The blogosphere was up in arms yesterday, as it emerged that Boris Johnson penned an article in favour of the UK staying in the EU, but which was never published. But on this occasion, Boris was doing nothing wrong, unless, that is, he had a plan within a plan.
Bias. We are all subject to it. But here is the thing, if we are disagreeing with someone, we are quite likely to assume they are biased, without pausing to consider if the same might apply to us.
In fact, psychologists have considered this very issue. A paper by Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein examined ways to de-bias someone. They conducted an experiment, in which subjects played the role of either a plaintiff or defendant in a pretend trial involving a motor bike accident. The defendant was given a sum of money, and the plaintiff had to ask for damages to be paid from this money. In the event they were unable to agree, a third party, a judge, decided and the sum of money available was reduced. The experiment was re-run with different subjects.
Alas, the two sides rarely agreed, each was convinced that the judge would decide in favour of their negotiating position. So Babcock and Loewenstein got subjects to read a paper about self-serving bias, and even tested them on it to ensure they understood. The result: after reading the paper, subjects were even less likely to agree as they became convinced the other party was biased.
It turned out the only solution was to get each party to argue the other person’s case. Only then was it more likely that the two parties would agree on a settlement without calling on the services of a judge, who reduced the overall amount of money available.
So when Boris sat down and penned two articles, one pro-EU the other pro-Brexit, he was doing precisely what you are supposed to do if you are trying to rise above bias.
It is just that the article Boris did write, the one that was never published, the one that made the case for the EU, was actually very weak.
You have to read all the way down to paragraph 12, out of a 19 paragraph article, before you get to the core of the article and why this alter ego version of Boris wanted to remain.
And this core argument which followed 11 paragraphs of EU cynicism, was immediately preceded by a sentence citing the views of a cynic saying: “I want out, I want to take back control of our democracy and our country.”
And then we get to the key argument for remain. Boris stated: “If you feel like that, I perfectly understand, because half the time I feel like that myself. And then the other half of the time, I have been thinking’ hmm, I like the sound of freedom, I like the sound of restoring democracy. But what are the downsides?”
He then attempted to outline what those downsides were, but frankly, it was a half-hearted effort at best.
I would actually go as far as to say that it was one of the worst articles Boris has ever written.
So, while some interpret the article as evidence that Boris was a political opportunist, I think it makes the case for saying that deep down, in his heart, Boris really was a Brexiteer.
Unless, that is, you want to be truly conspiratorial about this. Boris Jonson is clever, and a brilliant writer. The piece he wrote for the Telegraph but which was never published arguing for Brexit was so weak, that I would go so far to say it was quite un-Boris like. A more credible case could be made for saying Boris allowed the article to be leaked to try and disprove the theory his Brexit stance was political opportunism. Either that or he had totally failed to grasp the counter arguments.