The strongest parts of Gordon Brown’s pro-union speech were negative. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496