What role did skepticism play in the Brexit campaign?

Britons might have had enough of experts. What happens when they truly have had enough of politicians?

The Houses of Parliament seen from the Royal Festival Hall, in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rob Stothard/Pool - RTX2HWGB

The Houses of Parliament seen from the Royal Festival Hall, in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rob Stothard/Pool – RTX2HWGB

On the final day of campaigning in Britain’s referendum on the European Union, Michael Gove, the justice secretary in David Cameron’s Conservative government, said economists predicting that Brexit would result in a recession were like the 100 German scientists Hitler paid to denounce Albert Einstein, who was Jewish.

The suggestion was one of a conspiracy of consensus. As Einstein famously said: “Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.”

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron accused Gove and the Leave campaign of having “lost it.” In fact, the opposite was true. This has always been the plan for Gove and the campaign: Take on the politicians in Whitehall, and undermine every expert once accepted as relevant to the political debate. No matter how the vote had gone Thursday, that skepticism may turn out to be one of the campaign’s most damaging legacies.

The first hints emerged in April, when Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave, was in a parliamentary committee room in London being grilled by MPs. The chair of the Treasury select committee questioned Cummings on their claims about the financial costs, or benefits, of Britain leaving the EU. It was a testy affair. Cummings responded that just because a number of financial and government institutions were saying Britain should stay in the EU, it did not make that argument any more valid—in fact, for him, it invalidated them.

“Conventional wisdoms that span all the elements of government and bureaucracies are very often wrong,” Cummings said. He later suggested Treasury officials were “charlatans” and snake-oil salesmen.

    Two months later, that contempt for credentials was on display when Gove, Cummings’s former boss, told Sky News that “people of this country have had enough of experts … from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Gisela Stuart, a pro-Brexit Labour MP echoed the sentiment when she said: “There is only one expert that matters, and that’s you, the voter.”

    Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is often credited with pushing the Brexit issue to the forefront of the political conversation in Britain. To some extent, that’s true—he was certainly first to take credit for the Leave win early Friday morning. The rise of UKIP’s popularity disrupted (part of) the Conservative Party’s traditional base, and in an attempt to retain those voters—the ones displeased with things like immigration, for instance—Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership (even though he personally led the Remain side).

    But if Farage was the man who put the referendum on the table, Cummings is the man to be credited (or blamed) for flavouring it. Cummings has long been staunchly anti-EU, working back in the 1990s on the campaign to keep the pound as Britain’s currency rather than the euro. He then “helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the North East its own devolved assembly” in 2004, Stephen Bush wrote last month in The New Statesman. “It was the tactics used in that referendum—an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side—which were taken on and extended by [Vote Leave’s Chief Executive Matthew] Elliott during the [alternative vote] contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.”

    This is arguably clever political strategy, beyond its blatant flattery. This approach immediately put the Remain camp on the defensive, forcing its proponents to justify not only the European Union (a feat unto itself), but virtually anyone else who was also justifying it in some way. Cameron couldn’t state analyst opinions without having to defend why they were even considered experts in the first place, or how expert they really were based on their previous record of analyses.

    Ultimately, this campaign of skepticism not only undermined the value of the Remain arguments, but also created an almost entirely irrational playing field—and in so doing, levelled it. If nobody’s opinion was worth anything more than anyone else’s, speculation from the Bank of England on the possible negative impacts of a Brexit was thus equally valid, in context, to the utterly bogus claim that the U.K. would save £350 million a week by leaving the EU.

    Referenda are about good politics, not good policy. But good political strategy does not exist in a vacuum; it has consequences for those who don’t see it for what it is. And that consequence, ultimately, in this case is nihilism—a rejection of the institutions in question, yes, but more fundamentally a rejection of the basis from which any discussion of public policy can reasonably take place. How can you talk about immigration without the facts on immigration? How do you talk about trade without trade analysts? How can you talk about the economy without economists?

    The Leave campaign made its rallying cry one of more democracy for citizens. But while a healthy dose of skepticism in government and institutions is fundamental for democracy’s survival, it is still an exercise in trust—not necessarily trust in those institutions, but trust that, in assessing their failings, there is a mutual regard for the facts. In the end, not every issue can be settled by referendum, so in the meantime citizens have to grant a certain amount of faith to those in power to make the decisions instead. The foundation of that has to be a shared reality.

    How do you govern when that’s gone? And if you are the one that made it disappear?

    On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Farage admitted that the £350-million figure the official Leave campaign said would be recovered each week for Britain after an EU exit, and the promise to spend it on the NHS, was a “mistake.” When the ITV host, astounded, pointed out that many people likely voted Leave because of that promise, Farage pointed out that he was not personally affiliated with that specific Leave campaign group. Later, Boris Johnson—who, incidentally was part of that specific Leave campaign group that made the £350 million promise—said that “there is no haste” to leave the EU.

    Gove might be right that Britons have had enough of experts. What happens when they truly have had enough of politicians?

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