The “B” Word

‘Is it too much to suggest that political wisdom may be quite evenly distributed through the population — even among the poor?’

Open Season
A Vote Leave sign last June: Political knowledge is not confined to any one part of the population (Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sometimes, in journalism and in public opinion, an issue can become solidified with surprising speed into a “story”, a line, a doctrine. This has happened with the Brexit vote: the story is that it was a victory for “populism’” which had latched on to a deep-seated resentment against “globalisation”.

Much depends here on argument by association. Google “Brexit and Trump”, “Brexit, Trump”, “Trump, Brexit” and “Trump and Brexit” (using double inverted commas, to catch those actual phrases), and the total comes — with some duplication, no doubt — to more than 3,300,000 results. Start clicking on them, and you quickly encounter some further names. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has put it: “There are a thousand ways to explain the Brexit vote, or the election of President Trump, or the strength in the polls in Holland of Geert Wilders or in France of Madame Le Pen and many other leaders in a nationalist, populist, or even fascist tradition of politics . . . almost certainly the impact of globalisation economically . . . [has] some role.”

Note the oddity of adding the “B” word to this all-too-predictable list. Trump, Wilders and Le Pen are individuals, who attract followers by having particular opinions and expressing them. Brexit is one policy, voted for on a simple yes-or-no basis. The range of possible reasons for voting for it is too wide to be represented by any single politician.

Yes, in some ways Nigel Farage does fit this list of usual suspects; he makes speeches against the old “elite”, and declares his admiration for Trump. But even if every UKIP supporter shared all his views, that would hardly explain the Brexit vote. In the 2015 general election fewer than four million people voted UKIP. In the 2016 referendum more than 17 million voted Leave — after a campaign in which the main pro-Leave organisation was headed not by Mr Farage but by two liberal Conservatives and an internationalist Labour MP.

That the campaign was led by such people, who have no essential grievance against globalisation, will surprise only those who have swallowed the “story” whole. The EU is not the globe. There are at least 190 countries in the world; only 28 of them took the unusual step of forming a supranational government, and it was that state of affairs that the Brexit vote addressed. It is true that globalisation involves migration flows, and EU membership increased immigration into this country; but the point at issue was the lack of any control over the numbers coming from 27 other countries — a peculiarly EU phenomenon, not a global one. Nor is the EU as a whole a symptom of “globalisation”: it operates behind a tariff wall, which is often a device for protectionism.

Last year, between the Brexit vote and the Trump election, I was interviewed by an old friend, the journalist Ian Buruma, a firm Remain supporter who now lives in the US. In the long article which he then published in the New York Times, I became the fall-guy. He began by quoting me as saying that my heart sank at the “Brexit-Trump” linkage; that I myself had voted Leave for reasons of democratic self-government; and that I thought that was the major reason why others had voted too. The rest of his piece set out his own take on the Brexit vote: Trumpish populism, isolationism, hostility to economic liberalism, etc. I was the head-in-clouds intellectual who naively thought that ordinary people shared my views.

During our meeting I had urged him, more than once, to look at the Ashcroft poll which had asked 12,000 Leave voters what the most important issue was for them. It found that 49 per cent voted on grounds of democratic self-government, and 33 per cent because of immigration (although, since that issue mainly concerned the UK government’s inability to decide the number of migrants from the EU, many of those 33 per cent should probably be added to the 49). But his article never mentioned it. My opinion about why people voted, based on this empirical evidence, was obviously naïve, while his, based on no particular evidence at all, was authoritative — or, at least, satisfying to New York Times readers.

Those who, like Theresa May, say that Brexit voters felt “left behind by globalisation” are probably relying on evidence from various studies that older people, poorer people and those with lower educational qualifications were more likely to vote Leave. But all sorts of factors may be relevant here: for example, older people may have been less vulnerable to the Remain campaign’s fear tactics, because non-membership of the EU was, in the earlier part of their life, normality itself. And these are nothing more than correlations; unlike the essential findings of the Ashcroft poll, they do not allow the people themselves to express their reasons.

On matters of basic principle, is it too much to suggest that political wisdom may be quite evenly distributed through the population — even among the poor? And on the other hand, for every working-class person with only hazy reasons for voting Leave, there may have been a middle-class one (I certainly met many) with embarrassingly shallow reasons for voting Remain. Yet somehow only one side of the equation is seen as problematic: the ones who voted the wrong way, who must therefore be given some extraneous motive (anti-globalisation or anti-elitism) and generally treated like the poor bewitched children of Hamelin.

And no, Michael Gove did not declare that we should ignore all experts. He was interrupted in mid-sentence, while talking about just some experts. In any case, if a majority of economists told people to vote Remain and they did the opposite, this does not mean that they voted out of a “populist” hatred of experts or elites. It just means that they had other, stronger reasons than mere economic projections for casting their votes. This is not a guess on my part — 12,000 of them have been asked, and they have given their answers.