The choice theorist Edna Ullmann-Margalit posits that there are essentially three kinds of decisions: picking, choosing and opting. Picking decisions are the little ones we make every day: what to have for lunch; which toothpaste to buy. Choosing decisions are the middle-sized ones that involve the marshalling of reasons for and against: to buy this car or that. Opting decisions are the biggest; they mark a personal transformation because the person that comes out of them is different from the one that goes in. In the case of a country, they are moments where history itself pivots. Examples might be the decision whether to have children (for a person); whether to leave the UK (for the Scots); whether to exit the EU (for Britain).
Ullmann-Margalit goes on to make an interesting observation: the assumptions of classical decision theory really only work for middle-sized decisions. In picking and opting scenarios, where almost nothing or almost everything is at stake, they have much less purchase. The process by which we arrive at our biggest decisions tends to be less susceptible to rational argument than in lesser cases, because really momentous decisions are more likely to manifest themselves as an expression of identity or as a "naked act of will", in which the calculus of risk and gain play a subordinate role. They are less about what we think we want than about who we think we are.
Identity is in play on both sides of the Brexit/Bremain divide, but there is also a marked asymmetry. The decision to leave the EU requires a far greater act of will than the decision to remain. That may explain why the discourse of the Brexit campaign has been especially marked by the effort to mobilise emotion, to galvanise a "we" against a "them". I'm thinking here of two headlines from the pro-Brexit press: "ISIS owes weapons to EU Loophole" and "EU sends killers to UK".
The problem for the Bremain camp is not the shortage of good arguments. Over the past months, we have heard hundreds of powerful statements in support of the Bremain case. They have primarily focused on the future of the City of London and the unique strategic advantages conferred by its position outside the eurozone but inside the EU, the likely impact of Brexit on Britain's economic growth, unemployment, the capacity to negotiate advantageous terms of trade, the security and crime-fighting advantages of EU membership, and so on.
Against the formidable edifice of the Bremain coalition, the Brexiteers have deployed the siege machines of national emotion and identity. Immigration tops the list. According to a poll conducted on May 14, 57% of British adults believe that the country could control its borders better if Britain left the EU. But this is odd, because whereas the total number of immigrants from EU states in the UK is currently more than 2 million, the number of those born outside the EU and living in Britain is nearly 5 million. And most of these non-EU settlers hail from countries in respect of which Britain exercises full sovereign control over its borders. Their numbers are thus completely independent of Britain's membership of the EU.
The history of how modern Britain managed the relationship between its European and imperial interests – between its "blue-water" and its continental commitments – suggests that the country tended to do best when it successfully balanced both imperatives, rather than pursuing one to the exclusion of the other. Between 1688 and 1763, British statesmen worked hard to prevent a single continental power from dominating Europe, while at the same time laying the foundations of the British empire's future global pre-eminence.
The war of the Spanish succession (1701-1714), the war of the Austrian succession (1740-1748) and the seven years' war (1756-1763) were all, among other things, British victories. Disaster, as the historian Brendan Simms has shown, only struck when London turned its back on Europe and focused on projected power through its navy alone. No longer checked by Britain on the continent, the French and Spanish were able to build up their navies and help defeat the British in America. America was lost on the Rhine.
Whether such arguments will carry much weight with the Brexit-inclined electorate is highly questionable. Recent evidence from opinion polls suggests that Ullmann-Margalit may be right. Pro-Brexit voters appear to be relatively impervious to the kind of authoritative diagnosis on offer from the remain camp. They respond more readily to the sometimes untrue, sometimes incendiary, identitarian claims of media-savvy Brexiteer politicians like Boris Johnson, Britain's version of Donald Trump. Johnson was recently widely criticised for comparing the EU to Hitler's "Grossraum Europa". He has repeatedly (and falsely) claimed that under EU law it is illegal for a child under eight to blow up a balloon. Yet according to a poll conducted in May, Britons are more than twice as likely to trust Johnson to tell the truth about Europe as they are to be sceptical of his claims.
At the heart of the Brexit camp is the fear of a radical loss of autonomy, often captured with the word "sovereignty". In the future feared by the Brexiteers, Britain will no longer be free and independent, but forced to follow the orders of unelected bosses in far-off Brussels. But though they speak of Britain, they really only speak for England. Intense pro-Brexit sentiment is almost exclusively an English phenomenon. Of the 10 most Europhile regions on the British mainland, five are in Scotland and Wales. There is not a single hotspot of Eurosceptic feeling in Scotland and only one in Wales.
Herein lies a deep clue to the appeal of the Brexit argument. The last two decades have seen a marked advance in Scottish and Welsh particularist sentiment and the devolution in 1998 of regional powers to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish legislatures. But no such devolution has taken place in England itself, despite signs that nationalist sentiment has been on the rise here, too. The result has been a marked asymmetry: England remains the only country in the UK lacking a devolved parliament or assembly of its own. This may help to explain the receptiveness of English voters to the claim (whatever its truth value) that continued membership of the EU will bring the further erosion of "sovereignty", the neuralgic word in the Europe debate.
The English focus on much Eurosceptic sentiment may also explain the otherwise puzzling readiness of the Brexit camp to risk the integrity of the UK in order to escape from the EU. The Scottish National Party's warning that a departure from the EU will re-open the question of Scottish independence leaves them unmoved (presumably, many of them are thinking: good riddance!). Particularly striking is the indifference of the leavers to the effects of a Brexit on Northern Ireland.
The "England" at the heart of the Brexit phenomenon is of course itself deeply divided. London is an island of strong Europhile sentiment in a sea of Eurosceptic counties. And the referendum campaign in England has seen the re-emergence of old educational, social and generational cleavages whose salience was thought to be in decline. The old and those with limited education are much more likely to vote for exit than young, well-off Britons with a university degree. People in university cities (Leeds, Manchester, Leicester, Oxford, Cambridge, Sheffield) are likely to vote to remain. At the very least, this suggests that anxieties about déclassement and declining access to public social goods are mixed in with the identitarian logic of the Brexit case. It may also explain why the smart, articulate arguments of the Remain camp bounce off Brexit-minded voters like rain off a barrel: they feel as if they come from above, with a strong aftertaste of elite condescension.
Britain is one of the most successful states in modern history. And the EU is an unprecedented world-historical experiment, a commonwealth of states freely entered into, embodying, like the UK, a shared commitment to fundamental freedoms, democracy, the rule of law and the promotion of human rights. Of course, no one would claim that the EU as a constitutional reality or as a form of governance is ideal in its current form. The EU is a work in progress. The decision to remain within does not imply an unconditional endorsement of the status quo – rather it represents a commitment to remain part of the complex and intermittently conflictual process by which the EU manages its affairs and steers its historical course.