Fooled

I don’t want to believe that Brexiters are stupider than Remainers, especially as anyone claiming they are is immediately marked out as an ‘élitist’ – that dreadful word – by Brexiters who will immediately reject his or her opinion for that reason alone. It’s not easy being a member of the intelligentsia in Britain just now. (Or, I would guess, in the USA.) Anti-intellectualism is an essential ingredient in the ‘populism’ that is a dominant factor in democratic politics today; exploited by people on the Right who are educated enough to know better – ‘we’ve had enough of experts’: Michael Gove – but who can see the cynical political advantage of appealing to it. Tell an ‘ordinary’ Brexiter that his or her opinions are foolish, and they’ll resent the implication that he or she is too. We can’t risk being seen to ‘look down’ on others from our giddy intellectual height. That’s no way to win an argument.

In any case, there’s no solid evidence that those who voted ‘Leave’ in 2016, and still stick with that opinion, are  more stupid than the Remainers. There have been surveys showing that Brexit voters tended to have a lower standard of education than pro-Europeans; but education doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘intelligence’, does it? (Seriously.) Nor are spelling and grammar mistakes – which seem to abound in pro-Brexit posts on social media – signs of stupidity on their own. Or even the Brexiteers’ clear misunderstandings of ‘sovereignty’ and the ‘blue passport’ issue (we could have had them even in the EU), or their failure to specify any other significant gains from our departure. It may be that the intelligent Brexiters simply don’t use Facebook. And it is further possible that there will be  benefits in the longer term, which only Brexiters are far-seeing enough to discern; less tangible ones, perhaps, but real nonetheless – like ‘global influence’ or ‘national pride’. One or two socialists voted to leave the EU because they saw it as an agent of world-wide neo-liberalism, which an independent Britain could reverse. That may have seemed a sound argument for a Leftist at the time – I gave it some thought – although it’s difficult to see the present political beneficiaries  of Brexit – free-marketist Conservatives almost to a man (and I mean men) – using our new sovereignty to free us from the grip of global capitalism. Rather the reverse. Again: racism – the reason many superior Remainers gave for the Brexit vote – may have been a factor for some; but there’s no evidence that this dominated. And of course many will have voted Remain for silly reasons too. Most analysts now agree that the motives behind the ‘No’ vote in 2016 were complex, and had more to do with a general ‘fed up-ness’ with life in Britain for other reasons, especially among the working and lower-middle classes, with ‘Europe’ simply being made the scapegoat; as I suggested at the very moment the fatal vote was taken: see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/, and https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/20/this-dreadful-referendum/. I’ve seen no reason since then to change those diagnoses (apart from the prognosis at the end of the second one!). Which makes the Brexiters clearly wrong, in my judgment; but not by that token necessarily stupid

My preferred way of looking at them – the ordinary voters for Brexit, that is, not their leaders – is that they were not stupid, but rather normally intelligent people who were grossly misled, by clever propagandists; ‘fooled’, in other words, rather than ‘foolish’. Should that make them feel any better? I don’t know. But why should we expect them not  to be fooled, with the whole European question an undeniably complex one, and few people – voters – having the grasp of it that the ‘intelligentsia’ were privy to. Perhaps they could have asked more questions; but that was genuinely difficult – impossible, I would say – when virtually the only information they had access to was from tainted sources. 

This of course is a common problem for democracy in Britain, and indeed anywhere else where newspapers (the ‘tainted sources’ I’m mainly thinking of) are unreliable, and the mass of people not much interested in ‘news’ in any case. And, I would add, where they’re not taught to question – ‘criticise’ in its constructive sense – in their schools. Voters brought up like this are bound to be easily swayed by well-financed (Arron Banks) and skilfully engineered (Cambridge Analytica) propaganda, playing on the people’s discontents, and to their ‘anti-establishment’ prejudices, but with its real motives and the selfish interests behind them – in the case of Brexit anti-socialism and freedom from anticipated EU limits on rich people’s tax-avoidance – cunningly disguised. Add a bit of political trickery to the mixture: a dodgy ‘referendum’, manipulating parliamentary procedures, monstering the Opposition, misleading the Queen, plus Boris’s happy smiling face as the cherry on top – optimism seems to be the only thing he has going for him – and abracadabra! the world, with all its beautiful island tax havens, is yours. 

