Monday 13 June 2016

Michael Gove's appeals to anti-intellectualism

When challenged to name some pro-Brexit economics experts, the Tory justice secretary and leading Brexiter Michael Gove said something really telling. Instead of naming some of the small minority of economists who believe that Britain should leave the EU (there actually are some), he declared that "people in this country have had enough of experts".

Speaking on behalf of the majority is a blatant piece of fallacious reasoning in its own right (argumentum ad populum), but such a brazenly anti-intellectual declaration is concerning for other reasons too.

Anti-intellectualism and the hard-right

This kind of anti-intellectual sentiment is increasingly common in British political discourse, especially from the right-wing media (the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Murdoch press are particularly egregious offenders) and from extreme-right political groups (especially UKIP and Facebook based hate groups like Britain First). The hard-right fringe of the Tory party are also guilty of promoting reactionary anti-expert sentiments whenever their ideological views are contradicted by experts and evidence.

Michael Gove is a particularly bad offender. He is an appalling historical revisionist who dismisses the views of countless experts (and the views of many of the people who actually served in the trenches) in order to promote his personal view that the First World War was "not a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite" but actually a successful campaign full of willing patriotic participants, and that anyone who says otherwise is a myth-spreading, Britain-hating leftie.

It's concerning that someone who has so little respect for primary historical evidence that they declare their own fantasies to be the undeniable truth and the views of countless experts and first hand witnesses to be politically motivated "myths" could have been put in charge of Britain's schools for four years, but that isn't even the worst thing about it. The worst thing is that during his time as education secretary Gove started allowing totally unqualified teachers to work in publicly funded schools, even to the extent that unqualified teachers were actually put in charge of running entire schools (with predictably disastrous consequences).

Another hard-right Tory Brexiter who suffers this kind of bitter anti-intellectual chip on their shoulder is Iain Duncan Smith, who seems to have a pathological hatred of university graduates (which perhaps springs from the fact that he never went to university and was caught out including fake university qualifications on his CV?).

This right-wing suspicion of experts and evidence, and specialists, and people with qualifications is deeply worrying, especially since the UK is on the brink of handing absolute power to the extreme-right fringe of the Tory party should the public buy into Michael Gove's narrative that the views of experts should be held in contempt, while the general public (including the severely ill-informed) should "trust themselves" to make important decisions without reference to what the experts say.


The problem with Gove's appeal for the British public to "trust themselves" when it comes to the EU referendum is that huge numbers of people are deeply misinformed about the absolute basics of the debate.

There are an awful lot of people (including extremely high profile anti-EU campaigners like Arron Banks) who don't seem to be able to differentiate between the EU institutions and other non-EU bodies like the European Court of Human Rights, the International Monetary Fund and NATO. 

Some people are intent on blaming the EU for the destructive consequences of the hard-right economic ideology that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and has been adhered to by every Westminster government since. It's pretty sickening to see right-wingers trying to put the blame for the destruction of the mining, steel and shipbuilding industries entirely onto the EU when they surely know that it was Thatcher's ideological class war against heavy industry in the 1980s that did for those industries.

When it comes to facts and figures there are clearly a lot of people suffering bizarrely warped misconceptions about the EU. The evidence is absolutely clear that an awful lot of British people massively over-estimate the negative aspects of the EU and severely under-estimate the positive ones. The source for the following statistics can be downloaded here.

  • The average Brexiter estimates that 20% of the UK population are EU migrants, when the real figure is 5%.
  • 23% of people believed that the UK is the single biggest contributor to the EU budget. In reality the UK is fourth, a very long way behind Germany, and also behind France and Italy too. A whopping 84% of people falsely imagined that the UK was in the top three contributors.
  • The average guess for how much the EU spends on administration was 27%. The real figure is just 6%.
  • The average estimate for inward investment to the UK from the EU was 30%. The real figure is 48%. Conversely the average estimate for inward investment from China was 19% when the real figure is just 1%.
  • Only 12% of people correctly identified Germany as one of the three biggest contributors to EU migration into the UK (the other two are Poland and Ireland).
  • Over 40% of people didn't know that members of the European Parliament are directly elected (they are), while only 5% of people could actually name one of their local MEPs!
  • Another particularly shocking public misconception is that almost half of the people who estimated the level of child benefit payments made to children living overseas picked a percentage at least 40 times higher than the real number, and one in seven people thought the figure was 30% of the entire budget when the real figure is just 0.3% (a 100 fold over-estimate).
There are many reasons for these shocking levels of public misconception about the EU. Two of the most obvious contributing factors are the extreme right-wing bias of the mainstream media and the generally dire standard of the EU debate largely as a result of David Cameron's decision to rush the referendum in between the elections in May and the summer holidays.

Another major source of confusion is the fact that the likes of Vote Leave and UKIP are allowed to lie to the public with complete impunity. The Remain campaign have hardly covered themselves in glory by brazenly scaremongering about the the potential economic fallout and the impact on people's pensions, but the Vote Leave "£350 million a week" untruthful claims and leaflets like this appalling pack of lies from UKIP are clearly designed to dupe people into voting for Brexit.

The combination of the declining standards of political debate, David Cameron's decision to rush the referendum instead of give people time to consider the issues more carefully, and a tide of Brexiter misinformation (and blatant fearmongering from both sides) have created the appalling situation where people are not only being asked to vote on a really important issue without sufficient knowledge, but actually being told by the likes of Michael Gove to actively ignore the expert analysis and vote on their gut instinct.


The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said that "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'". Michael Gove's "trust yourself, not the experts" stance is even worse because he's not saying that ignorance is just as good as expertise, he's actually claiming that ignorance is superior to expertise.

If Gove is to be believed, and the people of this country really have "had enough of experts", can we look forward to a post-Brexit UK where people willingly fly in aeroplanes flown by unqualified pilots, undergo surgery done by unqualified doctors and live in buildings designed by unqualified architects?

Well, if Brexit further empowers right-wing anti-intellectuals like Michael Gove (who filled our schools with unqualified teachers) and Iain Duncan Smith (who thinks unemployed history graduates are better forced to work for no wages doing menial jobs at Poundland rather than volunteering in museums), perhaps Britain becoming this kind of absurd anti-intellectual dystopia isn't quite as impossible as it really should be?

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