The danger of licensing ignorance

Suella Braverman is not someone I had heard of (and I doubt if I shall hear of her again) but I am grateful to her for a classic instance of the besetting sin of our age – licensing ignorance. 

Ms Braverman popped up the other day on the Today programme, just after John Major had given – despite Nick Robinson’s ill-timed interruptions – a lucid, well-argued case for a second referendum, citing among other evidence the fact that some 63% of the electorate had not voted to leave the EU. [see here]. All of which la Braverman simply dismissed as ‘typical Remainer Elite views’.

I might call this the Mandy Rice-Davies defence – ‘well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?’ –were I not loth to bring her name into disrepute by associating it with our current crop of politicians; so let us turn instead to Marx and Engels.

In the Communist Manifesto, a host of troublesome arguments are simply swept aside by labelling them ‘bourgeois’ – saying, in effect, ‘you need not trouble yourself with even thinking about these – the very source they come from is corrupt, like water from a poisoned well’. 

Across the Atlantic, the ex-Reality TV star and serial bankrupt licenses his followers’ ignorance by offering them slogans as a substitute for thought: ‘Lock her up!’ ‘Drain the swamp!’ ‘Build the wall!’ – shouting is so much more fun than thinking, especially when you all do it together.

In the same way, Michael Gove airily tells us ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ (one can picture the plucky Govester, in need of life-saving surgery, pressing the scalpel into the hand of that old parliamentary favourite, The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, saying, ‘do me a triple bypass, mate – them fancy surgeons, what do they know?’)

Licensing ignorance is the key to unleashing the mob, as demagogues have known from time immemorial. The reason is worth examining. As a rule, in normal circumstances, people like to think themselves rational: they demand evidence, insist on being given grounds for following this or that particular course. Whether they actually are rational does not matter so much as the fact that they think themselves so, since it means they set a value on reason and argument as a basis for action.

It may be that this has as much to do with inertia as with our respect for reason: if we are comfortable where we are, if we know where we stand in the world and sense that there is order about us, then we have no inclination to move without persuasive argument.

However, if we lose that sense of security – if in our lifetime the world changes to such an extent that we feel left behind, if we feel (to quote Marx again) that  ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ then the immediate effect is disorientation and bewilderment – ‘how did this happen?’ – which rapidly turns to fear that is expressed in anger and a desire to smash things up.

Smashing stuff up is the quickest and most direct way of demonstrating that you are here, that you do matter, that you can make an impact on the world: it is an attempt to disprove (to yourself as much as others) the impotence you feel.

In other words, the dynamic has changed – instead of arguments being required to move you from your comfortable inertia, they now hold you back from what you want to do, namely, to smash things up as an antidote to the powerlessness you feel – so to be told you need not heed them, that you can go right ahead, to be given a licence to be ignorant, is just what you want to hear.

But it is a risky thing to do. Plato equated Athenian democracy (whch, to be fair, was much more direct and parochial) with trying to control a large and dangerous animal –what pleases it you call good, what displeases it, bad. Once you tell people that they need not listen to reason, how are you to reason with them?

Aye, there’s the rub. 

You could, perhaps, call up the reservists (as our government has just done) ‘to ensure that there are effective and proportionate contingency plans in place to mitigate the potential immediate impacts leaving the EU, under a ‘No Deal’ scenario, might have on the welfare, health and security of UK citizens and economic stability of the UK.’

But it might be more prudent to disabuse the Brexit supporters of the notion that they are the majority and that what they want is what the country as a whole desires; and the only effective way to do that is through the ballot box, by a second referendum.

I fully expect that a second referendum will confirm what the first has already told us, namely that only a minority wish to leave the EU; indeed, it would not surprise me if that minority shrank considerably – but we must hope, for the sake of peace and national unity, that there is no complacency this time around, and that all those who have no desire to leave the EU take the trouble to say so. Otherwise it will be the triumph of ignorance.