Political Debate (II): Brexit and The Missing Dimension of ‘Ethos’

Following on with our discussion on how a lack of believability and trustworthiness (ethos) in our political debates on all sides of the political divide is causing the present disconnection among people, I would like to turn once again to the Brexit debate. Watching this campaign daily on British television it is easy to get exasperated at the way politicians and establishment figures on both sides of the issue try to impress their audiences as to their credibility.

For example, one whole day’s news coverage was filled with the multimillionaire Bob Geldof of the ‘Remain’ camp chasing Nigel Farage of the ‘Leave’ campaign down the Thames in a cruiser, shouting insults at the flotilla of fishermen protesting against the EU fishing policy. It was surreal, and it was hard to understand who Geldof was trying to impress.

This debate was always going to be about the economy versus immigration. The bottom line in all of this is that such a debate is playing on the electorate’s fears, whilst the vagueness of the ‘Remain’ arguments has not instilled the confidence that the electorate can rely on. On the other hand, the ‘Leave’ platform is built on the fear that increasing immigration numbers will cause an intolerable demand on the social and health services and schools.

Fear is the opposite of confidence

The opposite to fear is confidence. Much of the electorate has confidence problems with many establishment figures whom they don’t trust. For example, the Governor of the Bank of England has appeared at press conferences warning the general public of the dire economic consequences of leaving. The Governor is supposed to be neutral, but is clearly identified with the ‘Remain’ camp. On top of this, most people know through the media that the Governor, Mr. Carney, is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker. Goldman Sachs is a firm which prepared the books for Greece to enter the European Union. Indeed, people are doubtful of the opinions of investment bankers in general, not only of Mr. Carney. Confidence must come from sources that are deemed to be reliable.

Fear comes from imagining a potential danger in the future, and the growing immigration numbers play into this. It is a fear of immigrants taking jobs, of locals not finding places for their children in the local school, of the mounting demands on an ailing health service, which will affect them all directly. It is a fear of how society is being changed by those on top with little regard to the rest. The public need to have confidence that their politicians have their concerns at heart.

Instead, it appears that the P.R. and media training companies are doing a roaring trade in preparing speeches, organizing venues and telling their clients what to say. They brief and train their clients (including political party leaders) to adopt a haughty, all knowing, false invincibility. This does not instill confidence. Yet, the ‘Remain’ campaign is at a loss as to why the public is not over impressed. There is a suspicion that lies are being told and that the mass of information circulating is untrustworthy on both sides.

Lack of Ethos

David Cunningham in Faithful Persuasion sums up Aristotle’s view on ethos very well:

“The authority of a particular argument is closely connected to how the audience evaluates the person who offers that argument. As an audience judges the speaker’s character to be more or less worthy of confidence, the speaker’s arguments are accordingly considered more or less authoritative.”

The speakers on the ‘Leave’ side of this debate rely on fear that increased immigration will bring, while the speakers ‘Remain’ side are unable to communicate the necessary confidence about the damage to the economy that will happen if the U.K. should leave the EU.

What seems to be missing on both sides are believable and trustworthy communicators. It is a question of the lack of ‘Ethos’.

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