Sounding Off – EU referendum: Don’t despair about conflicting ‘facts’

EU colour (1)

It’s tough for mere mortals when prominent thinkers like Richard Dawkins despair about the Europe referendum. He says the decision should be left to the informed elites. Robert Wishart reckons this is a disastrous attitude.

“Give us the facts” on Europe we wail. Then we can decide. This refrain is both futile and infantile. We cannot enter numbers into a neat calculation to determine how to vote. There are forecasts and opinions galore. Forecasts which may be based on false assumptions to support pre-determined positions; and opinions based largely on personal and political biases.

They are churned out by the Eurotruck-load and promptly massaged by campaigners on both sides to suit their arguments. Massaging is putting it politely – cherry picking and distortion have destroyed public confidence in even the most meticulous research.

If we are not to freeze in indecision in front of the oncoming Eurotruck what do we do? Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of ground-breaking work such as The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype and The God Delusion complains in a recent newspaper interview: “It’s an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy, not a plebiscite democracy.” We should leave it to the elite, in the same way we want an elite pilot at the controls of an aeroplane.

Unfortunately, while we can build a flight simulator to train our pilots there is no simulator for flying the global economy. If there was we would not be constantly surprised by economic and political crises. Engineers and scientists can build a computer model to mimic an aircraft’s performance but economists cannot predict with a sufficient degree of reliability how people and economies will react in any given situation or what “unknown unknowns”, such as a new technology or economic, political or religious upheaval, will suddenly render their assumptions obsolete.

“We need to be governed by the elite rather than by people like you and me”, Dawkins says. He should stick to criticising God, rather than demeaning billions of complex phenotypes – “people like you and me”. We make reasonable – if not always entirely rational – decisions every day on the basis of partial information, hunches and instinct. Dawkins adopts Homer Simpson’s view: “The reason we elect officials is so we don’t have to think all the time.”

Our representative democracy serves us tolerably well – we can argue about how well – and avoids the inherent internal conflicts of a plebiscite system when people simultaneously hold mutually contradictory views; demanding both tax cuts and increased public spending for example. But some issues can perhaps only be resolved in a “once in lifetime” plebiscite. Or once or twice in a lifetime if you exist long enough.

Speaking for myself, I do not want to be “governed” by anyone, least of all by those proven unfailingly fallible in economics, politics and the lessons of history. In a democracy it is not the job of government to “govern” in the sense Dawkins seems to mean. A democratic government is there to serve. To unquestioningly accept the wisdom of economic and political elites is analogous to blind acceptance of the word of God from the mouths of the priesthood and equally dangerous.

We can see where the European elites have taken us. Take one issue, its sclerotic economy, and then take one slice of that one issue, the Euro, and we can see the folly of political and economic group-think into which they tend to lock themselves. We cannot set a single interest rate which simultaneously best serves the needs of every region in our own country. Why should it work across a diverse continent containing such widely differing economies and polities as Germany and Greece?

“Creating a monetary union of separate sovereign states was and remains an enormous gamble, one that required a high degree of mutual trust to be successful.” So says former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King in his recent book The end of Alchemy: Money, banking and the future of the global economy.

He goes on: “As its founders were aware, there is no successful example of a currency union among independent states that have not gravitated to a high degree of political union. Of course, all great historic steps are gambles. But not all gambles result in historic steps forward. Before the Euro was launched, the view in Germany was that monetary union should follow political union with a time lag, and a long one at that. Elsewhere, especially in southern Europe, the view was that the creation of monetary union would lead to crises that would force the pace of political union. Everything that has happened since has confirmed the wisdom of the former view and the risks of the latter.”

One result of the Euro gamble is the undermining of democracy in Greece and elsewhere. In Italy even parachuting in an unelected premier and technocrat, Mario Monti, in 2011, as well as insisting on savage spending cuts elsewhere in the Eurozone. Many of these measures were necessary but they were imposed without the agreement of the people and at the expense of a greater harm.

As the New Statesman put it in 2011 in an article headed “Government of the technocrats, by the technocrats, for the technocrats”: “Rule by technocrats has replaced rule by the people … The democratic deficit at the heart of Europe has become a democratic chasm.” This is proving dangerous as we see in the rise of extremist parties throughout Europe.

We will know when the Euro-gamble has proved to be an historic step forward; when German taxpayers willingly transfer funds to bail out their southern continental cousins without expectation of repayment. Schweine might fly. Meantime decisions will be taken within the Euro area towards closer integration. British interests will not be at the heart of that whether we are in or out.

Europe has evolved into a political project run by elites – with the Euro at its heart – and far removed from democratic control by the people it should serve. David Cameron offers the thin illusion that he has renegotiated Britain’s position and pulls out every trick in his hat to scare us – world war apparently included – while lining up the international elite to tell us what is in our best interests as they seek to protect their own.

We must fear the consequences of Brexit. “Project fear” plays on what the New Scientist recently referred to as “status quo bias” – the tendency in the absence of perfect information to vote against change. Change is battering European Union structures from within as well as outside its borders yet we do not hear Remain telling us how Europe will look in five, 10 or 20 years.

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” says Homer Simpson. So are there any “facts” we can agree are even “remotely true”? One is that the issues are complex, intertwined and often contradictory. It is impossible, unless you are solely concerned with single issues – the state of the fishing industry perhaps – to balance all the various factors. Dawkins can’t and I bet Einstein couldn’t. We can do no more than take a view and rely on gut instinct. This is not a cause for despair; it is just the way it is.

The solution is to learn what we can about the issues and rename gut reaction “intuitive judgement” to make us feel a tad more rational.

A second “fact” the ancients among us might accept is that “Europe” has changed beyond all recognition from the “common market” we were voting for – or against – in the last, distant, plebiscite. This “fact” younger folk can happily ignore but it reminds us that there is an infinitesimal chance that a remain vote will secure the status quo.

As Mervyn King puts it, we live in a world of “radical uncertainty”. Perhaps this is a third “fact”. There are risks in leaving the European Union but that does not mean that staying in is risk-free. Far from it. If that is where your intuitive judgement takes you, go for it.


Add Your Comment
  • Christopher Johnston

    • June 16th, 2016 2:13

    Parliament would have sued for peace with the Nazis in 1939 had the decision been left to the elite. The public forced Parliament to kick the Tory appeaser cabinet out and bring in Churchill.
    Government should never be controlled by the elite.

  • John Tulloch

    • June 16th, 2016 11:02

    Excellent article which raises the level of the debate.

    It’s so true, the choice will ultimately come down to our instincts, our ‘midder wit’. If we just relax for a moment and let the froth subside, the core issues will become clearer.

    The questions “Is this true?”, “Will this really be any different if we are in or out?” and “Does this really matter in our daily lives?” will help.

    It’s hard to discern the tune among the noise but it’s there, intact.

  • Ali Inkster

    • June 22nd, 2016 1:21

    Here’s a fact we are pretty far down the list when it comes to EU fisheries funding in the UK and by the time Shetlands share is doled out it amounts to less than a couple of boats would earn in a couple of seasons.


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