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Analysis
‘Spiral of silence’ may help Cameron

‘Spiral of silence’ may help Cameron

Europe’s true views on UK referendum remain hidden 

by Thomas Kielinger

Mon 11 May 2015

Not everyone made a mistake in forecasting the UK election result. I regret now I did not make a bet on my (correct) prediction.

There is a serious European point here over the discrediting of opinion pollsters last Thursday. The real truth of how Europe feels about British calls for reform will remain hidden for some time, under the law of the ‘spiral of silence’ in Brussels and other EU capitals. 

So David Cameron, the British prime minister, may stand a better chance of winning a referendum on Britain staying in the EU than popularly supposed.

We should pay little attention to the British media megaphoning the critical line on Cameron and Europe. I expect an early agreement to bring the referendum forward and get it out of the way before 2017 so it does not collide with elections in France and Germany.

In other words: the UK should and will get on with it. The task now is to clear the deck for the real challenge ahead: improving growth and jobs in Europe and the completion of the single market.

What was my election tip? On 5 May I emailed a German friend in Münster, Westphalia. ‘Actually, I think the Conservatives will win the election with an absolute majority and with around 332 seats. I mistrust opinion polls. People, when canvassed, often give a politically correct answer. In this case that the coalition had not succeeded, that Miliband was the coming man, etc. In reality they keep their innermost conviction to themselves.’ (The result on 8 May: the Conservatives won 331 seats.)

In Germany this discrepancy between what pollsters pick up and what those polled will not divulge is called ‘the spiral of silence’ (Schweigespirale). The late Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, founder of the Allensbach polling institute, discovered this studying German election results nearly 50 years ago.

People, she discerned, are governed by a fear of social isolation.  When asked their opinion they often go along with ‘received wisdom’, especially when the media keep magnifying how the election of the day will turn out. Privately, however, they are free from such ‘isolation fear’, of jeopardising their social standing. They can and do vote according to their true preferences.

The same phenomenon was at work in the British 1992 election and even more strikingly in the US in 1980. The polling institutions had predicted until the last day of the campaign a neck and neck race between President Jimmy Carter and his challenger, actor Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, so the voters claimed to pollsters, was a trigger-happy cowboy who would start the third world war; he would be untrustworthy as president. So we saw the ‘spiral of silence’. Leading left-of-centre media organisations like CBC and the New York Times had saturated their election coverage with this mantra about the former B-movie actor. A lot of people, when asked, didn’t want to deviate from the established opinion for fear of being called mad.

In fact, Reagan won by a landslide. The blue-collar vote (later called ‘the Reagan Democrats’) had been strongly in his favour. Prime Minister John Major, too, won in 1992 in the face of polling data saying it was impossible.

The ‘spiral of silence’ applies to Europe, too.

Published opinion says Brussels will absolutely resist any British desire for a change in basic European principles, for example over the freedom of movement.

But the European Court of Justice already ruled in November 2014 that EU members need to codify more precisely in law the definition of and barriers against ‘welfare tourism’. On many other fronts, too, the EU will strive to make sure Britain stays in the community.

It is too soon for guarantees. Cameron has not produced his proposals. But I will in future lend no credence to unnamed Brussels sources damning the insufferable Brits for their deviation from the beaten track of Europe. There is a lot to play for. Cameron can start now.

Thomas Kielinger, London correspondent since 1998 of German daily Die Welt, is author of  biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill.

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