The perils of a populist paean to ignorance

Social media has muddied the line between prejudice and facts

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One of the more revealing moments of the Brexit campaign came when Michael Gove, a Conservative Outer once close to Prime Minister David Cameron, said: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” There it is: a celebration of ignorance that writes the opening line of the populists’ playbook. How long before Mr Gove, a former education secretary, is piling books on to bonfires?

Modern democracies operate within a framework of rationalism. Dismantle it and the space is filled by prejudice. Fear counts above reason; anger above evidence. Lies claim equal status with facts. Soon enough, migrants — and Muslims especially — replace heretics and witches as the targets of public rage.

Referendums amplify the danger. Margaret Thatcher called them the favoured device of demagogues and dictators. Liberal democracy depends on mutual respect, trust in national institutions, guarantees for minorities, and the checks and balances that underpin the rule of law. Strip them away and you are left with brute majoritarianism.

Where democrats see a threat, Brexiters spotted an opportunity. The Tory-dominated Vote Leave campaign, led by Mr Gove and Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, made anti-intellectualism its trademark. Lacking a plausible alternative vision, the Outs have sought instead to delegitimise their opponents.

Those independent experts and institutions warning of the consequences of Brexit? Well, they are wrong. All of them. Why? Because they are. And anyway they are only in it for themselves. Thus Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, is tainted by past connections with Goldman Sachs.

Mr Carney is in good company. The International Monetary Fund’s opinion is disqualified because Christine La­garde, managing director, is French. The OECD is in the pay of Brussels. So too is the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Treasury and Whitehall signed up to the same conspiracy. So did big business, the banks and anyone in a position of influence backing the EU.

Run by politicians, the Brexit campaign has been no more trusting of politics. The people could not trust a prime minister they had re-elected only a year ago. George Osborne — as chancellor of the exchequer the custodian of the nation’s finances — had fixed all the figures. These charges were laid by leading figures in Mr Cameron’s own party. No one should believe the Tories can easily be put back together once all this is over.

The campaign of denigration matched the national temper. Britain, like most advanced democracies, is a disgruntled nation. Messrs Gove and Johnson have walked the route mapped out by Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France. Trust in institutions is at a low point. The 2008 financial crash, austerity and the grossly uneven distribution of the rewards of globalisation have all taken a toll.

The experts, of course, do get it wrong — witness the complacency of Mervyn King, Mr Carney’s predecessor at the BoE, ahead of the 2008 crash, or the skewed impact of Mr Osborne’s austerity programme. Overburdened local communities have been left to cope with large flows of migrants. All the while, social media has coarsened political discourse and muddied the line between self-sustaining prejudice and facts. The big populist lie, though, is the claim that the remedy is a simple act of revenge.

On the day last week that the Labour MP, Jo Cox, was stabbed and shot in her Yorkshire constituency, Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigrant UK Independence party, unveiled a chilling poster. The image of a column of refugees from the Syrian civil war was emblazoned with the caption “Breaking Point”. There has been some embarrassment since. Mr Gove, it seems, would not have gone that far. But Mr Farage has not been alone in his xenophobia.

Not so long ago British politicians of almost all shades were proud of Europe’s role as a catalyst for the spread of freedom and democracy beyond its borders. Governments of right and left championed the EU accession of formerly communist states and urged Turkey to tread the same path.

Now the Brexiters demonise potential migrants from Turkey as terrorists, murderers and drug-traffickers, and promise to slam the door against Polish plumbers and Hungarian farm workers. Baroness Warsi, a former Tory party chairman once sympathetic to the Brexit case, calls it the politics of hate.

Many people in Britain are fed up with Brussels for entirely honourable reasons unconnected to pinched nationalism. To my mind they are mistaken in thinking that Britain would be better off on its own, but there was a debate to be had. It is just that it never happened.

We will never know what, if any, effect the tragic death of Cox had on the outcome. You cannot draw straight lines between the nasty rhetoric of identity politics and the actions of lone killers, even when the alleged attacker has links with extreme rightwing groups.

For all that, the awful coincidence of timing drew out the referendum choice: an open, pluralist society or a nation shut off from the world? The result says as much about what Britain thinks of itself as the virtues or vices of the EU.

The story of Cox’s short political life brims with humanity, tolerance and a conviction that the answers are to be found in collaboration. The alternative presents the politics of intolerance, division and, yes, celebrated ignorance.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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