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Britain’s Truthiness Moment
When did the land of Eton, Oxford, and classics-quoting politicians start hating expertise so much?
To understand what’s happening in Britain on the eve of its referendum over membership in the European Union, the best place to start might be a two-minute comedy sketch.
The sketch, which first aired in 2008 on the BBC, features comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb as two newsreaders who happen to be live on air when they receive some shocking news: “It appears,” announces Mitchell, “that an invasion of the Earth, by an unknown but vastly powerful extraterrestrial aggressor, is underway.”
It’s a historic moment, and Webb’s character swings into action: “So,” he says, “a massive and unstoppable alien attack threatens the Earth. What’s your reaction? Are you affected by the end of civilization as we know it? What’s your perspective? Maybe you live on Earth, or know someone who does. How do you feel about it? Email us with your thoughts on your imminent molecular evaporation at bbc dot co dot uk slash emergency apocalypse address, all one word …”
The gag works because it captures not just the media’s desperate craving for “engagement” of any kind, but also how, in the world we live in, the opinions of the masses have been elevated over the analysis of the elites. This isn’t an age when we want to hear from presidents or prime ministers, but from Lucinda Richards from London, who wants to know: “Will these so-called aliens be required to pay the congestion charge? Somehow I think not.” As Mitchell’s presenter implores his viewers in another sketch in the series, “You may not know anything about the issue, but I bet you reckon something.”
On June 23, Britain will decide whether or not to leave the EU — and it is shaping up to be a day of reckoning, in every sense of the word.
Take the economy. Convinced euroskeptics may be animated by emotional questions of liberty, sovereignty, and self-determination. But surveys consistently show that, for the bulk of voters, the most important issue is the economic impact of Brexit.
This ought to be a boon for the Remain camp. Brexit may or may not bring long-term economic benefits. But the idea that it would have immediate economic costs is as close to settled fact as you can get in politics. The massed ranks of the IMF, the OECD, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, and the economics profession have lined up to warn of the adverse consequences of Brexit for British households and the world economy. The U.K.-based Institute for Fiscal Studies — whose verdicts are generally treated in British politics as gospel truth — has said that it could add two years to the government’s austerity program and has warned that the fiscal bonanza promised by the Leavers camp will almost certainly be outweighed (and then some) by heavier borrowing costs.
Downing Street and the Remain camp have pushed this message with the subtlety of an artillery bombardment. Yet the polls show no movement in their direction – if anything, they show the opposite.
The same surveys that proclaim the economic impact of Brexit to be the most important issue for voters also show that only 5 percent of them believe their standard of living would be diminished significantly by it. They’ve heard from the experts. But they reckon they’re wrong.
What lies behind this? Partly, it’s a “plague on both your houses” phenomenon. I’ve written before about the remarkable and aggravating extent to which both sides in this referendum are willing to flat-out lie to the public: The Remain camp claims Brexit could trigger war, while the Leavers plaster their battle buses with a figure for British payments to the EU (£350 million a week) that is knowingly fictitious.
But there’s reason to think there’s something more at work here. In a recent debate on the EU, Faisal Islam of Sky News challenged Michael Gove, co-chair of the Leave campaign, to name a single independent economic authority who thought Brexit was a good idea.
Instead of answering the question, Gove — an astonishingly cultured and erudite man who can range in a single speech from Pericles to Gladstone to “the unfulfilled yearning of the Tristan chord” in Wagner — made a virtue of ignorance. “I’m glad these organizations aren’t on my side,” he said. “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” All these know-it-alls did, he insisted, was say “that they know what is best.” Gove, by contrast, placed his “faith in the British people.”
You can see the same mentality on social media, where Gove’s acolytes positively rejoice in the invincibility of their ignorance. When I tweeted recently about the polling figures that showed people didn’t believe the dire warnings on Brexit’s economic consequences, for example, I was told that “the public know that the ‘warnings’ come from vested interests with little credibility at predicting the future.” Other responses mocked the “sneering elites” and “over-educated elitists.” The prevailing sense is that the experts are either the dupes of Brussels — or its corrupt and salaried pawns.
It was this very tendency that, by David Cameron’s account, prompted him to call an impromptu news conference in early June to accuse the Leave side of “telling complete untruths to the British people.” But then, to misquote Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
What has taken hold of the British electorate, much to Cameron’s alarm, is a strain of the post-truth, anti-elitist tendency that has long animated public life in America. As professor Steve Barnett of the University of Westminster argued some years ago, here and elsewhere, the hierarchy of social deference has inverted: Instead of trusting leaders, elders, and experts over celebrities, friends, and random acquaintances, we now view those who set themselves above us with increasing contempt.
Barnett put forth his thesis in 2002, but the trend shows no signs of slowing: Hence the popularity and continued proliferation of deliberately unpolished politicians — Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Beppe Grillo, and Jeremy Corbyn among them — who seem to speak as tribunes for the scorned and neglected masses. Never mind that Gove and Boris Johnson, who also claim this populist mantle, are, respectively, the Oxford-educated justice secretary and lord chancellor, and the Eton- and Oxford-educated former mayor of London. They’re still crusading against “the establishment” — and, seemingly, winning.
Whatever happens in the referendum, then, this campaign has fascinating — and alarming — lessons for Britain’s future. This is still thought of as the country of the stiff upper lip, of respect for tradition and order and hierarchy. We have a queen, a House of Lords, a political and professional class dominated by the products of the elite private schools. But that country is also one seething with anti-establishment feeling, just like the rest of the West — in which solid common sense is seen as more than a match for any fancy economics degree.
Whether it’s Cameron who stays in Downing Street or Johnson who replaces him, how can they govern a country in which large sections don’t believe a word they say? In which the prime minister’s reputation and authority — meant to be the key assets on the Remain side — can crumble to the point where only 18 percent of voters say they trust him? Could Johnson, for example, sustain his popularity once he became the face of the government’s every decision, and the focus of the inevitable discontent?
In 1975, the British people voted by a huge margin to stay in the European Community, which they had joined only recently. Asked to explain the win, Roy Jenkins — one of the campaign’s leaders — said complacently that “the people took the advice of people they were used to following.” The question haunting British politics is: What happens now that they’ve stopped?
Photo credit: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/Getty Images