. The UK actually does pretty well out of it - those really suffering are the Mediterranean countries. The Greeks, Italians, Spanish and Cypriots are looking at youth unemployment rates well over 30%, and the Germans have made it very clear that they're not taking any nonsense about "democracy" from those countries - they are governed by bankers, until such time as German voters decide to let them go.

And they've made it just as clear to Britain - that even without the financial stranglehold they have over the Med, they won't put up with any wandering from their prescribed policy. "Stay in the EU", their message has been, "and you will play by our rules. Leave, and we will do everything in our power to punish you. Moreover, we regard your 'democratic process' as a pistol to our head, and we will not negotiate under such terms." (Working out the terms under which they would be willing to negotiate is an exercise for - who, exactly?)

This cavalier attitude to democracy is bad enough within Europe, but outside its borders it becomes positively dangerous. We've all seen the disastrous consequences of EU meddling in Ukraine and Georgia; and if the Baltic States survive, it will be thanks to a sterner stance by NATO, nothing to do with the EU. (In fact, here's a prediction: if Trump wins the US presidency, at least one of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania will be overrun by the Russians within four years.)

Game theory teaches us that "playing nice" is a good strategy, only as long as the other players hold to it too. If you carry on being nice when they play dirty, you get screwed. Of course there is a price to be paid for breaking the tacit agreement, even if the other side has already broken it first; but if you show you're not willing to pay that price, you can expect to go on being screwed until you are. I have personal experience of this dilemma. I voted "out" then.

If you're in Britain this week: voting "out" will certainly cost you. Probably, a lot. (There will be people who will come out of it better off - but believe me, those are people who've laid their plans and invested their money and made their friends accordingly. In short, they're Not You.) But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the wrong thing to do.

No comments: