The current discussion in the UK about ‘Brexit’ illustrates how important decisions about the future are routinely framed in terms of risk. It also illustrates recognition of how – narrowly framed – risk is utilised instrumentally, but not effectively so. As Mary Douglas pointed out in her ‘cultural’ perspective, risk today is often no more than a ‘resource’ deployed as a proxy for danger. But it fails to engage with how perceptions of risk are really determined by our values and world view, something which even the scariest of numbers do not speak to.

Faced with the uncertain future outcomes of a ‘Brexit’, both sides attempt to turn these into tangible risks, complete with implausibly precise calculations. The ‘Leave’ campaign projected the prospect of the UK falling victim to Turkey joining the EU, adding a further 1 million immigrants to the population. They added that this was based upon the fact of Turkey’s higher birth rate, with the additional edge of worryingly higher gun ownership and criminality among Turkish citizens.[i] Meanwhile the ‘Stay’ campaign highlights the greater risk of economic problems should we leave, producing a succession of large numbers to demonstrate that the UK will suffer from leaving the European Union, in jobs and trade. Chancellor George Osborne warned that he would have to fill a £30bn black hole in the public finances, for example. This follows a pattern of framing other contemporary uncertainties such as obesity as concrete risks, in this case in terms of their projected cost to the NHS. Meta risks like obesity, terrorism and climate change have then competed with each other for policy attention, though generally limited public impact.

A more unusual characteristic of the campaign is how the ‘Leave’ camp have consistently accused the government of a ‘Project Fear’; of using inflated, even fictitious statistics to scare the population into voting blindly out of concern for their livelihoods. Risks are traded amidst awareness of how anxiety can be created from uncertainty, brought into focus by projected data that acts as a proxy for racial and economic concerns. The debate has become hostile, for all its grounding in apparently neutral data. David Cameron was accused of ‘outright lies’ by his fellow Conservatives in the Leave campaign. Anti-EU former Conservative chancellors and prime ministers complained of the ‘disgraceful’ use of official economic bodies such as the Treasury, whose alarming statistics on the consequences ‘simply assumed a disaster in order to scare the pants off the British people.’[ii]

Meanwhile, opinion polls in early June indicated an alarming swing towards ‘Leave’ created panic. But rather than fundamentally rethink their approach, Remain’s ‘projected fears’ appeared to primarily become more specific, such as with Cameron’s warnings of lower available spending on pensions and the NHS.[iii] Commentators noted how many people remained switched off from the trading of statistics. Nor did the Remain campaign’s lining up of experts – particularly economic experts and employers – who testified to the possible damage caused seem to prove any more effective. Towards the end of the campaign the succession of pro-European declarations from the ‘great and the good’ such as scientists and actors became as faintly ridiculous as it was irrelevant to the experiences of most voters.Certainly, Brexit leaders ignored or even dismissed such expertise as irrelevant. Insightfully, the pro-Remain Guardian newspaper printed a succession of articles on the fears and concerns of ordinary people – particularly those who saw themselves as abandoned and with no perceived stake in maintaining the ‘Remain’ status quo. Such disaffection has, as in many other countries, attached itself to immigrants as the cause.[iv]

Risk has been used as a ‘forensic resource’ in the UK’s EU debate to really denote ‘danger’, in terms set out to describe earlier developments in America by the great anthropologist, Mary Douglas.[v] For her, the language of risk is resorted to in modern societies where dangers need to be posed in scientific-sounding terms that also can engage individual fears (unlike how dangers used to be used to morally cohere communities and therefore speak to community-wide, moral concerns). She notes how risk here acquires a primarily negative determination different from the more neutral terms in which it was set out historically as a weighing up of probability. She contests the objectivity of risk analysis and calculation which often relies upon the bare statement of negative outcomes when ‘everything depends on the value that is set on the outcome…The evaluation is a political, aesthetic, and moral matter…’ She adds that ‘without a consensus on goals both sides appeal to expert risk assessments’, in a way that resonates powerfully with the current European debate, where one side aims mainly to limit immigration and the other to maintain the economic status quo.

In one sense it’s surprising that Douglas’ rather abstract view of risk has such resonance in America, where technocratic risk analysis otherwise reigns supreme. But it has certainly proven influential despite its problems of calculability. This is because at the heart of the cultural perspective is the group subjectivity of risk perceptions, where competing cultural worldviews jockey for influence. America is now evenly divided by Republican and Democrat labels that signify entrenched and radically different ways of seeing the world, in terms of equality, responsibility and authority. In turn, these determine perceptions of risks such as from climate change, from Republican dismissal to Democrat alarm. This is illustrated in surveys such as one in 2013 revealing that 70% of Democratic voters saw evidence of man-made climate change in recent weather patterns, whereas only 19% of Republican voters did.[vi]

Now in the UK it is interesting that the politico-cultural worldviews behind each position on the EU debate seem to have become entrenched and culturally fixed, at least for the time being. For many British liberals, ‘Brexiters’ has quickly become a term of abuse that signifies a backwards-looking ‘little Englander’ perspective, with a scarcely concealed antipathy towards foreigners. In Douglas’ terms it even performs a function of uniting them and putting misgivings about the EU and David Cameron to one side. Even in the absence of any kind of positive vision being put forward by the official Remain campaign young people such as my eldest son have become passionately animated by a decision they see as challenging the kind of world and future they want to see. Whilst there is some truth to this picture there is also danger in painting people into corners where they only, at best, partially belong. Crucially, there remains an absence of effective arguments that can limit how much people might simply fall by default into fixed positions.

There has been some basic recognition of trying to engage different public perspectives, particularly as the government tended to panic at the start of June. But even then campaigning stayed in similar terms – only engaging more specific, targeted concerns. The Chancellor warned of higher income tax, alcohol and petrol duties and making massive cuts to the NHS, schools and defence in a basic pitch to the electorate.[vii] Cameron suggested that pensions too would not be immune from cuts, targeting pensioners seen to be a mainstay of the Leave campaign.

Using risks as a forensic campaigning resource doesn’t seem to have worked – not least because we Britons are quite accustomed to inflated figures that, after a while, all merge into one, leading to people switching off. Having been invited to deliberate what is one supposed to make of one set of figures quickly rubbished by another? Decades of research around risk now agrees that providing more expert information alone has a limited impact, particularly in our age of competing authority and open access to information. This is not to say that the weight of maintaining the status quo might not kick in more powerfully come election day, but that is quite a different thing from imagining ‘Project Fear’ has been a successful campaign.

Risk can be used as a resource but it fails to inspire. Outside of the framework of a more positive argument it can deter and alienate. In the Brexit ‘debate’ it seems clear that it tends towards taking the place of the more difficult business of finding arguments that really engage with the concerns and ‘worldview’ of the population. Partly this is because, at heart, this is an in-house contest between different wings of the Conservative Party.

Recognizing that views on what might happen in the future are determined by already partly fixed worldviews doesn’t mean they need to be simply accommodated, but they do need to be engaged. Marshalling numbers instead is a poor substitute. As campaigns argued about how immigration could best be controlled even the radical leader of the Labour Party refused to challenge the idea that people’s economic problems were the result of immigration. Uncomfortable but powerful truths like how migrants in my area do the jobs that Britons refuse were rarely heard. The marshalling of data and expertise can inform clear argument but shouldn’t take its place.

Professor Adam Burgess

University of Kent, UK











[v] Mary Douglas, 1990, Risk as a Forensic Resource, Daedalus 119(4): 1-16.


[vi] See, for example, the Economist, People’s views on climate change go hand in hand with their politics, Nov 28th 2015