On Leavers, informed or otherwise

The Brexit debate, on social media at least, shows few signs of abating. It shows every sign of continuing to be vociferously unpleasant on the occasions people venture outside their echo chambers and encounter an incorrigible who disagrees on the wisdom of Brexit.

In some respects, therefore, little has changed. But in other respects things have become more interesting. Vince Cable speculated that Brexit may never happen. His elevation to leader of the Liberal Democrats might – or might not – impart greater momentum to the Brexit opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is finally nailing his colours to the mast and his colours spell Hard Brexit. That means we witness the rather strange phenomenon of the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer occupying a position to the left of the Labour leader, whose position is substantively indistinguishable from that of the May-UKIP axis.

This has led all sorts of Labour types to leap to the defence of JC and explain why hard Brexit is the one true Brexit. How I learned to stop worrying and love the imminent self-harm. Type of thing.

Yesterday Owen Jones had a go at explaining why he, personally, favoured remain but nonetheless as a democrat felt that hard Brexit it had to be. This hasn’t gone down hugely well in every quarter, with a number of people feeling that the whole thing has a whiff of UKIPish ‘will of the people’ demagoguery about it. It has spawned many Twitter threads dismantling components of the argument.

In his post Owen makes a number of points about the way Remainers approach this debate. He rightly notes that it would be a good idea if Remainers sought to build a positive coalition of support for their own position. He feels Remainers, in contrast, spend too much time insulting and patronising Leavers, and that won’t get them very far. Indeed, it may do little more than entrench positions.

Owen’s critique identifies the following problem with the Remainers’ approach:

… questioning the intelligence and ability of the electorate. The electorate are not informed enough to make a decision on such a complex issue, or so this argument goes. Some, frankly, express outright contempt for the public’s decision-making abilities. This form of elitism is profoundly anti-democratic and repels people.

It’s hardly the first time this type of argument has been made. It is an argument that troubles me deeply.

There is a lot going on here. But most importantly the argument conflates stupidity and ignorance. Are Remainers saying that all Leave voters are stupid? I could hardly deny that the accusation has been made in the heat of the moment by some more intemperate Remainers. But it is surely not plausible to claim that stupidity is the root of the issue. I know some very intelligent people who voted Leave.

So what about ignorance? Owen’s statement is rather unclear on whether it is (a) suggesting that the electorate was ill-informed or (b) expressing outright contempt for the public’s decision-making abilities that is profoundly anti-democratic and repellant.

Would it be insulting to suggest that those voting Leave were ill-informed (aka ignorant)? It would surely be wrong to suggest that they all were. But it is hard to believe that none were.

An accusation of ignorance is typically received as an insult. But perhaps a more measured response is required.

I know absolutely nothing about plumbing. Simple DIY defeats me. If you are seeking an accurate translation from the French I’d look elsewhere if I were you. The internal combustion engine is largely a mystery. I’ve often wondered how airlines schedule their planes efficiently. But I’ve simply no idea. You can accuse me of ignorance on these points, and many more. I would plead guilty. But I don’t take it as an insult. These are things I’ve devoted no time to learning about.*

Modern industrial society is based on specialisation and the division of labour. That is its genius. There are things I know about and there are things I don’t. But I’m very glad that there are other people who I can call or rely on who know about those other things.

It seems entirely plausible that many people who voted Leave – or Remain – had limited knowledge of what they were voting for. We must grant that some were constitutional lawyers, international trade negotiators or experts on the treaties of the European Union. They might well have had a decent idea of the complexities of the divorce process. Some might have been economists specialising in this area who would have had an idea of the economic impacts – but even then it could only be a broad idea because no country has ever attempted a Brexit-like manoeuvre before. Some may have been specialists in diplomacy and international relations and may have had strong suspicions about the way the political game would be played post-Brexit.

There may be people with all those strings to their bow who thought that Brexiting makes good sense. That would be a well-informed decision, for sure.

But most of us are none of those things.

In political science there is a whole literature on so-called low information voters – people who make up their minds how to vote on the basis of minimal information. They may only see a headline or a soundbite or a poster, but if the image of a politician seems convincing then that’s the direction they send their vote. “Low information voter” isn’t an insult. It is a recognition that most people feel they have better things to do in life than obsess about politics.

There is no great reason to think that the average voter was any more well-informed at the time of the EU referendum than most people are at election time. Given that voters were being bombarded from all sides by misinformation I wouldn’t be surprised if many were less well informed. That doesn’t mean they are stupid.

