The unhinged polemics of our new politics

The one thing we can all agree on regarding Brexit is that nearly everyone else is wrong, except us. Beyond that, everything is fluid. Nothing is substantial, and nearly everything is up for grabs. There is very little information which bares nationwide consensus. Michael Gove put it perfectly when he said that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” He explained afterwards that it was just an attack on IMF experts, but unfortunately the damage was done. The worrying thing was that he wasn’t wrong.

Since the Enlightenment period of the 19th century, the noble quest of Western liberalism has been to invent itself as an ideology that protects and respects all humans against tyranny and oppression. It has been, in theory, a real attempt to avoid ideological dogmas and seek the best outcomes for all. Simultaneously, scientism has taken the pole position in our determination of knowledge. To be scientific is to be pragmatic, progressive, and logical. To find knowledge elsewhere is to be out-of-touch, backwards-looking, or plainly delusional. The hiccups of science have not shaken our faith in it. 

Why, then, have we as an electorate fallen out so badly with those who seek to inform us and guide our thinking? Have we now rejected the ideas that appear to have taken us so far?

Accepting social science as our arbiter of truth unavoidably opens the door to criticism from those whom it does not benefit. Any plan of action which is based on continuity is bound to upset those who don’t want their situation to continue. Those who are financially suffering will, therefore, not believe that an expert suggestion of an “ever closer union” will do them any good. We know what it means to continue to do the same thing and expect different results.  

Additionally, attempting to separate expert scientific opinion from social and political goals is nearly impossible. When an expert offers a judgement, they immediately associate themselves with the group that their evidence appears to support. Their findings are utilised as a political volleyball – in many cases by players on both teams. It is, therefore, right to hold to account the people who purport to be offering objective insight into complex matters. The EU referendum itself was a good example of why we should question our experts. 

It is impossible to say that experts don’t have an agenda in either their hypotheses or their interpretation of their own results. But even if they don’t, those who read it do.

Clearly, our group affiliations play a large role in deciding the information we surround ourselves with. Cherry-picking information widens the breadth of disagreement between groups – we either ignore the information that disregards our point of view, or selectively champion the ones that don’t. Given the choice of a certified academic literature (which might often be unsettling to those with rigid opinions) and easily accessible high-speed (not to mention free-of-charge) information, we often opt for the latter as a way of ingratiating ourselves among peers. 

The short-term fix we receive from this is not, however, without sinister consequences. Our fluid interpretations draw us to our own conclusions, and dissolve any hope of recognising truths which we all might be able to unite around. We instead operate and make decisions based on the stories that we tell ourselves. Our failure has been the inability to look beyond our own story. Our outlook on the world derives from our upbringing, and our understanding of the world is dependant on the life that we live and our own experiences. The way we perceive immigrants, our sentiments towards English patriotism, or even our interpretation of campaign figures are all beholden to our own stories. 

This has led to the English language being thrown under the bus. The discourse of Brexit has been remarkably successful at bleeding the meaning out of words.

“Sovereignty”, for example, motivated much of the leave campaign is undefined and misunderstood. The people who voted to leave say they wanted Westminster to be sovereign, but now that the referendum has been won, they are revolting against outcomes in parliament which they disagree with. Those in favour of a second referendum believe in popular sovereignty, but only their version of it – not the latest version which produced the result they disagreed with. These inconsistent euphemisms, which we used to call words, are now political weapons which campaigners wedge into their message wherever appropriate.

Our great nation of inventors, pioneers, and founders of liberal values has sadly been reduced to a stadium of meaningless mudslinging. Just think of the protests outside parliament recently, as passionate voters accused Owen Jones and Anna Soubry of fascism – another word that has become empty of meaning. Consider how many of those who voted remain believed that Brexiteers were stupid or racist. On the day of the vote on the withdrawal agreement, the BBC’s coverage was shrouded by a banging drum outside parliament. As well as being particularly irritating to anyone trying to follow the day’s news, it was a microcosm of our new, profoundly disappointing form of debating.

The degradation of nuanced understanding is exactly the end-goal and method of populism. The promise of a greener grass and a simple way of getting there relies on the disregard of expert advice and opinions which challenge the utopian dream. Populism is the greatest threat to our enlightenment values, which are so dependent on liberty and scientism. To protect them, it is imperative that we do not allow ourselves to fall into a nasty, personal, and malicious form of politics – for which both ends of the Brexit opinion spectrum are responsible.

Our system relies on credible information and faith in representative democracy. Populism relies on misled, disillusioned popular sovereignty. Offering a second referendum is only fuel to their fire. With more referendums come more opportunities for personal attacks, oversimplification, and disregard for expert opinion. One must concede that the idea that we’re smarter now than we were two years ago is partially true. The problem is that it is irrelevant. We’ve seen what one referendum can do to the state of our nation – what makes us think that another could make it any better?

Written by Joe Oakes

Joe Oakes is Communications Officer at 1828.