I really don’t think the ‘people’ can be blamed for this; or credited with it, if your views go along with theirs. They weren’t stupid (or wise); just trapped within a discourse – as we intellectuals term it – that made it virtually impossible for them – 52% of them, at any rate; probably fewer now, but hey! the die has been cast – to consider the question of Britain’s relations with Europe on its merits. At bottom that discourse was created by the Press. It’s worth noting that not all countries have Presses as bad as Britain’s. Hers in fact is ranked 30th-odd in most scales of international ‘press freedom’: measuring ‘freedom’, that is, not simply in ‘market’ terms. Come to Sweden if you want to see the difference: Press reporting here is simply that, reporting, not opinion – that’s clearly marked as such, inside; and even the evening ‘tabloids’ have serious ‘Kultur’ sections. Papers like the Express and the Mail would be quite impossible here, let alone a joker like Johnson as a columnist; and consequently the kind of propaganda that British front-page headlines inflict on their readers – or those who just glance at them as they pass the newspaper racks in the supermarket – every day. I’ve not yet given enough thought to the underlying reasons for this, but it must have something to do with Sweden’s different social and political culture: more democratic, the Swedes claim; which also lies behind the more rational politicking  that goes on there. Experts are respected: possibly too much, in the light of the current ‘Swedish model’ of Coronovirus control. (We’ll have to see.) But this means that people’s prejudices  are not given so much play here as in Britain; together with Sweden’s having an educational system which – as I’ve mentioned before (https://bernardjporter.com/2018/03/01/kallkritik/) – encourages rational debate. Sweden might choose to leave the EU yet (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/22/brexit-swexit/); but if so it will be for less stupid reasons than Britain’s.

The same factors that lie behind Britain’s captive Press may also account for her people’s vulnerability to its message. After turning off the path of social democracy in the 1980s – while Sweden, incidentally, kept roughly to it – Britain became a more divided, devil-take-the-hindmost, uncaring society than she had been before, or at least than the post-War welfare settlement had been supposed to make her; with the rich (including newspaper proprietors) acquiring more muscle, to the detriment – eventually – of the poor. The result of this – and of other contemporary trends – was to ‘leave behind’ (as it was called in America) a large class of discontented men and women and their children, who felt the pain, conceived that their ruling class – even their ‘own’ political parties – were no longer fighting their corners for them, but didn’t fully understand why – education, again; and so eagerly fell upon the scapegoat that was put in front of them by the propagandists. The June 2016 vote was their way of getting back at the ‘Establishment’. And who could be surprised?

So we can’t blame them; or the principle of ‘democracy’, which some might be losing faith in after these events. For a start, the situation we’re in now vis-à-vis Europe is not what most people voted for – Corbyn’s compromise, remaining in the common market, was probably much closer to that – and indeed is not a settlement that the people are ever going to be allowed to vote on specifically. (‘You lost; get over it.’) That indicates the limitations of our ‘democracy’; which gives no real power to people who might have revised their opinion if it had been sought disentangled from their more general grievances, and in a discursive atmosphere that encouraged rational argument. They’re bright enough. It’s the political environment that’s at fault. 

Maybe the Government’s Brexit mess – together with its Coronavirus one – will encourage our ‘leaders’ to look more deeply and fundamentally at the way we are being represented, educated, informed and governed. Voting, constitutional, educational and press reforms would be a start. But don’t hold your breath. We’re on a downward path.  Facilis descensus Averno. (That’s the only bit of Virgil I remember from school. Mainly because ‘Averno’ is apparently grammatically wrong, but chosen by Virgil because he thought it sounded better. It was a delight to me to think that the Romans weren’t always as pedantic as Kennedy’s Latin Primer made them seem.) The Latin tag seems to fit here. But I’m a gloomy bugger just now, in post-Brexit Sweden, sheltering from the pandemic in our island fastness, but worrying all the time about what foolishness Britain’s government – emphatically not her people – still has in store for my country of origin.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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