No phrase of the Leave campaign is more vilified than Michael Gove’s, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts…”. Unlike many of the other contentious phrases, such as the £350m, it transcends Brexit itself to express everything that Remain voters – broadly liberal, highly educated, outwardly-looking – find repugnant about the movement that led to Leave. It is seen as a quintessential expression of populism, a battle-cry of the ‘somewheres’ against the ‘anywheres’ and is both highly quotable and easily open to mockery. And yet it was not a gaffe: the quote struck a strong chord with many of his supporters, myself included.
Gove’s statement, of course, referred to financial experts, but it could equally well have applied to his time as Secretary of State for Education where he did battle against what he memorably christened ‘The Blob’, the experts of the educational establishment.
In an effort to build empathy across the political divide, I will attempt to use an analogy to explore why Gove’s statement is more reasonable than many think, and why appealing to experts may not always be the decisive factor in resolving an argument. I should emphasise that, as an analogy, I am not saying that the circumstances are exactly the same, nor that every single aspect of the analogy will find a precise equivalent.
Many people – perhaps particularly amongst the aforesaid broadly liberal, highly educated and outwardly-looking Remain voters – would find it concerning if an all male panel were to be debating a subject that particularly affected women, such as abortion rights. Many people might also suggest that, if one were devising a policy to address gang violence in an ethnically-diverse inner city area, it might not be the best idea for all of those determining the policy to be white, middle-class individuals who had never lived in such an area. Even if all of them were experts, professors in criminology and the like, many people would still suggest that members of the actual community themselves (who might have fewer formal qualifications) should be heard and involved in formulating the answers.
Importantly, these arguments don’t rely on malice or overt prejudice to carry weight. The external panel, or committee, might simply not have access to information which would be known by members of the community. Their knowledge might be overly theoretical, not taking into account the realities on the ground. They might have different values to those affected, leading them to discount these values in devising solutions, or to overweight benefits and underweight costs. People might point to unconscious bias, noting that even in medicine this can impact results unless there is a full double-blind trial, and that sociological and economic studies have far more weak-spots at which unconscious bias could creep in. And finally, they might cite occasions in the past where well-meaning outsiders have got things wrong in the past, for example the disastrous attempts to achieve urban regeneration by demolishing traditional neighbourhoods and rehouse people in tower blocks.
On the whole, I believe those challenges would be correct. I don’t hold to the extreme position that only those of a certain identity have a right to be heard on a matter, but I do believe that the voice of those impacted by a decision should be heard strongly and that, where possible, they should be involved in shaping those decisions. I suspect most readers of this blog, Remain or Leave, right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative, will agree with me.
Now consider the case of Brexit or education policy
We see that the experts who are being appealed to are, almost universally, similar types of people – highly educated, middle class, usually able to find jobs easily across the country or the world. We can’t help noticing that they’ve benefited a lot from the status quo, whether that’s EU membership or the current education system, in a way that many of those supporting Gove may not have been able to. And we notice that, due to those characteristics, they’re likely to be highly insulated against some of the downsides, such as closing factories, off-shoring or the toleration of low standards in failing schools. Even if the experts accept that there have been downsides, we can’t help wondering if their personal experience is leading them to, perhaps unconsciously, overweight the benefits (which have helped them) and underweight the costs (which affect other people).
Looking further, we see that these experts seem to have very different values to us. We note that at the last election, as few as 7% of academics voted Conservative. We see that the experts seem to speak about matters important to us, such as sovereignty or citizenship, in very different ways, and in a manner that sometimes suggests that they find it difficult to understand why someone else would find it important. We wonder whether, even if the experts have more information, they will really be weighing it up in a way that at all matches the values and priorities we would attach to it.
And finally, we might note that the experts have been disastrously wrong in the past, using premises and assumptions that seem to be very similar to the ones they are using now. We might point to the attempt to effectively stop teaching grammar and spelling in the ’80s, to the joining of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, or to the expert consensus that joining the Euro would be a good idea. And we look at all these issues and wonder whether, even though they undoubtedly know more facts, whether we really want to trust the experts again in this situation.
None of this is to say that experts have no place in the debate. They do – and, indeed, Gove himself seems to be making much use of them at Defra. But they are not the only, or even the final, word on many matters, particularly where unconscious bias, uncertainty and different values play an important role. If you would criticise the all-male panel discussing abortion, or the all-white, middle-class committee setting out policy for the multi-ethnic inner city, then I’d ask you to extend that empathy for those unwilling to blithely submit to the will of experts on Brexit or education.
I don’t expect any Remain voters reading this to change their mind on Brexit. That’s not the intention of this post. I don’t even expect you to agree with Michael Gove about experts. But I hope that you might start to understand one reason his words resonated so strongly with many Leave supporters.
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