The strongest parts of Gordon Brown’s pro-union speech were negative. Photo: Getty
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Why ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate

Normal polling methods struggle to detect people’s internal divisions, yet the Scottish referendum has just demonstrated how powerful an effect ambivalence can be.

The numbers have a stark clarity: 55 per cent for, 45 per cent against. But if you were able to peer inside the minds of many who voted in Scotland’s referendum you would probably have found something much less simple, and much more contradictory: voters who wanted Scotland to be independent but didn’t want to leave the union, and voters who wanted to remain part of Great Britain but longed to throw in their lot with the nationalists. When it comes to complex and deeply felt issues, it is human nature to be ambivalent.

Ambivalence – the mental mess that exists before someone forces you to commit to a view – is an underrated and misunderstood phenomenon in politics. It is not indifference, though it’s sometimes mistaken for it. An ambivalent person holds contradictory views so strongly that neither will cede to the other; their ambivalence results from an excess, not a deficit, of opinion. When she votes, or when a pollster asks her a question, she forces this incoherence uncomfortably into one box or another.

Ambivalence is physical: we say, “on the one hand, on the other hand”, and we “waver” or “feel torn”. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam’s Uncertainty Lab presented students with information about a controversial employment law in the Netherlands. One group read a briefing that made a strong argument against the law, while another received a briefing that made both cases with equal force, a standard method for inducing ambivalence. The participants were then given a few minutes to think about it, while electrodes measured the moisture in their skin. Those in the ambivalent condition literally sweated over their decision. 

In another experiment from the same lab, participants were asked to consider their view on a controversial issue while standing on a Wii balance board. Those experiencing ambivalence moved from side to side more than those who were not. The effect even worked in reverse: people moving from side to side on the board were more likely to feel ambivalent than people who were standing still or moving up and down.

Ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate: normal instruments cannot detect it. Pollsters find it hard to measure because it registers only as indifference on their five-point scales. But political scientists who study it (see, for example, this collection of essays), believe that people’s views on seemingly polarising issues are a lot less clear-cut than they seem. For instance, the way public opinion shifted so quickly and decisively on gay marriage in the US and UK suggested that, rather than being the result of people switching from one firmly held view to another, a build-up of ambivalence being resolved. People believed that marriage was a heterosexual institution and also that anyone should be able to marry who they liked. At a certain point, the latter view won out, but it would be wrong to say that these voters switched sides, since they were on both sides to begin with.

Something similar, I suspect, happened during the referendum campaign. We’ve heard that the Scots were divided against one another, but for many, if not most, the main division was internal. Those big movements in the polls – the Yes campaign gaining support fast in the month before the vote, the swing back to No in the final days – represented the roiling emotions of those torn between patriotism and empiricism, those twin poles of the Scottish character.

As Rick Nye of Populus has pointed out, a year before the referendum, nearly a third of voters were undecided, and most of them (70 per cent) were attracted to the idea of independence but wary of the accompanying economic risks – as close as you can get to polling evidence of an ambivalent mindset. The Better Together campaign, for all that it was accused of negativity (which, considering they were asking people to vote No, always seemed a tad unfair to me), succeeded in their core task of preventing those undecided voters from allowing their heart to overwhelm their mind – of reconciling their ambivalence into an unequivocally pro-independence position.

In the days following Scotland’s vote to stay in the United Kingdom, supporters of the “Yes” campaign could be heard expressing their belief that many of those who voted No had wanted to side with them had allowed the Better Together campaign to scare their heads into over-ruling their hearts. In a sense, they’re correct, but that can hardly be a consolation once you understand that the job of both campaigns was to gain the votes of those with divided sympathies.

Those on the pro-union side who longed for Alistair Darling to put the positive case for staying with the UK couldn’t see that the anxiety he communicated about separation effectively amplified the fears of the undecided (or that the strongest parts of Gordon Brown’s speech were negative: “It’s not about the fear of the unknown. It’s the risks of the known”). Perhaps they couldn’t see it because they weren’t sufficiently in touch with the ambivalence of many who wanted independence. The best political strategies are formulated by people who have empathy for opposing views.

If some No voters yearned to support independence , the reverse also applies. On the day of the referendum, the Guardian’s Michael White talked to an old soldier in a kilt, outside the cathedral of St Giles on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. “As a patriotic Scot I’ll vote for Yes, hoping No will win,” he said. “So will lots of people.”

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.