The EU Referendum campaigns should learn from Aristotle


An email sent to all my friends and family.

There's no doubting Aristotle was a rare genius. Encyclopædia Britannica calls him the first genuine scientist. And it's amazing that here I am in the 21st Century emailing you (and in fact just about everyone I know with an email address) about the insights of a man born exactly 2400 years ago.

(That's equivalent to someone doing the same for you or me in the 44th Century CE, and I think we can agree on the likelihood of that!)

I read this article on Aristotelian rhetoric / persuasive powers in 2012, and I was so enamoured that I wrote a short blog post on it at the time. In summary, Aristotle concluded that the three most powerful tools of persuasion are:

  • Ethos – argument by character
  • Logos – argument by logic
  • Pathos – appealing to the emotions.

Practitioners of such persuasive techniques experiment with their combination. The article features rhetoric expert Jay Heinrichs who shares his secret recipe: "I have found that pathos and ethos come first. Add a dash of logos to work in your position, then bring it on home with a dose of pathos."

It appears then that I may be no great persuader. Having been born logical of mind, I always try logos, then some more logos, and if that doesn't work, repeat the logos even as my interlocutor runs for the door. Logically then, I realise that describing myself as 'logical of mind' is far from self-congratulatory.

The article opens and closes with a description of a persuasive campaign to reduce binge drinking in the UK ... the image is inebriated people sprawled on the pavement, legs akimbo. But I'm not emailing about binge drinking. I'm emailing about the appalling Remain and Leave campaigns for next week's referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.

My fascination with rhetoric contrasts with my disgust at its execution in recent months. It appears my beloved logos is reduced to think-of-a-number and think-of-just-one-thing. Actually 'reduced' is being too kind. Spoiled? Bastardised? Corrupted? And most importantly, as Aristotle surmised, it's to the detriment of the overall debate and therefore the quality of the outcome ... how we'll all feel and behave whatever the majority concludes on the 23rd.

In terms of think-of-a-number, the Remain campaigners would like you to know that "Britain would be permanently poorer if we left the EU to the tune of £4,300 for every household in the country. That's a fact everyone should think about." The corresponding speech is delivered in front of a poster reading: "£4,300 a year. Cost to UK families if Britain leaves the EU."

Is this right? "No", says the Guardian. "The Treasury has arrived at the number by taking the annual gross domestic product of the economy, about £1.7tn. It has then assumed that the some of the benefits of EU membership – stronger trade growth, higher inward investment and improved productivity – would be lost."

Economics is notoriously difficult to comprehend let alone communicate, yet in treating you and me as children, the Remain campaign transforms a detailed, diligent, and independent analysis – and not least one of very many to present a similar pessimistic outlook for the Brexit scenario – into a joke soundbite.

Fortunately for them, the Leave campaign is also vying for position as Liar-In-Chief of the Ministry of Propaganda.

Imagine you hand over a fiver when buying a pint of milk ... the Leave campaign will then tell you milk costs five pounds a pint. That's the same 'logic' it applies in its relentless reference to Brussels costing us £350m a week, when independent analysis shows this to be a gross exaggeration to the point where there's no other way of describing the claim than as a bald lie.

As for think-of-just-one-thing, Leave campaigners prefer to avoid all of the complex, inter-related factors, and focus the majority of attention on migration. More precisely, "uncontrolled" migration from other EU countries, a deliberate word choice to get that pathos fired up. In the process, they also blank the independent economic analysis that concludes these migrants – from both Eastern and Western countries – are net contributors to our economy, and make almost no mention of British ex-pats.

There are 8.3 million foreign-born people in the UK and 5 million UK-born people living abroad (2014 figures). The difference is approximately three Birminghams. The current housing crisis and real stresses on education and healthcare services are blamed on EU migration because governments of all colours have for years used Brussels as a scapegoat for their policy failings, including under-investment in housing, schools and hospitals. All politicians should have known that membership of a broader union would involve turbulent ebbs and flows, a characteristic of all complex adaptive systems. How on Earth did they expect equilibria in the early decades? Why on Earth do they appear to have been so ill-prepared?

Remainers are guilty of much the same think-of-just-one-thing, avoiding broad and deep multi-issue dialogue, defaulting instead to spreading economic fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Agh! This isn't what Aristotle had in mind!

Persuasion should corral the undecided. Persuasion should bring people over to your camp from the other. Yet I personally don't know any one person that evidences either of these outcomes. One chap I chat with most days on the way into town describes himself as "increasingly undecided"! For persuasion to best succeed it needs pathos, ethos AND logos.

We have in fact learned of one defection of late, an MP so repelled by the lies of her Leave colleagues that she's joined forces with the Remain liars instead. You couldn't make this sort of stuff up.

But how then should I finish my email here? Heinrichs offers me advice ...

Among the three most potent weapons – pathos, ethos, and logosethos, or argument by character, is the most effective. “And by the way, clichés – we call them ‘commonplaces’ – are among the most useful devices in rhetoric if you use them right.”

This observation may as well be The Sun's motto as they pronounce: "We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels." Cliché through-and-through. How having no say on the future of the EU when we must still comply with the market's rules improves our freedom I don't quite know! Isn't having 'no say' the very definition of being dictated to? And how about freedom to influence our continent, freedom to continue to move around the EU, freedom to exert global influence through the EU?

But heh, why spoil a cliché?

Perhaps though, given my confessed shortcomings when it comes to this rhetoric art, I should leave the final sentiment to a 'national treasure'.

Despite every map providing documentary evidence to the contrary, cricketer Ian Botham concludes: “Personally, I think that England is an island." (He might just be forgiven for not knowing the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom, but he actually played for England so you'd think he might know about Scotland and Wales and the absence of interposing seas. On the other hand, maybe he's already thinking about metaphoric drawbridges.)

"... And I think that England should be England. And I think that we should keep that.”

I wonder which historic version of England that might be exactly. Perhaps an imaginary, bucolic one, with the regular sound of leather on willow before tea and scones. I wonder whether, on his global sporting travels, Botham ever contemplated one humanity on one planet and the corresponding imperative to get along better together. To communicate. To seek understanding. To co-operate. To share. To adapt. For all our sakes.

Drawbridges are a medieval resort suited to medieval sociology. This century we can and indeed must attend to the interconnectedness and interdependencies of our societies, our markets, our species and our environment if we're to co-pilot this one and only planet of ours.

And I wonder then of course whether you'll vote with me to keep the UK engaged in the world, engaged with our biggest marketplace, engaged in a peace project past and future, engaged in a vibrant, imperfect, and ever exasperating collaboration of different cultures with shared aspirations for a mutually prosperous, democratic, peaceful and sustainable future.

However you decide to vote, I hope we're all agreed that we need to improve our democracy's facility to grapple with complex and complicated issues, particularly as that describes just about everything we all really care about.


Thanks for taking the time to read this email. Do please forward to anyone you think might like it.

Kind regards, Philip.