A big question about Hong Kong – and even bigger ones about migration and China

We have been here before – at least, in a manner of speaking.  In 1989, the then Conservative Government granted British citizenship to some 250,000 people from Hong Kong.  There was a paradox to the decision: Ministers’ intention was not that they should enter Britain under the scheme.  Rather, this was that it would encourage them to stay in Hong Kong, by giving them certainty about their future, thus halting a mass exodus.

The gambit was sparked by doubts about whether China would honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, under which the two countries agreed terms for the transfer of Hong Kong, and which was due to come into effect in 1997.  It worked.  Tensions simmered down, and there was no mass take-up of UK passports.

But there has always been a giant questionmark against China’s honouring of the “one country, two systems” provisions within the declaration.  It is highly visible now.  Two years ago, the country’s Foreign Ministry described the declaration as an “historical document, [which] no longer has any practical significance, and does not have any binding effect on the Chinese central government’s management of the Hong Kong”.

It is unlikely that China will presently send troops into Hong Kong, and formally tear up the commitments enshrined in the join declaration.  But the possibility exists, now or in the future: it is currently showing videos of troops massing on Hong Kong’s borders.  This is part of its response to pro-democracy protests, which were concentrated originally on opposition to an extradition bill, under which suspects could be sent to China for trial.  But the aims of demonstrators spread wider: they demand the free election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and legislature.

In essence, the settlement left by the joint declaration is unstable. For example, Hong Kong has a legislature of which only half the seats are directly elected.  And although China has powerful incentives not to tear up the “one country, two systems provisions” – which would do its Belt and Road initiative abroad no good – the people of Hong Kong cannot be sure what the future will hold.

Hence the proposal by Tom Tugendhat and others to grant British citizenship to the 169,000 or so British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong.  Some want a bigger offer: the Adam Smith Institute also proposes to “open up the application process to the 4.5 million Hong Kong nationals”.  Some, a smaller one: the Sun wants Britain to admit “the best and brightest in the small territory”.  It might be that such a scheme would have the same effect as that of 1989: in other words, to encourage people to stay in Hong Kong rather than leave for the United Kingdom.

Then again, it might not – either now or, far more likely, in future.  And the context in Britain has changed since 1989.  Some, very largely but not exclusively on the left, support all migration, pretty much.  Others would welcome a big influx of hard-working, family-orientated, Hong Kongers: this has an appeal for parts of the right.  But even though public concern about immigration seems to have eased off recently, there is reason for caution.

As the Migration Observatory puts it in one of its headline findings: “British views are not favourable towards immigration and a substantial majority would like immigration to be reduced”.  Furthermore, Government policy is in flux.

Boris Johnson wants to scrap Theresa May’s unmet pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, and promises Dominic Cummings’s fabled Australian-style points system instead.  But it is far from clear what numbers this plan would produce – and numbers, though not everything in immigration debate, are much.  And the system faces a daunting challenge in any event.

The Government now says that in the event of a No Deal Brexit – arguably now the most likely outcome – free movement will end immediately, which would certainly be popular with many voters.  However, it isn’t apparent what system will be used to distinguish between EU nationals who have applied for the new settlement scheme and those who haven’t, to name only the most obvious of the problems bound up with immediate change.

In 1989, Norman Tebbit led a backbench revolt against the passport plan for Hong Kongers. It was less successful than advance publicity suggested.  But there is no guarantee that the outcome would be similar this time round, were the more ambitious of the Hong Kong schemes to be tried.

Ultimately, the problem of how to respond to China over Hong Kong is a sub-set of the problem of how to respond to it more broadly – which points to the wider debate over Huawei, China, our infrastructure and national security.  We could and should, as in 1989, offer some passports to Hong Kongers.  But, as then, the should and must be strictly limited.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty, registered at the United Nations.  Which means that third parties have an interest in upholding it, however distant.  In the case of Donald Trump, this might not be remote at all, given his stance on China.

Boris Johnson is due to see Trump soon – and frequently, given the mutual interest in a trade deal.  The former ought to put Hong Kong on the agenda.  Admittedly, the President is no fan of more migration to America.  But it just might be that there is an Anglosphere offer to be made to Hong Kongers on a bigger scale than Britain could make alone.

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So we’ve had NHS, policing and immigration plans from Johnson. Stand ready for a schools spending pledge.