It has become clear that many members of the Government were – and, in some cases, still are – ignorant of crucial dimensions of the Brexit process. Claims that France and Germany would be keen to sign trade deals with the UK would be a good example. That has always been impossible. We’re leaving the EU but they are still bound by its rules. Or take the full ramifications of leaving Euratom or the ECJ: they would be clear to specialists studying these institutions, but it appears politicians are only now beginning to understand the complexities that leaving brings with it.

But the point is that over time they are learning. And so is everyone else. Over time the consequences of leaving the EU become clearer. Equally it is – or at least should be – becoming clearer that some of the complaints against the EU were better directed at UK governments that for decades failed to use provisions and flexibilities available within the EU system to address local concerns.

And if we are learning then it is possible that we will rethink our position. It is possible that we will change our minds.

And that is one reason why the idea that we must adhere to the result of last year’s referendum come what may is anti-democratic. If the view that the costs of leaving the EU outweigh the benefits comes to prevail then the Government should have the option to change course, for the good of the country.

Democracy is an ongoing process of deliberation, not a once-in-a-lifetime decision.

*  Apart from French. I’m just really bad at languages.

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5 replies »

  1. Good post. Some thoughts:

    1) I’ve been increasingly concerned at this very phenomenon, esp. as more Labour types adopt the “will of the people” pose. It seems, beyond Brexit, to be a very dangerous setup. Even if it is not taken, it seems imperative that method for “changing our mind” is developed and legitimated. Otherwise, we’ve created a very strange hack to the system – who knows what it will be used for next?

    2) Really bored of leftists who reserve the right to be intemperate on Twitter when they feel like it criticising other for the same. There are good people in the Remain grassroots who go out and try persuasion every week. If they blow off a bit of steam on Twitter who can blame them?

    3) Really bored of Leftists who now think they are in the majority so are happy to imply resistance or opposition is illegitimate.

    4) Really bored of Leftists who say “don’t shout at me, persuade me” but won’t engage with any discussion about the downsides, particularly those who say “well, austerity is worse, so Brexit is no big deal.”

    It seems I’m getting intemperate, but I’m really exasperated with the whole debate still. Gardiner tells us why we have to leave the Customs Union, but the interviewer can’t be arsed to ask him if there are any downsides. The whole business is a set of ugly trade offs and no-one is being honest about that…

    Ok, time to let the cat out of the bag. The last couple of years really has me wondering – what would it take to improve our democracy to the point where we could competently grapple with big, complex, technical problems? Brexit is one – but Climate Change is the elephant in the room, suffering from precisely the same problems. I’m really starting to wonder if it is even possible to upgrade our democracy to be up to the job.

  2. There’s not a lot there that I can disagree with.

    I think you’re last point is a really important one. Once we’ve turned down the populist anti-evidence/anti-expert cul-de-sac how do we get out of it? I’m put in mind of Jonathan Swift: “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into”. If the problem is that political debate has moved beyond Enlightenment values and is unwilling to engage in good faith with an agreed evidence base, complexity, ambiguity, difficult decisions and compromise – in a way that the population is willing to recognise, understand and accept – then how do you gain sufficient leverage to shift it back again?

    • I suppose the main hope for expert opinion is that the Brexit bad news keeps rolling in. It’s only if it turns out to be a palpably bad idea that people will rethink their positions and in doing so open up the notion that, well, maybe believing Boris Johnson and a slogan on a bus wasn’t a good idea after all…

      • As an aside I’m developing a feeling that very little “persuasion” happens, in fact much much less than we generally assume and certainly much less than those praising the recent Labour “grassroots doorknocking” assume. (It does work very well for turnout and getting non-voters out in the right conditions.)

        Rather, it seems to me, there are cycles of blame – Tories finally past the sell by date where they could blame previous Lab govt and there’s the lived experience, which has been too rubbish for too many people for too long. There are structural factors, including the press and the visibility of options (where doorknocking does play a role) but this idea that people are persuaded in reasoned debate, I think it doesn’t really match the evidence.

        Anyway, this is a quick sketch, happy to expand a bit more some time if you’re interested…

  3. Yes, I’d be interested to hear more on that point when you get a chance. It is interesting to see that there seem to be one or two more politicians willing to make the case for remain publicly. But I’m not sure writing articles in the Guardian is quite most effective way to turn the tide of public opinion.