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Thoughts on Brexit

June 19, 2016

The Remain vs Leave campaign will enter the history books as a low point in UK politics – hyperbole from both sides with a bonus helping of unvarnished racism from the Leave side, culminating in the horrific slaughter of an MP by a man with suspected links to white supremacy. These are dark times.

The tone of the “debate” has been pretty low and plenty of words have been written elsewhere about it but, in my opinion, three of the most alarming statements from the Leave camp are:

  1. Nigel Farage, in response to a journalist observing that he’d started smoking again: “I think the doctors have got it wrong on smoking
  2. Michael Gove, on being asked to identify economists who supported Brexit: “People in this country have had enough of experts
  3. Gisela Stuart, backing up Michael Gove: “There is only one expert that matters, and that’s you, the voter”

All three signify a rejection of the value of knowledge, rational enquiry, and expertise. Farage obviously dislikes the well-supported conclusion that there’s a causal link between smoking and lung cancer, and therefore feels comfortable substituting his own “expertise” on the subject for that of the experts – no surprise, given that he’s a climate change denier as well. Gove and Stuart (a Labour MP, alarmingly) are upset that economists weighing in on the merits of Brexit are mostly unsupportive of their position.

The terror of these statements lies in their implied suggestion that people should feel free to reject the opinions  of people who have taken the time to understand complicated issues, if these opinions conflict with their existing beliefs about the world, irrespective of how ill-founded those beliefs may be. When politicians casually demonstrate contempt for reasoned and evidenced opinions, as Farage and Gove are doing here, and encouraging people to elevate their own “expertise” over those of genuine experts as Stuart suggests, they legitimise cranks and conspiracy theorists everywhere to inject unsupported nonsense into important debates. This is particularly dangerous given the scope and scale of the challenges we face today, many of which will require careful thinking and international cooperation to solve. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion, but sadly there is no requirement that those opinions should have any basis in fact, nor that the reasoning employed in the forming of those opinions should be sound.

Why would politicians (usually, though not always, on the political right) seek to diminish the worth of genuine expertise? Probably because if they had to contend with a genuinely well-informed electorate who were capable of distinguishing between cogent arguments and bullshit, they’d find their policies a much harder sell. An electorate primed to be suspicious of expertise is much more malleable; cases don’t have to be made with any degree of sophistication, just packaged to push the right emotional buttons. It makes it easier to blame problems on scapegoats rather than to acknowledge and deal with their true causes (hardly surprising, when the causes usually lie in the policies being pushed).

This is not a new process; the programme of inoculating the electorate against complexity and nuance in debate has been pushed enthusiastically by certain segments of the press for decades. In America, the latest consequence of this process is Donald Trump, a shrewd ignoramus who has ridden an uninformed electorate all the way to being the presumptive Republican nominee, and whose campaigning consists almost entirely of claims that he knows more than everyone else. Over here, it seems that this strategy may result in a vote to leave the EU, in which voters will have been swayed not by reasonable arguments, but by inflammatory rhetoric about immigration.

What will happen if we leave is uncertain. It will depend, for example, on what exit terms can be negotiated – note that there’s no reason to suppose these would be favourable to us. The political momentum will be on the side of the Leavers, who will surely lose no time in implementing, probably under Boris Johnson, a Thatcherite programme of measures to gut regulations, remove protections for workers, dismantle the welfare state, and cut taxes on the rich, all sold to the the Great British Public as common-sense policies that will make Britain great again. Sadly, the Great British Public will go along with it, having been conditioned to have an instinctive distrust of experts, coupled with enthusiasm for simple slogans and superficially plausible arguments.

Thus will Britain be left worse-off, with no real solutions to the problems we face, but plenty of rhetoric and finger-pointing at convenient scapegoats (immigrants, the left, losing pro-EU politicians) when the right-wing medicine is found to be the same old snake-oil. We’ll be in a worse position for international trade; if we want to retain access to the Single Market we’ll have to pay and agree to abide by various rules over which we’d no longer have a say. The Leave campaign has been fond of suggesting that our EU membership fees (which, incidentally, they lie about) would be better off spent on the NHS, but this sudden concern for public services rings rather hollow for me – coming as it does largely from torch-bearers of the Thatcherite “privatise it all” wing of the Tory party. Culturally, Britain will be a less welcoming place and, in my opinion, a less pleasant place in which to live (emboldened by their “success”, I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Britain First and the assorted quasi-fascist organisations that have started popping up on the radar).

The Vote Leave campaign are keen on suggesting that we need to “take our country back”. If there’s any identifiable group from whom I want to reclaim my country, it’s cynical, ignorant idiots. Unfortunately, a vote to leave will put them in charge instead.

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