So Boris Johnson has pledged 10,000 new police officers, as well as a raft of tougher-sounding anti-crime policies, an Australian-style points-based immigration system (not to mention the relaxion of migration rules for scientists), and £1.8 billion for the NHS.  It isn’t hard to see where he will go next, and soon.

The remaining element of Dominic Cummings’s favourite set of policies – tax cuts for lower-paid workers – may have to wait for a publicity push, because these would need legislation, and the Government has no working majority.  Though the Prime Minister could try them on the Commons anyway, daring Labour to vote them down, as part of an Emergency Budget in October (if there is one).

What is likely to come sooner is a Government commitment to spend at least £5,000 on every secondary school pupil.  ConservativeHome understands that this announcement is written into this summer’s campaigning grid.  But we need no special briefing to work this out for ourselves in any event – and nor does anyone else.  For why peer into the crystal of Downing Street announcements when one can read the book: i.e: Johnson’s Daily Telegraph columns?

For it was in one of these, back during the Conservative leadership election, that he pledged “significantly to improve the level of per pupil funding so that thousands of schools get much more per pupil – and to protect that funding in real terms”.  The £5000 figure was briefed out separarely.  This promise was one of the two main big ticket spending items of his campaign, the other being that undertaking to raise police spending.

“It is simply not sustainable that funding per pupil should be £6800 in parts of London and £4200 in some other parts of the country,” the former Mayor of the capital wrote.  Just as the NHS spending announcement was framed by a visit to hospitals in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, expect any school spending news to be projected by a trip to schools in Leave-voting provincial England: all part of the push to squeeze the Brexit Party.

If that column is any guide, don’t be surprised to see a maths, science and IT element too – which would also be very Cummings – as well as a stress on “giving real parity of esteem to vocational training and apprenticeships”.  There is evidence that these are popular all-round, but especially among older voters.  Gavin Williamson is bound to have a supporting role, just as Priti Patel has had with the weekend’s law and order initiatives, but Johnson will lead.

Like his other spending promises, Johnson’s school pledge may not be deliverable in the event of a No Deal Brexit, and there are inevitably questions anyway about timescale anyway.  But if you want to know what more will be in his campaigning package, look no further.

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“To literally feel terror”

Boris Johnson wants, specifically, to frighten Labour off a no confidence vote and, more broadly, to intimidate the anti-No Deal Brexit Commons coalition MPs return in September.  That means demonstrating that voters are backing him.  That requires improving opinion poll ratings.  And that, in turn, means an August blizzard – yes, such a thing is possible – of policy announcements to prove that his new government “is on your side”.

So to Dominic Cummings’s trinity of an Australian-style points-based immigration system, more NHS spending and tax cuts for lower paid workers we must now add action on law and order.  The new Prime Minister promised 20,000 more police during his Conservative leadership election campaign.  To that we must now add 10,000 new prison places and greater use of stop and search powers, both of which are announced today.

Or rather we would do, if Johnson had a durable majority, and were the future more clear.  The money to fund those new prison places may not be available in the event of No Deal: it could be needed for other measures.  And sweeping changes to sentencing would require legislation, which the Government is in no position to present to Parliament.

None the less, the Downing Street bully pulpit has its uses, and if the Prime Minister wants wider stop and search powers to be available, he is in a position to get his way – for as long as he’s in place, anyway.  Today’s push should help.  As Matt Singh writes, there has already been “a substantial Boris bounce”.  It has largely come off the back of Brexit Party supporters, and this latest initiative is aimed at them (as well as Labour working class voters).

So too was the appointment of Priti Patel as Home Secretary.  ConservativeHome is told that there was a collective intake of breath in Downing Street when she said recently that she wants criminals “to literally feel terror”.  Number Ten need not have worried about how that view would go down.  There is “overwhelming support” for it among the public, according to YouGov.

If Johnson somehow survives the autumn without a general election, or wins one with a majority, a further question will arises about all these spending plans – namely, whether or not they’re consistent with the traditional centre-right commitment to fiscal stability.  The Prime Minister could be forgiven for thinking, given the probability of an autumn poll and the uncertainty of any result, that this would be a nice problem to have.

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Is Johnson aiming for a snap election?

Version one is that, as soon as Parliament returns in September, Boris Johnson will seek, and obtain, a general election.  He will thereby seize the initiative, commit again to leaving the EU by October 31, squeeze the Brexit Party’s vote, and exploit an opposition vote divided elsewhere, in England and Wales, between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.  Although the Conservatives will lose seats in London and Scotland these will perhaps be offset by gains in the Midlands and North.  The sum of this case is that the new Prime Minister must move early before Parliament proves him powerless, now that he has next to no working majority.

