The BBC Today programme this morning reported an extraordinary shift in public opinion relating to immigration over the past three years. According to an apparently reputable recent survey, at the time of the Brexit vote only about a quarter of the population thought foreign immigration was on the whole good for Britain; now the figure is nearly two-thirds. (That’s what I heard on the radio; this report on the BBC’s website gives slightly different figures: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47428515.) There will be many reasons for this. It can’t be a decline in the number of immigrants, which hasn’t happened: the numbers from continental Europe have gone down (who in their right minds would want to come to Brexit Britain?), but that is compensated for by a rise in the number of extra-Europeans coming in. That may be puzzling to Brexiteers who voted that way in order to keep the darkies out. But, hey, that’s the British for you.
The BBC website suggests some other possible reasons. One is that the Brexit debate and its outcome may have focussed people’s attention for the first time on the facts of the matter, and the realities they can perceive around them; away, that is, from the distorted and selective propaganda foisted on them by the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail. If so, it’s one good thing to have come out of this whole sorry mess; albeit too late, probably, to have any positive effect.
Facts are important, whatever Michael Gove (‘we’ve had too much of experts’) and the other amateur postmodernists say. (It’s ‘experts’ who can establish the ‘facts’. That’s not to say that they always do.) Without facts, people usually form their opinions according to whom they trust. An example of this is the way the debate on alleged anti-semitism in the Labour Party now focuses entirely on what certain people think about it, without a single convincing piece of evidence being produced to attest to the phenomenon itself. In much the same way the current debate on Brexit is almost entirely about the motives of those who would like to reverse it, and the validity or otherwise of the 2016 vote in favour of it – ‘you lost, get over it’ – rather than about the strict merits (or demerits) of the case for Britain’s leaving the EU, as they have been more reliably revealed in the past three years. It’s almost as if the Brexiteers know they no longer have an objective case, and so are falling back on this kind of ad hominem argument, and in particular accusations of ‘treachery’, in order to win regardless. As they probably will.
Much of this arises from a lack of trust. People have become used to being lied to, by governments in particular. This has gotten even more common in recent years, with the elevation of obvious and amoral liars to high positions in government: Trump over the water, of course, and Boris Johnson here in the UK. It wasn’t always thus, incidentally, in periods – like the nineteenth century – when most British politicians prided themselves on their integrity. The public scepticism that this gives rise to is healthy in many ways, and of course is almost the prime quality required of a historian, or any kind of scholar; but only so long as it doesn’t morph into absolute cynicism, which not only mistrusts but also instinctively rejects anything that comes from an authority, or (these days) from an ‘elite’. True scepticism requires one to bear in mind the possibility that something might be true, as well as that it might not be; even, for example, something that is labelled a ‘conspiracy theory’. (People do conspire.) It also requires examining the facts, insofar as that may be possible, in order to determine whether a claim or statement is (or at least is likely to be) true.
The problem here, however, is that most people can’t or don’t bother to do that, but instead fall back on who said whatever it is, and what their feelings or prejudices are about them. If it’s in the Daily Mail, it must be right – or wrong. If it comes from a socialist, it’s probably biased; from a Right-winger, the same. If a Conservative government is saying it, it must be trusted – or not. If Trump claims it – ditto. If it’s on the BBC, like that survey of opinions towards immigrants, it must be reliable, or, alternatively, simply liberal establishment propaganda. It’s a convenient way of short-circuiting the need for proper thought and enquiry. And I suspect it’s what most people do.
Which is why – very incidentally – I’m having doubts now about the practice I adopted a few books ago of prefacing them with brief summaries of my own personal background and what might be loosely termed my ‘ideology’, in order to be honest with readers about where I was ‘coming from’ – or might be. I now think this may have been a mistake, if it leads people to attribute all my historical opinions and judgments to my background. I would vehemently dispute that my ideas are significantly determined by my class, my education, my gender, my nationality, even my politics, or anything else about me; apart from my passion for dispassionate enquiry. To either accept or to reject my writings because of who I am is simply lazy. The same is true on all sides of most of our more public debates.