Vote Leave’s revolt against established experts was not a revolt against knowledge or critical thinking, but against elitism and the centralisation of power.
“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove, to the bemusement of his Sky News interviewer Faisal Islam. This was two weeks before Vote Leave won the EU referendum despite the warnings of the government, the IMF, the IFS, the Bank of England, most economists, MPs, scientists and many high profile businesspeople. The Remain campaign saw it as a victory of ignorance over intelligence; Gove’s comment was received as a classic example of populist anti-intellectualism, with celebrity physicist Brian Cox describing it as “the road back to the cave”. It would be a mistake however, to interpret Gove as preaching blanket anti-intellectualism; the Leave campaign’s revolt against the exalted experts was not a revolt against knowledge or critical thinking, but against elitism and the centralisation of power.
Anti-intellectual sentiment is not a new phenomenon in politics, especially on the right. William F. Buckley Jr., founder of American conservative magazine National Review, is often quoted as saying he’d rather the US were governed by people picked at random from the Boston telephone directory than by the brightest and best of Harvard. But Buckley Jr. was not against knowledge or thought; he was leading an intellectual rebellion against what he saw as an establishment dominated by left-leaning ideas. As economist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, socialism and technocracy, with their promise of extensive power and rational planning, have tended to hold more allure for intellectual elites than calls for greater democracy and economic liberalism. Calls to “laissez-nous-faire” and put decision making power in the hands of potentially ignorant citizens can sound dangerous to intellectuals who believe they “know better”.
Today, the intellectual orthodoxy is not socialism but globalism. The architects and advocates of politico-economic centralisation look down at those who are pushing for popular and national sovereignty, and surmise that some frothing mixture of ignorance, stupidity and racism must be our motivation. That we too can be intellectuals, and can defend our ground with a philosophy just as valid and intelligent as theirs, is seldom acknowledged. Our side must take some of the blame for this: we have failed to provide political and intellectual leadership. In their reliance on the widespread fear and anger of the downtrodden, eurosceptic and nationalist parties have failed to effectively put forward intelligent arguments for opposing supranationalism, technocracy and for putting power back in the hands of the average voter. This intellectual imbalance risks sparking off a revolt of ordinary voters against intellectuals in general.
Most of the blame however, lies with our political opponents. “It is us who are responsible” said European Council President Donald Tusk, discussing Brexit and the rise of populist euroscepticism, “…we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our Euro-enthusiasm.” It has long been apparent that the aims of euro-federalism are not compatible with democracy and decentralised governance. Power in Europe has slowly crept towards the centre, leaving ordinary citizens feeling that they are governed by a remote and unaccountable elite. A vicious cycle ensues: citizens turn against the elite and their ideals, the elite become further convinced that citizens are ignorant and that handing power back to them would be dangerous, and then citizens feel ignored and disenfranchised, leading them to respond with even more hostility.
Before long, the aloofness of those in power invites citizens to develop a fierce (and often irrational) distrust of anyone who lays claim to authority or privileged knowledge. Genuine experts are dismissed as lackeys of a corrupt and insular establishment. It goes without saying that this rift between the public and their political and intellectual leadership is not conducive to a functioning society. If trust is to be restored in political and intellectual elites, the elites must first learn to trust the average citizen. Diktats and condescension must give way to engagement and dialogue. Experts and officials must commit intellectual heresy: they must admit that they do not always know better, that it is not right to govern from afar or without consent, and that there is no popular prerogative for dismantling the nation state in order to construct a post-national utopia.
Solving Europe’s political and intellectual malaise will require education, communication, democratisation and decentralisation. One important step, Britain’s departure from the European Union, is already underway, but the UK is still a very centralised country; localism, electoral reform, and direct democracy would allow greater public engagement with politics and help bridge the gap between citizens and politicians. Extending so-called “e-democracy” could be another promising avenue. Ordinary voters need to feel like their opinions are valued.
Of course, for their opinions to be valuable, they need to be informed; making politics and economics a part of compulsory education could help here. Government departments could also make greater use of focus groups and seminars, allowing citizens to discuss policy with elected officials, experts and other stakeholders. Ultimately though, attitude is the most important thing: elected representatives and those who advise them must declare a commitment to engaging with voters, informing them, and taking their views into account. There are many things that need to be done if we want to narrow the gulf between “those in-the-know who make the decisions” and ordinary citizens, and we need to get started soon if we want to avoid a general revolt of the masses against the intellectual elites.