Version two is that Johnson hasn’t the credibility, under such a scenario, to squeeze the Brexit Party as much as he needs to.  Instead, he must prove his commitment to that October 31 date.  And he can only do that by going for it, deal or no deal.  Which he must do until or unless the Commons votes that it has no confidence in his Government, or the Philip Hammond/Oliver Letwin/Dominic Grieve/Yvette Cooper continuum, aided and abetted by the Speaker, finds a means of preventing Brexit by the end of October.  At which point, the Prime Minister seeks and obtains an election, as above, and tries to utilise the differences between his opponents.

Which version you believe may depend on, inter alia: how quickly CCHQ can get election-ready; whether you think voters would treat any poll as a referendum on Brexit (as in 2016) or a vote on wider domestic policy (as in the snap election of 2017); what the EU does next; what any Johnson manifesto might say – would it unambiguously commit to scrapping the Withdrawal Agreement? – and, above all, whether it would be too late for an election to stop Britain leaving the EU by October 31 in any event.  A poll by which date Brexit had already happened would obviously be different from one by which it had not – especially if squeezing Nigel Farage’s party is the name of the game.

The political story of this August, unexpected foreign affairs or other crises aside, will be about these alternatives – an election that Johnson either forces himself or is forced on him.  There will be a mass of conjecture and a shortage of facts.  This will be intensified by claims about what Dominic Cummings does and doesn’t think, and he is a man who likes to throw his opponents off balance.  So for what it’s worth, our advice is to stay cool, hang loose, enjoy the summer – and rule almost nothing out.  If you do the last, you may well be imitating Johnson and Cummings themselves, hunkered down as they will be with policy wonks and constitutional lawyers.

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Brexit behaviourally: which do you think is the bigger figure – £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?

tessa buchananThe Leave campaign’s ‘£350m a week’ figure cut through to voters in the 2016 referendum, while the Treasury’s ‘£4,300 per household per year’ didn’t. Was the relationship between the two figures intuitively self-evident? One is six times bigger than the other. Tessa Buchanan (University College London) looks at some of the behavioural lessons that can be learned from the campaign.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who picked up the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, describes himself rather charmingly as “mediocre in math”. It’s fair to say that this is in comparison to university classmates who went on to become world-class mathematicians. However, this all-too-human admission underlines a wider psychological point.

As Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, while many people do simple calculations (e.g. 2 + 2) in their head using their automatic ‘System 1’ processes, they shy away from complicated sums (e.g. 17 x 24) that require them to engage the more effortful ‘System 2’ style of thinking. And if people are indeed reluctant to do the maths, then this has important implications for communicators, including those who worked on the 2016 EU referendum.

For example, if you were asked: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” what would your immediate answer be?

Sources: Vote Leave campaign 2016/ Stronger In, citing HM Treasury, 2016

This question was posed as part of a wider piece of research I carried out in September 2017, findings from which were published this June in Mind & Society. Given that pollsters, journalists and academics alike were surprised by the results of the referendum, I wanted to explore what behavioural lessons could be learned from the campaign – not on the basis that behavioural science could fully explain the result, but rather on the assumption that in a close contest, even marginal gains could make a difference.

Over 450 Leave voters took part in a survey designed to test the extent to which individual elements of the MINDSPACE framework (2010) had been at play. This mnemonic was developed by academics including LSE professor Paul Dolan and founder members of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, then working at the Institute for Government, to raise awareness among civil servants of “nine of the most robust (non-coercive) influences on our behaviour”.

“I”, in this instance, represents “Incentives”. As described by Dolan et al.:

“Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.”

Loss aversion was an early discovery by Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky. They established that people care twice as much about potential losses as gains. In politics, this can be linked to nostalgia (consider the sense of loss in the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’). Certainly, it was deployed by both sides in the referendum campaign. Dominic Cummings (portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’) was the campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign, and is now a senior advisor to the Prime Minister. In a 2017 blogpost, he said that he amended his initial slogan of ‘Take Control’ to ‘Take Back Control’ as: “‘back’ plays into a strong evolved instinct – we hate losing things, especially control”.

In my study, I asked participants: “In your opinion, which of these slogans worked best?” My expectation was that twice as many would prefer the longer version. In fact, four times as many opted for “Take Back Control” over “Take Control” (67% vs. 16%).

One factor may be that, according to a 2016 British Election Study report, control was a particular issue for Leave voters. Those with an ‘external locus of control’ (who felt they had little control over what happened in their lives) were “much more likely” to vote Leave than those with an ‘internal locus of control’, it said.

Loss-framing was also used to present two of the most important economic arguments used in the campaign: the £350m which the Leave campaign said was being sent to the EU every week, and the £4,300 per household per year which HM Treasury said UK households stood to lose if voters opted for Leave (albeit after 15 years in one of three potential scenarios).

The figure of £350m a week was announced relatively early in the campaign and has since become indelibly associated with the UK’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Research published by Bobby Duffy in autumn 2018 suggested that 42% of the UK public still believe it to be true, despite criticism from the UK Statistics Authority that it was a “clear misuse of official statistics”. And views are split. One in five Remain supporters believe the figure, compared with two-thirds of Leave supporters.

The Treasury figure was linked to George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, describes in his 2016 book ‘Breaking Point’ how he was summoned to HM Treasury for the announcement of their figure. “Fingers in ears, the government fired off its great gun and waited for reaction,” he wrote. “Then they waited some more. And then a bit longer still.” This was in contrast to the Leave campaign’s £350m a week, which Gibbon said “got through to people”.

Why did the Treasury’s figure fall flat? Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, in Brexit and British Politics (2017) argued that it had “spurious specificity”, being too precise for what was essentially a forecast. But was the relationship between the figures intuitively self-evident? Putting to one side questions about credibility and any time preference effects, I asked participants to compare the two figures at face value in the present time. Given that there were 27m UK households in 2016 (ONS), the question can be expressed mathematically as follows:

Is £350m × 52 weeks > £4,300 × 27m households?

The left-hand side of the equation amounts to £18.2bn a year, while the right-hand side amounts to £116.1bn a year – a figure six times larger.

When I asked participants in this study if they remembered these figures, £350m a week was recalled by ten times more people (72% vs. 7%). This was unsurprising as it was used prominently and spent longer in the public eye. I then asked participants: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” Only a third (35%) gave the correct answer, as against 39% who thought the Leave figure was greater and 26% who didn’t know.

Finally, I gave the participants the information needed to perform the calculation (the number of UK households) and asked them to choose which of four graphs showed the figures in the correct proportions. The correct graph was the least popular choice, picked by only 15%. The majority (39% + 18% = 57%) chose options showing
£350m a week as the larger figure.

Fig. 1 £350m a week vs. £4,300 per household per year

“If there are 27m households in the UK, which option do you think shows £350m a week (in red) versus £4,300 per household per year (in blue) in the correct proportions?”

It is well known in psychology that many humans find the relationship between smaller numbers easier to grasp intuitively than that between larger figures. For this reason, it is commonly held as best practice in government communications to do as the Treasury did, and reduce big numbers to more human-sized amounts.

In this instance, the folk wisdom failed, and this was not the only surprising finding that emerged from my research. Looking at the other elements of MINDSPACE, as a messenger, an anonymous “local businessman” was seen as more trustworthy on every issue tested than a cabinet secretary; the study threw up clues as to why the status quo bias, seen as the default by many, didn’t prevail; and by deploying affect and other behavioural insights in a narrative, I found that Leave voters’ views on immigration were not necessarily fixed.

However, the main message for communicators is that even experts can benefit from seeking out evidence on which to base their decisions. It’s good advice, as the Behavioural Insights Team suggests, to ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’; and to make it easy for people to understand your message. And it’s clearly rash to assume that voters will do the maths for themselves. After all, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler say in ‘Nudge’ (2008), when it comes to politics: “voters… seem to rely primarily on their Automatic System.”

References

Daniel Kahneman’s self-penned biography is published on the Nobel Prize website.

MINDSPACE (2010) was produced by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government and co-authored by Paul Dolan, Michael Hallsworth, David Halpern, Dominic King and Ivo Vlaev.

Thanks to Dr Shabnam Mousavi, Dr Severine Toussaert, Dr Lee de-Wit, Dr Alan Renwick and Dr Matteo Galizzi for their advice and support.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on an article published in the June 2019 edition of Mind & Society (Tessa Buchanan, 2019. “Brexit behaviourally: lessons learned from the 2016 referendum,” Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer; Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 18(1), pages 13-31, June.)

Tessa Buchanan (@UCLTessa) is a doctoral student at University College London. She studied for a master’s degree in Behavioural Science at LSE.

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